The Ultimate Trade-Off – “Secularism” or “Liberty”?

Ever since the French Revolution, the values of freedom and secularism have been integral for French law. For instance, Article 1 of the 1958 Constitution proclaims:

La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. // France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.

French Constitution.

The very next article — Art. 2 — says:

La devise de la République est « Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ». //The maxim of the Republic shall be ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.

French Constitution.

As such, they are both majorly important values as they form part of the first pages of the French Constitution. In a perfect world, secularism and freedom/liberty would go together, one upholding the other. Nevertheless, the case of the Muslim veil ban presented a challenge in which both values could not coexist. 

If the sole purpose of the Ban is to upkeep French secular values and promote the integration of Muslim communities, the ban still breaches the freedom of Muslim women who choose to wear the veil. The head-scarf issue is still a topic of debate in French politics as politicians try to decide whether they prioritize secularism over freedom, or vice versa. Ultimately, any decision concerning the use of Muslim veils—to ban them or not to ban them—involves the trade-off between laïcité and liberté. If the goal is to encourage integration—the reasoning behind the promotion of secularization—one should analyze whether the veil ban promotes or hinders assimilation of Muslim women into French society.

What Themes From the Veil Ban can be connected to the Course Material?

Isolation of Migrant Communities

The push for a secular society can backfire and encourage religious communities to isolate themselves from French society, ultimately defeating the purpose of laïcité. For instance, the case of bidonvilles. In the book Shantytown Kid by Azouz Begag (2007), the author narrates his life in the social bubble of a bidonville—a place where Maghrebi immigrants separated themselves from metropolitan France.

MacMaster (2009) argues that immigrants choose to live in bidonvilles and would rather stay than move to metropolitan France. After all, in a society that pushes for a uniform culture, bidonvilles provide Muslim communities with a haven that relates to “respect for family, privacy, female seclusion, gender roles, and patriarchal honors” (MacMaster 85). In the following quote from the book, Begag depicts the feeling of alienation from a Muslim boy living in a bidonville:

Starting from today, I was not going to be the Arab boy in the class anymore. I was determined to be on equal footing with the French kids.

Begag 47.

Even though Begag went to a French public schools with non-immigrant French children, he was able to tell the difference between his people—the migrant community—and the Frenchmen. It shows the class consciousness that Azouz—the character—had at such a young age and the different upbringing he experienced from living in a bidonville, a space foreign to Metropolitan France. With this analysis in mind, can the Muslim Veil Ban really push for integration or rather, exclude Muslim women from French society?

The Reinforcement of “the Foreign”.

Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab often believe that other men—besides their husband—are not allowed to see them without a veil. Under the circumstances of the Veil Ban, therefore, women Muslim women may remain loyal to their religious values and minimize their presence in the social sphere, where other men can see their uncovered head.

Could this ultimately lead to integration? I argue that the less French people see of a migrant community, the more “foreign” this community seems to be. For instance, in the film La Noire de… by Ousbane Sembène, when a Frenchman greets Diouana he says, “I have never kissed a black girl before”, portraying what happens when French people and immigrants are not in societal contact with each other. White Frenchmen were not accustomed to interact, let alone kiss, black people and immigrants. As such, their interaction in the film was quite an event. What the Frenchman said to Diouana is a sign of ignorance that, even though was not necessarily ill-intended, could quickly translate into tolerance when taken to a bigger scale. Thus, seclusion is incompatible with integration; and what far-right politicians seem to neglect is that the veil ban promotes the self-isolation of Muslim communities.

In 2018, the UNHR wrote a report on two Muslim women who were not allowed to leave their homes after the veil ban because their religious practices believed that women must wear a hijab in presence of other men. All in all, in the case of Muslim immigrants living in France, the push for secularization can backfire and become an obstacle to assimilation.   

Recommended Research Material:


Mariam (2015) by Faiza Ambah.

Bande de filles (2014) by Céline Sciamm.


‘‘‘I Felt Violated by the Demand to Undress’: Three Muslim Women on France’s Hostilityto the Hijab” by Myriam François, 2021.

France is on a Dangerous Collision Course With its Muslim Population” by Shaista Aziz, 2022.

Scholastic work:

Critical Race Feminism Lifts the Veil?: Muslim Women, France, and the Headscarf Ban” by Adrien Katherine Wing and Monica Nigh Smith, 2005.

The Perils of Patrimoine: Art, History, and Narrative in the Immigration History Museum, Paris” by Daniel J. Sherman, 2016.

Jewish–Muslim Interactions: Performing Cultures between North Africa and France by Samuel Sami Everett and Rebekah Vince, 2020.

I knew I lived in a shantytown of shacks made of planks of wood and corrugated iron roofs and that it was the poor who lived that way. I had gone several times to Alain’s home in the middle of the Avenue Monin, where his family lived in a real house. I could see it was much nicer than our shacks. And there was so much space. His house alone was as big as the whole of le Chaâba put together. He had his own room, with a desk and books and a wardrobe for his clothes. At each visit my eyes nearly came out of their sockets with astonishment. I was too ashamed to tell him where I lived. That is why Alain had never been to Le Chaâba.

Azouz Begag in Shantytown Kid

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