Lyon. The Imaginary Separatism of Salafist Women

The concept of “separatism” introduced into public debate by Emmanuel Macron in February 2020 was followed by the draft bill “Confirming respect for the principles of the Republic,” currently referred to the Constitutional Law Commission. But for ordinary victims of Islamophobia — and in particular Salafis — separatism is nothing more than a withdrawal from public life and the State, a reactive “antipolitics” in a context of years of police harassment, repression and control.

Echirolles, April 30, 2019. In front of the Philippe Grenier Muslim school, described as Salafist by the Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer, and closed since the start of the 2020 school year
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP

As a sociologist studying Islam in France, I saw over time the gradual resignation to the 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools as well as a number of young women dropping out of school. Soon, the debates about the “burqa” began, leading to the ban on the niqab. The burkini controversy erupted, and hostility toward nannies and mothers in headscarves made viral news. Now, we see the serious threat to homeschooling and the functioning of Islamic associations as well as the denigration of religious needs as basic as the availability of halal food. It is not at all clear that government policies like these have worked. Perhaps instead, they have only reinforced the very problems they defined.

I have been following the situation of French Muslims beginning in 2006 in the city of Lyon, where I based my study. I conducted over a year of participant observation, ending in 2014, among middle-class mosque communities as well as working-class Salafi communities in the banlieues, primarily in Vénissieux. While I conducted interviews and interacted closely with a small number of men, I spent most of my time with Salafi women.

“You will never belong here”

Among them was Amal, age 22 at the time I met her. Amal’s parents had emigrated from Tunisia, and she was born and raised in Lyon’s banlieues. Unlike her older sister, Amal chose to pursue a rigorous practice of Islam, wearing the djelbab and studying every week at the mosque. She had finished high school and wanted passionately to attend university. But when she was scolded by a professor for wearing a hijab, in front of an entire lecture hall of students, she left university and never returned. I personally witnessed strangers harassing Amal and other women wearing their djelbabs on numerous occasions. One of these was on a bus, when a man leaned in inches from her face, raising his voice and scolding her for her dress. “Why do you do this? You’re in France, you know. In France!” Others, as I observed, experienced even greater aggression, for example, getting dangerously pushed while boarding trams and buses.

Although Amal left university, her desire to learn and study remained strong. She channeled some of this energy toward tutoring girls who had quit school due to the headscarf ban. Nura and Lydia, ages 13 and 14, lived in Vénissieux and met with Amal regularly to work on English and other skills. Amal found it painful that at their young age they were already so discouraged about their futures in France. When I asked Nura what she wanted to do when she grew up, she was quiet. Lydia laughed and interjected, “she has no future!”

At the core of these young women’s sense of having no future was the discrimination they faced and anticipated. Most of the Salafi women I came to know struggled financially and tried desperately to maintain work as domestic workers and caretakers while facing hostility from employers. Asma, whose parents were from the Comoro Islands, had trained to work with disabled children. She gave up her aspirations when her employer refused to accept her dress, telling her matter-of-factly, “You will never belong here.”

Amal worried a great deal about her future and those of Nura, Lydia and other girls, some of whom she said were taken from their families and placed in foster care on account of their religious practice. In 2016 she was confiding to me her concern that families could not meet the strict standards of homeschooling and that the state would soon target this activity.

Homeschooling, after all, was an important site of resistance for some religious women. I used to often wonder if Amal’s fears were exaggerated, but in fact they turned out to be prescient. If the draft bill passes, homeschooling will likely be allowed in only a small minority of cases. Now a mother of young children herself, Amal struggles with her son’s teacher over his learning of Arabic and is barred from accompanying him on school field trips. She, like several others I knew, is making plans to emigrate from France, because in her words, “I want to have some freedom.” Eager to have a profession, Amal has always wanted to use her mind, not “sew or bake cupcakes” as some women who wear the djelbab must, in order to make a living.

“Separatism” or “antipolitics” ?

Amal was part of a community that might easily be labeled “separatist.” But given these common experiences of many outwardly practicing Muslims, what does separatism mean? What appears as “separatism” among Salafi Muslims in particular is a form of “antipolitics,” a withdrawal from public life and the state. Antipolitics in the working-class periphery of Lyon is a protection of the private sphere in a context of regular surveillance, police violence, and the politicizing of what are otherwise private decisions, such as whether or not to wear a hijab. It is also the formation of a moral community, where women especially comfort one another, encourage each other’s religious education, and support one another in their path to become more pious. This sometimes involved encouraging each other to go against the wishes of their husbands, who did not always support their wives’ decisions to wear the hijab. It also involved embracing an ethic of how to manage their stigma, an ethic that typically entailed disengagement. One popular mosque teacher, Malika, advised one day to a woman who was growing depressed due to the public mockery she faced: “You have to have the courage to do what you believe. People laugh at me all the time. Try to explain very simply and directly, in a well-mannered way. But once they get aggressive or mock you, just leave it. Don’t engage them. Just turn inward.”

