Sometime in 2006, Maria De Cartena decided that she wants to wear a hijab, the Islamic headscarf.
But every morning, staff at her high school in Lyon, France, would force the then-13-year-old to remove it.
They would stand at the entrance to make sure she does not step onto the premises with her head covered.
“It was humiliating and frustrating. I was feeling that I was removing a part of me … It was very difficult,” De Cartena said in an interview with Anadolu.
For her and countless others, the recent ban on abayas – the loose over-garment worn by Muslim women – in French public schools has brought back painful memories of the past.
In 2004, France imposed a ban on all types of religious symbols in state schools and government buildings, such as the Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs and Muslim headscarves.
Almost 20 years later, the government announced new curbs for female Muslim students, ruling that they cannot wear abayas when the new academic year started this month.
French authorities claim the decision was taken in line with the country’s strict secularism laws. President Emmanuel Macron has backed the move, saying “religious symbols of any kind have no place” in French schools.
De Cartena, a legal and policy adviser at Perspectives Musulmanes, an anti-Islamophobia organisation, emphasizes that these laws and prohibitions on clothes and practices have an emotional impact.
Today, young girls are asked to undress at their schools’ entrances, told to lift their dresses or skirts in front of everyone, she said.
De Cartena said the hijab ban imposed over two decades ago made her sad and angry.
“I was very angry as I did not understand this injustice toward me,” she said.
For six long years, she was not allowed to wear the hijab, first in high school and then college.
That also prevented her from going on school trips and affected every aspect of her life.
She was also unable to participate in swimming activities because of the prohibition on the Muslim burkini swimwear.
For young students, these decisions lead to frustrations and create mistrust in state authorities, she said.
‘Going too far’
French Muslims are concerned about the abaya ban and the criteria being used to enforce it.
Reports have emerged of schools suspending Muslim girls for just dressing modestly, not necessarily wearing the abaya.
A girl was turned away from school because she wore a black kimono; another was stopped for wearing white trousers. One was told her attire was beige and that it was an “Islamic colour”.
“They target Muslim women just because they wear long dress or white trousers, or a kimono or black outfit or a beige outfit. This is going too far,” Kawtar Najib, an expert on Islamophobia, told Anadolu.
She said the ban particularly targets Muslim teenagers and is another example of state-backed Islamophobia in France.
“It’s not about just the abayas. It’s even not about long dresses. It’s just about who wears those types of dresses, and if they know that they are Muslims, then they will exclude them,” she said.
Najib believes that the recent ban shows that France will not stop pursuing its Islamophobic policies.
“They are very determined. To the point that they can develop laws that shock the world and they continue doing that,” she said.
In the near future, she foresees abayas being prohibited in universities, while a complete ban on the burkini might also be enforced.
In France, women wearing the hijab have less than 1 per cent chance of finding a job, according to Najib.
Discussions are now in place for banning the hijab in schools for nannies or mothers accompanying their children for extra-curricular activities.
As a French Muslim, Najib said she herself was unable to find a job in France.
De Cartena has the same views, saying that if there is no international mobilisation by Muslims against such decisions, France will continue implementing more such discriminatory policies.
‘Proud of their Muslimness’
Despite the current situation, Najib is hopeful about the future of the Muslim community, stressing that Muslim youth, in particular, are proud of their identity.
“Today I can see from the youth, very, very powerful things coming. They are proud of their Muslimness,” she said.
In 2004, there were a few women wearing the hijab, but today many young women don the headscarf, she said.
A lot of people today also denounce the visible Islamophobia in France, which was not always the case, according to Najib.
She said the more a community is oppressed because of an identity, the more they will claim that identity.
“When people are attacked because of their Muslimness, because of their religious identity, then Muslims will be prouder of their religious identity than before,” she said.