Gendered Identities and Associational Life of the Peul

“Gendered Identities and Associational Life of the Peul in the Paris Ghettos”

Presenter: Laura Gerard Massengale, graduate student, International Studies

“I was dismayed when my cousin replaced her trendy hair extensions with a veil”: Islam’s diverse forms and practices in France

Since the French revolution, France has operated as a secular state, meaning that religion is confined to the “private sphere:” individuals may only engage in religious behavior in private places of worship such as in churches or in the home. Yet because France’s population has historically been Catholic, much of its laws and rules of governance are based on Catholic traditions. Public schools, for example, reflect this Catholic bias: national holidays are based on the Catholic calendar, and Catholic students take for granted the fact that they can celebrate Christmas with their families, while children of other religions must attend school or obtain an excused absence on their own religious holidays. Though government employees or students may wear small crosses around their necks, yamakas or headscarves are banned from government workplaces or schools because they are “recognizably religious.”

Since the 1970s, Muslim immigrants from France’s former colonies in Africa have been settling in France to work or study. Their children—French-speaking, and citizens of France—have introduced a new cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity to the French nation. This cultural diversity has sparked new debates related to religiosity in public schools and public spaces: should girls be permitted to wear headscarves in public school? Should workplaces have rooms set aside for prayer? Should Muslim children be permitted to stay home from school on their religious holidays?

These debates have become even more contentious since the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has come into political power. In the current political climate, politicians vie for popularity with inflammatory statements against immigrants, against the children of these immigrants, and against Muslim practitioners in France. This newly politicized interpretation of France’s secularism resulted, in part, in the passing of the 2010 law against the wearing of the burqa in public.

How do Muslim women and men living in France see these laws? What are the difficulties they face as practicing Muslims in the French secular state? My research, carried out in Paris from June to September 2011, with Mauritanian immigrants and French men and women of Mauritanian origin, explores these questions. In this presentation, I will explain that Muslim Mauritanians and their children have wide-ranging reactions to these laws. “Islam,” though used in the media and in common parlance as a general term, is not a uniformly practiced religion. While some Muslims contest these laws as discriminatory, others argue that the French state is not a Muslim state and therefore French Muslims must, above all, practice tolerance. The Muslim women and men with whom I carried out research have differing opinions about the relationships between “Islam” and the French state, and, above all, want the general public to know that this variety of opinions exists: Muslims in France do not all share the same views of the French secular state and of the role of Islam in France.