“This is an Islamic festival, and you’re telling me to remove the hijab?” the Muslim woman asked the heckler.
Rabat – During a roundtable discussion at the 12th annual Fez Festival of Sufi Culture on Tuesday, October 22, a French-speaking audience member ordered another attendee to remove her hijab before posing a question to the panel.
Before a shocked panel of scholars, headed by the festival’s director Faouzi Skali, a predominantly French audience looked on as the Moroccan woman defended her right to wear the hijab.
Nearly every day of the Sufi festival, Skali held roundtable discussions at Riad Dar Batha, a cultural center owned by the French Institute in Fez.
Tuesday’s roundtable theme was “the practice of non-violence on a daily basis.”
After the panel’s speakers concluded their points, Skali invited the audience to come forward with questions and comments.
A woman wearing a hijab held the microphone. She was poised to ask the panel a question when another woman in the audience interrupted her.
In French, the woman told her to remove her hijab before speaking. While the nationality and ethnic origins of the woman are unknown, her accent suggested to other audience members that she lives in France.
Unsurprisingly, chaos ensued.
“You don’t have the right to tell me what to wear,” the Moroccan woman exclaimed in French, as other audience members began to stir.
“We’re in a Muslim country,” she continued. “Even if we weren’t in a Muslim country, it’s my right to wear the hijab.”
As the argument between the two women heated up, the Muslim woman rose to her feet—not in an act of aggression, but to make her presence known and her voice heard above the clamoring audience.
Skali, who seemed to know the Muslim woman personally, asked her to calm down so the panel could address the issue in a diplomatic manner.
The Muslim woman excused herself to Skali in Darija (Moroccan dialect), but returned her focus to the French woman: “This is an Islamic festival, and you’re telling me to remove the hijab?”
A case of ironic elitism
Attendees at a festival of Islamic culture in a Muslim country may have been surprised to hear such comments on the hijab.
While Sufi culture has a focus on individuality and introspection, the attack on the Muslim woman’s personal choice was, at the very least, anachronistic.
It’s unlikely that the French woman left Riad Dar Batha that morning with a refreshed view of the hijab. The Muslim woman, on the other hand, left Riad Dar Batha carrying the weight of a publicized, personal attack.
This case of ironic elitism at the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture highlighted the disconnect between its organizers’ agenda and the outlook of some of its attendees.
A history of discrimination
This instance of a French woman making discriminatory remarks against a hijabi Moroccan during a scholarly discussion of non-violence in daily life is perhaps linked to the rise of Islamophobia in France.
France is becoming a hotbed for Islamophobia, according to a number of media sources, social analysts, academics, and activists.
In addition to discriminatory laws enacted under the cloak of secularist ideology, there is a growing prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment among French political parties, and hate crimes against Muslims.
Despite France’s strong political and economic ties with Morocco and other Muslim countries, the discriminatory legacy of colonialism has carried on into the modern age, especially as France now faces an unprecedented number of Muslim refugees and migrants.
France prides itself on its cornerstone secular ideology, or “laicite:” the strict separation of religion and state. This prohibits all religious symbols—including those found in clothing and accessories—in public schools.
The recent history of French mobilization against the hijab began in 1989 when three Muslim girls were suspended from school for refusing to remove their heardscarves during class.
Fifteen years later, French parliament passed a law in 2004 barring Muslim students from attending classes while wearing the hijab.
In 2010, former president Nicolas Sarkozy banned the full-face veil from all public spaces in France.
“Anti-burkini decrees” infiltrated public debate during the summer of 2016 as French mayors worked to prohibit Muslim women from wearing swimsuits that covered their bodies completely.
Each of these controversies stem from the narrative that “the hijab is an oppressive tool used by Muslim men to hide and silence Muslim women,” says Al Jazeera contributor Rokhaya Diallo.
Most recently, a member of France’s National Rally asked a Muslim woman to remove her hijab at a plenary meeting of the Regional Council of Burgundy-Franche-Comte on October 11. The woman was accompanying her son on a school trip.
French public figures responded by calling upon president Emmanuel Macron to denounce Islamophobia in France, in an open letter published on October 16 in the French newspaper Le Monde.
The incident at the roundtable on Tuesday is eerily similar to that which took place at the plenary meeting, but with a crucial difference in context.
While derogatory remarks towards Muslims are unfortunately commonplace in France, it is startling to see Islamophobia rearing its ugly head at an Islamic festival in a Muslim country.