Illustration of a muslim woman with closed eyes in facets style (Shutterstock)
Nadia is determined to fight on despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges. She is currently writing a book and expanding her social media presence to share her story with others.
Is it French Muslim women who are losing out or is it France, which is failing to tap into a potential gold mine of human talent and intelligence?
The French president’s proposed ‘charter of republican values’ is being billed as the antidote in the fight against ‘Islamist’ separatism. A special commission in the French National Assembly approved the charter, and the wider assembly will be submitted during February. Many domestically and internationally have lambasted the draft law as it grants draconian powers to closely scrutinise almost every aspect of the lives of country’s nearly 6 million-strong Muslim community.
TRT World spoke to three religiously observant French Muslim women of North African origins- Tesnim, Nadia and Ines - who wear hijab, to see how existing and proposed legislation is impacting their personal and professional lives.
“I felt horrible everytime I used to take off my headscarf at work, now I am used to it. I would take off my hijab at work, but put it back on once out of the building, on public transport and at home," Tesnim tells TRT World.
"The pressure to maintain these conflicting realities became too great , as my fellow Muslim colleagues began to find out I was a hijabi outside work. It was as if I could feel them judging me for living a double life”.
She feels that this situation normalises a state of affairs in which France’s anticlerical, secular establishment punishes individuality and religious difference, today especially that of Muslims.
“I have become accustomed to not being respected for who I am,” she adds.
Faith or career?
Nadia, another young French North African Muslim woman takes a different approach, insisting that her headscarf stays on at work. As a result, she has been denied and openly refused job opportunities, even unpaid ones. In one interview with a well-respected NGO, Nadia had impressed the interviewer over the phone with her academic and career credentials. When she candidly asked the interviewer if wearing the headscarf would be a problem, the interviewer replied it would, saying she would have liked to hire Nadia but since the NGO was government-funded, the hijab would make it impossible as it would contravene the secular ideals of the state.
Several years on, Nadia tells TRT World: “I am still struggling to find a job appropriate to my qualifications. It is hard to find a good job in my field where they will accept me for who I am, let alone the skills I have to offer."
"It is no longer fair that society makes my identity such a barrier that I cannot even get a voluntary job, I should not have to offer to work for free,” she adds.
Similarly, in one interview with a potential recruiter, Ines appeared to be successful sans-hijab, and the company even offered her the job role. When Ines mentioned she wanted to be allowed to wear her hijab when working, immediately the interviewer’s friendly tone turned and his line of questioning became more hostile and he ended the interview abruptly without getting her to sign the contract. Thereafter despite her attempts to follow up, the company never responded any further.
“Whilst I have become used to poor treatment as a hijabi when I job search, the interviewer’s change in demeanour shocked me, to this day I feel betrayed as up to that point I was confident I would secure the job," Ines says.
"Before my hijab was mentioned, he saw the full extent of my capabilities, when I brought it up, suddenly my skills became irrelevant as he could not see beyond his prejudice. I feel this is an apt metaphor for how French society treats us, the sight of our veils blinds many from seeing us as human beings with talents and skills to offer".
At her business school, a private institution, where she was allowed to wear hijab, one male teacher made it his mission to pressure her to remove it during his class.
This was one of the only institutions where Muslim girls did not have to sacrifice an integral part of their faith to receive an education. Tesnim is proud to have volunteered there on numerous occasions previously.
The proposed anti-separatism legislation gives individuals like Ines’ teacher carte blanche to act on their personal prejudices. And the dragnet spreads further as parents will be prevented from giving their children a home education.
Ines has previously worked in the UK, where her lived experience as a practising Muslim was much less than problematic than in her own country as her hijab and Arabic skills were considered an asset in a retail shop environment in central London that many wealthy Arab customers frequent. Like many others with a similar background, Ines is planning to take her skills out of France, to countries her faith is not seen as a barrier and for now she has set her sights on returning to the UK.
Tesnim similarly hopes to use her experiences in the health sector to work in low-income countries. “I no longer want to spend my life fighting for basic rights in an unfair system that will always punish the Muslim and Arab parts of my identity, no matter how hard I try to ‘integrate’. Whilst I respect those that fight back, I see it an opportunity to go elsewhere where my skills are needed and who I am and my religious values are not made a problem”, she says.