Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium: Ever Shrinking Spaces.
Dr. Amina Easat-Daas
Macron and his government’s recent crackdowns on Muslimness in France signal the further shrinkage of viable spaces for the public and visible presence of Muslimness in the nation. In early October 2020 Macron outlined plans to legislate prevention of ‘Islamist separatism’, but for many this recalled the French colonialist project the ‘code de l’indigénat’, which regulated the indigenous Muslim populations and in particular the nature of Islam in the colonies. Macron’s speech was soon followed by murder of French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, which sparked national (and arguably international) debate around Charlie Hebdo, the freedom of speech, and the place of Muslimness in France. As is often the case in French politics, such debates took place with a distinct absence of Muslim voice and representation.
In late October 2020 controversy continued further with the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin’s calls for the dissolution of prominent Muslim organisations in France. Among these were the humanitarian organisation, BarakaCity and the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France – the Counter Islamophobia Collective in France, an awareness and advocacy group who are among, if not the principal actor in combatting Islamophobia in France. French political officials appeared somewhat oblivious to the fact that the call to dissolve these French Muslim organisations without any substantiated evidence to legitimise the action clearly contradicted the 1901 French Freedom of Association law, which guarantees French citizens the right to engage and even develop their own associative politics. On the other hand, perhaps this move underlines the extent to which the French political elite do not see French Muslims as French citizens and as such French Muslims remain the perpetual incomplete citizen.
This clear example of the shrinking of spaces for political participation by and representation of French Muslims is not the only measure that limits the presence of Muslimness in France. For example, the implementation of the 2004 Loi Stasi limits the presence ‘ostentatious faith symbols’ in French schools and the 2010 Loi anti-niqab (Burka ban) These legislative measures disproportionately impact gendered Muslimness in France and are framed on the grounds of an arguably ‘falsified’ laïcité (French secularism).
Similar narratives are increasingly evoked in Belgium, a nation which officially recognises and supports faith groups, including Islam. In June 2020, the Belgian Constitutional Court ruled to implement a ban on philosophical, political and religious symbols in higher education on the grounds of ‘neutrality’. This ban was met with strong condemnation, particularly by Belgian Muslim women since they would be disproportionately impacted by the measure. On 5th July 2020 thousands assembled in Brussels to protest the ban, bearing placards with slogans such as “Stop telling women what to do with their bodies”, “I cover my hair not my brain” and “Belgium your Islamophobia is showing.” Given its federal constitution, the ban has since been overturned in Wallonia, but remains in place in Flanders. Such limitations in Belgium and in neighbouring France limit both the short-term educational engagement opportunities for Muslim women in the two cases, but also limit these women’s future engagement and insertion into society. This exclusion disadvantages Muslim women but also perpetuates their outsider status and the perception of their being unassimilable.
Against this backdrop of distinct Islamophobia, and particularly gendered Islamophobia in France and Belgium, my recently published book, entitled “Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium” examines the nature of participation in politics – across a range of levels from supranational, national regional, local politics and grassroots activism by self-identified Muslim women in the two cases. Statistical evidence by Sinno (2009) points to Belgium having proportionally the highest rates of Muslim political representation in the West, but conversely this proportionally lowest in France.
My book is based on data derived from semi-structured interviews with Muslim women who participate in politics in France and francophone Belgium. The analysis of this data was divided into three principal sections; firstly the examination of the factors that motivated Muslim women to participate in politics, secondly the nature of the opportunities encountered by the women in France and Belgium and finally, the study examines the reported barriers to participation in politics experienced by French and Belgian Muslim women.
Muslim women’s expressed motivations to participate in politics were as diverse as the interviewees themselves. In France, primary Participate in politics was shaped by key catalysts in political sphere of France. For example the 2002 presidential second round run off run off which saw Jacques Chirac pitted against the far-right party presidential candidate, Jean Marine Le Pen, respondents in the study sample felt motivated by these events and their strong anti-racist ideals to become engaged in politics, this was very much reflective of the French culture of protest. Although post-data collection, the events described above are similarly likely to have motivated Muslim women in France and Belgium to become active in politics. For example, in discussion of the state regulation of Islam, an interviewee stated: “When I hear ‘French Islam’ it makes me cringe a little or [if I hear about the] Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, the thing that Nicolas Sarkozy created with the [Grande] Mosquée de Paris etc. He created it to regulate Muslims…” In sum, the consistent need to defend and fight for one’s right to exist as a French or Belgian Muslim and to practice one’s own interpretation of Islam is a key catalyst in motivating Muslim women’s political participation.
Additionally, further motivators included their hybrid Muslim and European identities and the central emphasis on social justice apparent in the two, for example the women cited being compelled by local rates of homelessness, racialised police brutality or sustainability among other issues. However, particularly in France, the women noted that they could not publicly express that Islamic values around social justice had inspired their activism and doing so would constitute career suicide.
Opportunities to participate in politics in the two cases was shaped by the political opportunity structures in each country. In short, in spite of legislated gender parity measures the majoritarian French political opportunity limited Muslim women’s participation in representative politics, thus following the pattern of reduced minority representation as typically seen in majoritarian systems. Contrastingly, the proportional system in Belgium coupled with compulsory voting and legislated parity measures, lent itself to increased political representation by Muslim women. However Muslim women’s participation in Belgian party politics was not straightforward, often Muslim women were sought out by parties, as one respondent notes “Political parties approach me [to be a candidate], in spite of the fact that I am a woman, in spite of my headscarf, they [political parties] still approach me.” However once these women have been elected to office, they begin to face issues, as this interviewee points out: “Oh yes, there are loads of examples, there are loads of political parties that invite Muslim women who wear the headscarf to stand as candidates and they let them whilst maintaining their headscarf. But, when the time comes for her to assume her political responsibilities, to carry out her role, they will say yes, but without the headscarf.” The book discusses the way in which Muslim women fulfil gender parity requirements, can serve to secure the ethnic vote and present an outward image of diversity in the party, but regrettably face barriers once in office.
Barriers to Muslim women’s political participation were numerous and diverse in both cases. Like women globally, Muslim women faced barriers to participation stemming from their gendered roles in society, including homemaking for example. Similarly, women reported a lack of time being a key limiting factor in their politics. Specific to their Muslimness, the weaponization of laïcité and neutrality posed a significant barrier to Muslim women’s political participation. For example, regarding the headscarf in French politics, this interviewee notes: “You will never see a headscarf wearing women in the National Assembly. It is now impossible. Even among the most progressive parties … the headscarf halts political participation.”
Against a backdrop of growing political discourse and legislation surrounding their gendered Muslimness and Islam more generally in the two cases, Muslim women’s political participation in France and Belgium is both central to their citizenship, a means of contesting their ‘otherisation’ and foregrounding their voices in the political and social arenas, but as the findings presented in book highlight, the road is long but not impossible.
To read more, you can purchase Dr Amina Easat-Daas’ book Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium here.