As Salafi women try to build a moral community, their antipolitics is also an ongoing inner struggle to achieve serenity in the face of their fears and at times despair. Their worries included financial insecurity, unemployment, and loneliness. But as the teacher at the mosque in Vénissieux emphasized repeatedly, “everything is in God’s hands.” Not unlike a practitioner of mindfulness, she spoke frequently about remaining present in the moment and not indulging one’s fears about the future. These teachings provided an important sanctuary for the women I knew, whose individual sufferings I suggest reflect a collective condition.

While the structure of gender segregation prevented me from spending much time with men who identify with the Salafi tradition, there were some exceptions. Mounir began loosely identifying with Salafis when he saw them effectively reducing street fights and drug problems in his neighborhood and giving existential meaning to young men coming out of prison, a fate Mounir was determined to avoid. Employed temporarily as a janitor in his building, he struggled with everyday racism and felt resentful when the “basement mosque” he and his father attended was shut down at the mayor’s discretion. Mounir’s childhood friend Yassin, in contrast, rejected being part of any movement as such. Yassin was also religious, more than his family members, but insisted that Salafi “separatism” stemmed from economic exclusion. “In a way, since society has excluded them, they’ve dug in their heels and said, ‘We don’t need society.’ This is why there’s an attraction to this movement. Our economic situation here is catastrophic! It’s worse than it was for our parents.”

These antipolitics I witnessed, as Yassin implied, were a path out of despair and toward dignity. They did not emerge from Islam but from the local social context and history. For example, the trajectory of social justice mobilization in Lyon’s working-class banlieues was a complex story of decline, according to my interlocutors. Vénissieux in fact had been the epicenter of the famous immigrant rights march in 1983 which reporters labeled la marche des beurs. Ahmed, a longtime resident of Vénissieux and former activist, recalled the excitement and hope of that period and lamented the eventual collapse of civil society organizations. A major cause of this collapse, he said, was the state surveillance and blacklisting of activists of Muslim origin, which made it difficult to find employment and support a family. “Now,” he said, “there are exactly two structures left in the neighborhood: the drug dealers and mosques. And the mosque leaders are incompetent and uneducated. They don’t have the means to be politically active or organized.”

Enabling intra-religious debates

The immigrant rights mobilization of the 1980s that Ahmed nostalgically recalled gave way eventually to Islamic organizations in the 1990s. But these organizations based in Lyon found it increasingly challenging to relate to the material concerns of their working-class brethren. Several Muslim activists in Lyon recounted to me their gradual disconnect from Muslims in the banlieues, where Salafi structures and cultures offered more meaning to residents there than could their leftist Islamic associations. As one activist reflected, the social and economic miseries of life in the working-class projects (les quartiers) were far beyond what any Islamic cultural association could tackle. With both regret and disdain for working-class Salafi Muslims, another religious Muslim activist confessed, “Today, no one from our associations can truthfully say ‘I work in les quartiers.’ In fact, everyone has abandoned them.”

To be clear, many middle-class religious Muslims I met in my research deeply regretted this divide and did not want to give up hope for the integration of Islam and Muslims. The issue of separatism, or what I have called antipolitics, is a discourse coming from the state but also a dynamic debate within Muslim communities themselves. What does it mean to assimilate, to compromise, to embrace complex loyalties, to protect one’s heritage, and to practice faith? This type of political discussion and sometimes dispute is common to minority groups grappling with entrenched structures of discrimination and inequality, from the writings of W.E.B. DuBois regarding Blacks in America to those of contemporary scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson regarding indigenous communities in Canada.

Religious or racialized communities must be able to have these debates in a way that is not grossly overshadowed by the state. For example, my research in India, where Muslims also constitute the second largest minority, revealed the importance of this. India’s model of secularism, nearly the opposite of laïcité, is based on noninterference into the affairs of religious communities. An indirect effect is freer and more robust intra-religious debates, including support for feminist goals for Muslim women of all orientations. This does not mean that India’s secularism is free of contradictions and unsettling trends like the strengthening of Hindu nationalism. But reflecting on these differences between countries is a valuable exercise. Debate and openness only flourish, I suggest, when people feel secure that their basic religious rights and dignity are not being attacked.

The bill “Confirming respect for the principles of the Republic” ostensibly intends to stop a “separatist dynamic that aims at division.” But is the problem one of religious separatism? Or is it one of social exclusion based on fear? The state is cutting off the avenues for satisfaction and purpose that many marginalized working-class Muslims, and especially Salafi women, have needed.

Among the ironies that have resulted is that the hyper-regulation of religion means women are less free, people feel less national loyalty, and to the delight of some, there appear to be only ever-increasing numbers of converts drawn to Islam. Antipolitics comes out of discrimination, hostility in public space, weak associations, and the need to preserve faith and dignity in such a context. As many have argued by now, it is simply misguided to reinforce the ideals of the Republic by simultaneously undermining them.