French Muslims Say Veil Bans Give Cover to Bias

Wissous, France — Malek Layouni was not thinking about her Muslim faith, or her head scarf, as she took her excited 9-year-old son to an amusement site near Paris. But, as it turned out, it was all that mattered.

Local officials blocked her path to the inflatable toys on a temporary beach, pointing at regulations that prohibit dogs, drunks and symbols of religion. And that meant barring women who wear head scarves.

Mrs. Layouni still blushes with humiliation at being turned away in front of friends and neighbors, and at having no answer for her son, who kept asking her, “What did we do wrong?”

More than 10 years after France passed its first anti-veil law restricting young girls from wearing veils in public schools, the head coverings of observant Muslim women, from colorful silk scarves to black chadors, have become one of the most potent flash points in the nation’s tense relations with its vibrant and growing Muslim population.

Mainstream politicians continue to push for new measures to deny veiled women access to jobs, educational institutions and community life. They often say they are doing so for the benefit of public order or in the name of laïcité, the French term for the separation of church and state.

But critics say these efforts, rather than promoting a sense of secular inclusion, have encouraged rampant discrimination against Muslims in general and veiled women in particular. The result has been to fuel a sense among many Muslims that France — which celebrates Christian holidays in public schools — is engaging in a form of state racism.

The ban, some critics argue, also plays into the hands of Islamists, who are eager to drive a deeper wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West.

So far, France has passed two laws, one in 2004 banning veils in public elementary and secondary schools, and another, enacted in 2011, banning full face veils, which are worn by only a tiny portion of the population.

But observant Muslim women in France, whose head coverings can vary from head scarves tied loosely under the chin to tightly fitted caps and wimple-like scarves that hide every strand of hair, say the constant talk of new laws has made them targets of abuse, from being spat at to having their veils pulled or being pushed when they walk on the streets.

In some towns, mothers wearing head scarves have been prevented from picking up their children from school or from chaperoning class outings. One major discount store has been accused of routinely searching veiled customers.

Some women have even been violently attacked. In Toulouse recently, a pregnant mother wearing a head scarf had to be hospitalized after being beaten on the street by a young man who called her a “dirty Muslim.”

Statistics collected by the National Observatory Against Islamophobia, a watchdog group, show that in the last two years 80 percent of the anti-Muslim acts involving violence and assault were directed at women, most of them veiled.

“What is revolting is that such things take place in broad daylight and with the total indifference of the people around,” said Abdallah Zekri, the group’s president.

France, where Muslims make up an estimated 8 percent of the population, has long displayed discomfort with Muslim women who cover their heads, behavior that is standard in the Muslim world and is in keeping with the Quran’s teachings on modesty.

But in recent years, French leaders appear ever more focused on banning veils. They have been driven by a number of factors, including the rise of a far-right movement that openly deplores what it calls the Islamization of France and the reality that homegrown Muslim extremists have carried out two of the worst attacks within France, including the shootings at the headquarters of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January.

Mainstream politicians on the right, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, are calling for veiled women to be barred from universities. Others in Mr. Sarkozy’s party want to see women who cover their faces in public brought up on felony charges. On the left, a small party has pushed for a law stopping veiled women from working in day care centers with government contracts.

Even in President François Hollande’s Socialist government, Pascale Boistard, the junior minister for women’s rights, said in January that she was “not sure that the veil had a place at the university level.”

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, who noted the high number of attacks on veiled women as an area of particular concern in his 2014 report on France, is critical of what he called the country’s “preoccupation” with Muslim women’s attire.

“It only highlights and stigmatizes them,” he said.

Many French officials defend the anti-veil laws. The ban on full face veils is needed for security reasons, they say, noting that Belgium has a similar ban, and the Netherlands is considering one. They say the ban in schools, prompted by an incident in 1989 when three young girls were sent home from public school for refusing to remove their head scarves, is in pursuit of laïcité. (Skullcaps and large crosses and other ostentatious religious signs were banned too, they point out.)

