Civil rights groups, academics and experts raise alarm ahead of key vote on controversial bill.
A bid by the French Senate to ban girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public has drawn condemnation, with the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab circulating widely on social media.
The hijab is a headscarf worn by many Muslim women and has been the subject of a decades-long feud in France.
The French Senate’s move comes as part of Paris’s push to introduce a so-called “anti-separatism” bill which it says aims to bolster the country’s secular system, but critics have denounced, arguing it singles out the minority Muslim population.
While debating the proposed legislation on March 30, senators approved an amendment to the bill calling for the “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men”.
The ban is not yet law, with France’s National Assembly required to sign off on the change before it can take effect.
But a backlash to the amendment was swift, with some suggesting the proposed rule amounted to a “law against Islam”.
“Age to consent to sex in France: 15 Age to consent to hijab: 18 Let that sink in. It isn’t a law against the hijab. It’s a law against Islam. #Handsoffmyhijab #FranceHijabBan,” one Twitter user wrote.
— Manar منار (@RockThrowA) April 4, 2021
Another posted: “I thought we already had this covered. Forcing a woman to wear a hijab is wrong. Just like forcing her to take it off is wrong. It’s HER choice.”
I thought we already had this covered.
Forcing a woman to wear a hijab is wrong. Just like forcing her to take it off is wrong.
It’s HER choice.
— Najwa Zebian (@najwazebian) April 4, 2021
The issue also attracted the attention of several high-profile figures.
On Instagram, Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad shared a post suggesting the Senate’s amendment indicated “Islamophobia is deepening in France”.
“This is what happens when you normalize anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim hate speech, bias, discrimination, and hate crimes – Islamophobia written into law,” the post said.
Amani al-Khatahtbeh, founder of Muslim Women’s Day and the website Muslim Girl, also weighed in on the controversy.
“No government should regulate how a woman can dress, whether to keep it on or take it off,” she tweeted, referencing the hijab.
On a trip to France 3 years ago the border police forced me to remove my scarf to enter the country even though I wore a scarf in my passport photo.
— AMANI (@xoamani) April 6, 2021
Somali-born model Rawdah Mohamed suggested the French Senate’s move had put it on “the wrong side of equality”.
“The Hijab ban is hateful rhetoric coming from the highest level of government and will go down as an enormous failure of religious values and equality,” she posted on Instagram.
The National Assembly, France’s lower chamber which is dominated by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La République En Marche (LREM) party, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the bill on February 16 before it was passed up to the conservative-led Senate.
The legislation has been debated in a highly charged atmosphere in France after three attacks late last year, including the beheading on October 16 of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free speech.
The law does not specifically mention the word Islam, but French Muslims have for months protested against it, saying several of its measures single them out.
Amnesty International last month warned the proposed law posed a “serious attack on rights and freedoms in France” and called for “many problematic provisions” of the bill to be scrapped or amended.