The 2019 edition of the Annual Meeting of France’s Muslims buzzed with the sound of salesmen yelling out their halal wares for sale, speeches from leading religious intellectuals, and tens of thousands of Muslim shoppers. One of the vendors was 33-year-old Ratiba Zahdali, dressed in a cascade of black fabric and smiling proudly as potential customers passed by her stand. After two years of researching and developing her product, she was finally able to offer French Muslims something that had been missing from the market for years: halal baby food.
“I could only buy fish or vegetable-based baby food before,” said one of Ratiba’s clients, who was excited to try out the formula on her infant daughter. Ratiba’s company offered flavors like cream of green pea soup with halal beef, giving Muslim parents the possibility to feed their babies a more iron-rich diet.
Ratiba never originally planned to open a baby food company. She graduated with a master’s degree from ESCP Europe, one of the best business schools in France. And yet, when it came time to find a job, she had a choice that many Muslim women in France today face: take off the headscarf, or risk remaining unemployed.
“This is a world that’s so closed off and restrained for Muslim women,” she said. “The image of a woman in a headscarf is really badly perceived in France. People think it’s the same as in some Arab countries, where women are forced to wear the hijab. But in France today, women who choose to wear the veil aren’t anybody’s victims.”
Like many Muslim parents in France, Ratiba’s had warned her against wearing the veil since childhood, especially as France struggles to come to terms with its growing Muslim minority, the largest in Europe at around 9 percent of the population.
A thirty-year debate
Islam represents a difficult question for France, due to the country’s history of colonialism. An October 2019 Ifop poll found that 61 percent of respondents believe Islam is incompatible with French values, and almost 80 percent believe that secularism is under threat in France.
Women who wear the veil (around a fourth of the Muslim women in France) continually find themselves at the center of debates on Islam. Current president Emmanuel Macron has recognized that the veil is so controversial in France because “it does not conform to the civility in our country. We’re attached to equality between men and women.”
The French concept of “laïcité” establishes a strict separation between church and state and requires that government workers should not show their religious or political affiliations. However, after three girls were expelled from a middle school in 1989 after refusing to remove their headscarves, laïcité began expanding into more aspects of French life.
In 2004, the French parliament barred religious wear in public schools. In 2010, a law commonly referred to as the “burqa ban” was passed, which outlawed clothing that conceals one’s face in public, and in 2016, several cities famously tried to outlaw burkinis on public beaches. In beginning 2019, a flurry of politicians condemned a major sporting goods company’s decision to sell a headscarf for female joggers—it was eventually pulled from stores. Few months later, the country witnessed another national debate over the headscarf, this time reignited by a far-right politician at a regional parliament meeting who demanded a mother chaperoning her son’s class trip to take off her headscarf.
The justification behind these laws is usually to encourage integration with French values and society, but a Stanford University study published in 2019 on the 2004 law showed it caused “women affected by the ban to retreat into their communities and avoid interaction with the broader society.”
It has also become increasingly difficult to wear religious clothing while working in the private sector. In 2014, France’s highest court upheld a case in which a woman was fired from a nursery for refusing to remove her headscarf, on the grounds that children are too impressionable to see religious symbols. A 2016 labor law also gave employers the right to set religious neutrality policies in the workplace for security or hygiene reasons, or, in certain cases, if employees are in contact with clients.
“After the 2004 law, the link with laïcité became more and more tenuous,” explained Myriam Hunter-Henin, a University College of London law professor who has closely examined French laïcité. “The connection was lost entirely with the nursery case and with the French ‘burqa ban.’ Laïcité is not actually used as a legal basis, but it still somehow influences the legal reasoning.”
Muslim women are disproportionately affected by these laws. Less than half (42 percent) of French employers are open to a woman wearing a headscarf in the workplace, a 2015 Inagora study found. A 2014 “resume testing” also found that a North African woman wearing a headscarf was 55 times less likely to be called back for an interview than a white woman. bareheaded
One wide-reaching study found the unemployment rate for Muslim women twice as high as that of a Christian woman in France. Part of the reason may be because women who wear the veil might have a more traditional view of familial roles, explained the study’s author, Patrick Simon. However, it’s also because “it is practically impossible to work in France today with the veil. When the job entails contacting clients, most employers don’t want women who wear the veil. And even when women aren’t in contact with clients, there’s an extremely recurrent discrimination that results in very few employers hiring women who wear the veil,” he said.
Hicham Benaissa, a sociologist and consultant who has worked with over 500 French companies to develop their religious policies, said that discrimination becomes more pronounced higher up in the social ladder: “I have never seen a veiled woman accepted for a managerial position in my work. A veiled woman who cleans for a living or picks up your kids from school, people are fine with that. But a veiled woman who’s going to give you orders, no way.”
Another wide-reaching study conducted in September 2019 seems to confirm Benaissa’s experience: the higher Muslims climbed on the career ladder, the more they experienced discrimination. Around 63 percent of Muslims in managerial positions or in fields that require advanced degrees have experienced discrimination in the past five years.
“This is explained in one part because of their career choice—as soon as minorities insert themselves into primarily ‘white’ worlds and leave behind Muslim or minority communities, they’re confronted with this type of racism,” explained François Kraus, one of the authors of the study. “It’s also explained by the fact that people who have higher levels of education are normally more sensitive to questions of discrimination.”