The concept of laïcité was developed during the French Revolution, and was intended to limit the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the government.

More recently, however, experts say it has become the rallying cry of the right, which has redefined it as a weapon to defend the traditions of French life against what many see as the frightening influence of a growing Muslim population.

Yet, even as there are more and more calls for restrictions on the veil, France’s most recent law, which bars veils that cover the face, has proved problematic. Some question why it ever came into being as experts believe that only a tiny fraction of French Muslims dress that way — no more than 2,000 and perhaps as few as 500, many of them converts.

In the three years since the law took effect, only about 1,000 fines, which can go as high as 150 euros, have been issued. Several women, it seems, have enjoyed goading the police. One woman received more than 80 fines. Few paid themselves. A wealthy Algerian businessman created a fund to pay for any ticket issued.

Meanwhile, researchers say that some Frenchwomen who are committed to being fully veiled have become shut-ins, afraid to leave their homes.

“It is the worst-case scenario,” said Naima Bouteldja, who wrote two reports on the subject for the nonprofit Open Society Foundations, which supports human rights. “They are not liberated, they are imprisoned by this law.”

Many French Muslims scoff at the law, saying wealthy tourists from the Middle East wearing full face veils and carrying expensive handbags are able to stroll down the Champs-Élysées or vacation on the Côte d’Azur without ever being ticketed.

They also say that the constant debates over veil laws have confused many people about what is illegal.

In Méru, a town north of Paris, veiled mothers have not been allowed to chaperone class trips in public schools for about 18 months. Nor can they help in holiday parties for the children, many of which continue to be linked to Christian celebrations.

Ouassila Arab, 34, one mother barred from such activities, said the first veiled mother who was told she could not come on school property had been at work on the class Christmas party. The case is still making its way through the courts.

“France wanted us when they needed us,” said Ms. Arab, who grew up in Méru after her father came from Algeria to help build roads. “Now they are not so interested.”

Ms. Arab said she started covering her hair in her 20s as her faith grew. But, like many veiled women, she said it was a decision that came with a price. She has had trouble finding work and now commutes into Paris — about an hour — to work as a secretary in a Muslim-owned construction company.

Veiled woman — like anyone else wearing obvious signs of religious affiliation — are officially barred from working in the public sector because of the original laïcité laws. There is little doubt that, in practice, this restriction has broader impact on Muslim women who cover their heads.

On a recent Sunday, a group of young Muslim women who attend a monthly meeting to discuss religion and morality gathered to discuss the veil in an apartment in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris. In their private lives, they all wore the veil, though almost all of them said they felt obliged to take it off for work, some making the changeover in their cars.

Among them were women who work in finance and marketing, a pharmacist, an optician and a nutritionist. Many said that they had tried to find employment with their veils, but that employers had balked when they saw them in person.

A 33-year-old engineer from another Paris suburb said that for years she did not have the courage to cover her hair at work, but decided after 10 years in a large construction company to try.

She found it “very, very hard,” she said.

Her boss was supportive, she said, but emphasized that she needed to wear “pretty” and “colorful” veils that did not cover her neck. Some of her co-workers, however, just stopped speaking to her. And some went to her bosses saying that she should not be allowed to “represent the company.”

“I am pretty sure they just wanted me fired,” she said.

Defending his ban on veiled women at the temporary beach, Richard Trinquier, the mayor of Wissous, told a court that he was protecting France’s commitment to secularism.

According to newspaper accounts, the mayor, a member of Mr. Sarkozy’s center-right U.M.P. party, said that the increasing presence of religious symbols in public was becoming “an obstacle to living together.” Mr. Trinquier declined to be interviewed.

The judge in the Wissous case disagreed and the beach was eventually opened to Mrs. Layouni. But the event left her traumatized and split this tidy village of modest homes as friends lined up on one side or the other.

“My husband said that I lost my inner light,” said Mrs. Layouni, with a sigh. In the aftermath of the ruling, the couple, who owned a tearoom in Wissous, also saw their business fall off. They closed it this year, and moved to a neighboring town.