Weaponizing laïcité: how secularism fails France’s Muslim women
Lucie Guano Dent
Image Description: The Elysee Palace
Last November, after the terrorist beheading of Samuel Paty, a French teacher who had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on freedom of expression, the discourse on laïcité and Islamic separatism was once again brought to the forefront of French politics. Paty had used a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during the lesson, after warning his Muslim students and allowing them to excuse themselves from the room.
His decapitation by the Chechen-born attacker Abdullakh Anzorov ten days later became the catalysing event for French President Emmanuel Macron to introduce a new bill to tackle Islamic separatism and Islamist organisations, stating that “France would not renounce caricatures” and that Paty had been murdered because “he taught freedom of expression”.
However, with a rise in extremist terrorist acts in the country over the last 30 years, many critics argue that laïcité has strayed from its original intent and has been at times used as a political tool to justify Islamophobic comments and acts, using secularism as a shield for discrimination.
However, it is not only law that deepens divisions over laïcité in France. Jean Michel Blanquer, the French Minister of Education defended Odoul’s actions towards the unnamed woman. He stated that although “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children”, headscarves were not desirable in French society because of what they say “about the status of women”. Blanquer’s comments are indicative of a deeper issue in how the West still perceives Islam. By saying that the headscarf is not desirable in France because of what it says about the status of women, Blanquer shifts the blame of the oppression of Muslim women and the restriction of their freedoms in France from laïcité to Islam. The western perceptions of Muslim women as being inherently oppressed reinforce a western superiority complex; they indicate societal opinions of western liberalism as the ideal to strive to; expose their views of feminism as the right to show skin rather than to hide it; and apply the white saviour complex upon Muslim women, undermining their agency and their voice by assuming they never had one in the first place.