Yet many Muslim women find themselves being rejected even for non-managerial positions. At 20 years old, Miryam Karam used to take off her headscarf every day to go to work as a medical secretary in Alsace, a region of France on the German border. One day, when she was in between looking for jobs, “I was wearing my headscarf when I went into an interview,” she said. “The doctor immediately said that it would be out of the question for me to wear the veil at work, because she didn’t want patients to see a submissive woman sitting behind the desk.”
The Collective Against Islamophobia in France is one of many organizations that help Muslim women fight discrimination and has called the 2016 law allowing employers to enforce religious neutrality a “fallacious reason” to discriminate against Muslim women.
Said Naima, a legal expert with the organization, explained, “If the employer asks about a woman’s religion during the interview, her choice to wear the veil, or suggests that the veil could be an obstacle for her in getting hired without mentioning the company’s religious neutrality policy, then that could be grounds for discrimination.”
Naima believes the problem remains widely under-reported. “These women feel like victims, and they don’t necessarily have the strength to see these complaints through, because it’s a long process,” she said.
François Kraus, author of the September 2019 study on Muslims in France, explained the reasons why he believes many French companies are hesitant to hire veiled employees. “French recruiters are thinking about their image and what they risk in bringing a veiled woman on the team, especially considering the fear since the terrorist attacks and the amalgams made with extremists,” he said. “They’re also thinking about internal cohesion: are people wearing the veil going to fit in well and get a drink with the team after work? The headscarf appears as a symbol of being socially closed-off to a lot of recruiters. In the French mentality, religion is not considered a part of your identity, as is the color of your skin. It’s a philosophical opinion, like politics.”
Because of these restrictions, Muslim women have been forced to adapt. On social media, groups like “It’s Possible to Work with Your Veil!” allow members to share job listings and professional advice. Women circulate lists of companies that allow religious wear, including large organizations like the online retail giant Amazon or the Swedish furniture store Ikea.
“Basically, any company that’s not French,” said Ratiba, the business school graduate.
An increasing number of women are also turning towards starting their own businesses to be able to work with their headscarves.
“I realized I didn’t want to change the way I dressed,” said Karam, the former medical secretary who is now an independent digital consultant. “So, I started thinking more and more about entrepreneurship.”
In 2011, Louiza Bougherara founded Akhawate Business (translated to “Sisters’ Business,” also known by the acronym AKB) by opening a Facebook page for female Muslim entrepreneurs. She had already launched her own online beauty accessories store, and after receiving an overwhelming number of questions on Facebook, she quickly realized that many women had no idea how to launch their own businesses.
Today, Louiza works with a team of five other women to help 200 regular clients develop their business plans or navigate difficult administrative hurdles. Since 2013, the organization has also hosted an annual startup competition. Last year’s winner was a young Muslim woman who had created a “Tinder”-style application with her husband to match job applicants with companies.
One of her clients, 36-year-old mother of six Dialla Magassa, chose AKB to help launch her online cosmetics shop because “I thought they could understand me better. We’ve all gone through the same struggle—at least most of us—of not being able to find work because of the veil.”
Although Dialla’s husband supported her throughout her journey, Louiza said it is common for her clients to experience family or marital problems because of lingering conservative expectations of women. At the Annual Meeting of France’s Muslims, however, things seemed to be outwardly changing. Ratiba’s husband looked after her two children as she sold halal baby food. Young and fashionable women sold their original designs of glitter-specked turbans and brightly colored kimonos.
“We’re trying to show that there’s not just one way of dressing in Islam—it’s not all fundamentalism or Wahhabism,” said 27-year-old Iman Mestaoui, cofounder of Barcha, a modest-wear clothing line for Muslim and non-Muslim women.
Sociologist Hanane Karimi, who is a Muslim herself, began studying the phenomenon when she noticed more and more Muslim women were starting their own businesses after not being able to find work. She witnessed entrepreneurship’s effect in pushing the most orthodox religious women to integrate further into French society.
“There are women who previously wouldn’t speak with any other men and would just let their husbands take care of everything,” she said. “Out of necessity for their businesses, they’ve started to work with and negotiate with men and attend entrepreneurial networking parties.”
For Louiza, entrepreneurship is a necessary step forward for changing the role of Muslim women in France: “It’s not just about pure business. Entrepreneurship is a tool that helps women evolve and find fulfillment.”
Sociologist Karimi, however, highlighted that these businesses mostly start out of necessity, not choice. “Even for women who have multiple degrees and who have a great business idea, the determining factor for getting into entrepreneurship is having to take off their headscarves in traditional workplaces,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is foremost a constrained choice, even if it ends up being fulfilling.”
For now, baby food entrepreneur Ratiba Zahdali is the only veiled woman to work in a startup incubator in an up-and-coming neighborhood in northeast Paris. In a world dominated by white men coming from the top business schools in France, women, let alone Muslim women, are in the minority.
Ratiba isn’t deterred. She hopes to make her business the next Nestle or Danone—the household name for halal food. She was recently able to get an innovation grant from the state investment bank BPI France, which she calls a “paradox: I owe something to France for financing my business, but also, people don’t accept me for who I am.”
“People want to leave Muslim women behind, leave us in submissive positions,” she said. “I’m motivated today by injustice. I don’t have a choice but to succeed.”