In recent weeks, the new French minister for Families, Childhood and Women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol made headlines as she expressed surprise and anger at Islamic fast fashion hitting the Western high street which, she feared, might turn French Muslims into raging fundamentalists. Her outburst sparked  off an angry debate in the French media where seasoned feminists, such as philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, joined her in protest, urging French consumers to boycott shops selling such dangerous gear. On Monday, Prime Minister Emmanuel Valls equally chirped in to blame all fundamentalist evil in France on the increasingly nebulous concept of Le Voile which simultaneously means headscarf, burqa (known as niqab in France) and bescarfed fashions of the kind presently on sale in Britain and other parts of the world-but not in France, something which the outraged minister had forgot to check out.

Ever since the passing of the ban on any display of religious signs in 2004 – be it the headscarf, turban, crucifix or yarmulka, French state secularism regularly gets thrashed. The legislation is grounded on the 1905 separation of Church and State which originally served to curtail the encroachment of the Catholic church and promote religious freedom. Yet these laws have been increasingly considered as a form of oppression designed to exclude religious expression, and even considered by some islamophobic, especially in cases where clothing appears to fuel discrimination. The wearing of recognizably Muslim  clothing is indeed forbidden in public schools, universities, institutions and any female sporting such scarves is theoretically turned away and the same applies to women working with children in nurseries or leisure centres. The same law applies to orthodox Jews, Sikhs, nuns, Buddhist monks  et al. except they are far rarer and are not usually found ion such employment.

Full face covering was subjected to a further ban in 2010, which also included balaclavas, hoodies and helmets, yet the more covering version of the veil and burqa is by now systematically associated with terrorism. The wearers are reckoned to be about 2 000 out of the estimated five-million strong Muslims in France. Nevertheless, they continue to obsess one part the traditional French socialist establishment, including the present government and their certified intellectuals who presently conflate religion with terrorism and confuse fashion with fundamentalism without any second thoughts about supporting the most repressive governments Islamic governments on the planet or effectively tackling the rise of radical Islam within the country.

It has to be said that the ban seems to have encouraged young converts to wear the niqab as a form of political protest. Another fallout effect has been the endorsement of the headscarf and even the niqab by purportedly far left groups (NPA, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Indigènes de la République) in the name of a rather blurred struggle against islamophobia (and the socialist government in general) which however does not take gendered power relations into account.

A vocal supporter of orthodox Islam is highly popular Tariq Ramadan, slick and savvy grandson of the Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Swiss citizen presently applying for French nationality in the midst of a major crisis where stateless Syrian refugees are increasingly being refused any possibility of staying on European soil. Ramadan will presumably be given a French passport as he enjoys the support of one part of the French intelligenzia, often self-styled specialists on Islam who pontificate in French universities, light-years away from the realities of women’s daily lives under extreme Fundamentalist regimes. These pundits in turn enrage the human rights sectors of the French government, of which Madame Rossignol is a prominent representative. This is how the figure of the bescarfed Muslim woman has turned into an ambiguous icon, representative of clashing but confused political issues. The recent terror attacks as well as the rising amount of home-grown jihadism would deserve deeper reflection that go beyond chanting slogans or blaming high street fashions for all the ills that have befallen the country.

The latest controversy about fashion brings this out more clearly than ever. For a start, it is obvious that neither Madame Rossignol nor her supporters have never wandered out to working class street markets in Paris and nearby suburbs where headscarves and assorted religious paraphernalia are sold on a daily basis to the devout members of the immigrant population. These being poor, more often than not unemployed, tend to remain more or less invisible as they do not stray into Left Bank cafés where seasoned intellectuals expound their contradictory notions of democracy.

Furthermore, until the Minister’s outburst, most of the French population were not aware of the trend known as ‘Modest fashion’ which has been around in the US and Great Britain for many years, the euphemism catering to Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and fundamentalist Christians alike. The sole French exception is the very narrow market-share designed for the most pious which has barely been recognized or commented upon by fashion experts in France. Calling themselves ‘Mode Pudique’ a literal translation of modest/demure fashion, abayas, burqas, jilbebs, including a range for six year-old girls have been on sale in specialized fairs such as the yearly one held by the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the UOIF, just outside Paris. This is where women clad head to toe in black veils parade as if they were in Saudi Arabia or Daesh-controlled Syria and Iraq. Despite supposedly reaching out to the French Muslim community, such events generally gather the most militant but provide a platform for frequently extremist rhetoric, undisturbed by the authorities, least of all the Minister for Women’s Rights who presumably is barely aware of such gatherings, where Tariq Ramadan is a regular speaker. However the government has allowed Qatar to sponsor not just the national football team (PSG) but also the building of prominent Salafist mosques across the country.

Doubtless, the true debate is elsewhere: fashion is holy in France, Paris having been consecrated for all time as its world capital- or so the establishment thinks. No wonder Pierre Bergé, the country’s greatest fashion entrepreneur and 40 year partner of Yves Saint Laurent made a point of expressing his enraged concern. Yet the potentially fundamentalist would be the last to turn to the ultra-fashionable brands which have so enflamed the establishment’s ire.

In European countries where unlike France, the headscarf is accepted in public space, a new fashion segment has been flourishing, aimed at a well-heeled openly Muslim middle-class, with the same hierarchy that stretches from an marginal avant-garde to the most expensive high fashion, even reaching out to hallowed Haute Couture. According to Alice Pfeiffer, Paris fashion specialist and journalist at Le Monde: The high-end sector of fashion has been courting its richest clients and that obviously includes those in the Gulf States, amongst the few who can actually afford haute couture-which needs its financial support in order to survive. Pierre Bergé may have thundered against his colleagues enjoining them to Renounce the cash and have some principles,the hijabs and abayas of the kind recently launched by Dolce and Gabbana[6] make up only a tiny fraction of an industry that is growing exponentially outside the Arab world.

In other parts of Europe excluding France, mainly in Britain, Scandinavia and the Balkans, as well as the US, the young generation of practising Muslim women have been improvising their looks through astute shopping. Since 2015, this bricolage has been deemed insufficient for the upwardly mobile middle-class who are now insisting on clothing which fits their religious life-styles and aspirations. Needless to the say, fashion has latched on to this new market with predictable eagerness. International bloggers/vloggers on Instagram provide the main inspiration as trend-setters and one of the most influential, Hana Tajima, was actually chosen by Uniqlo to design two collections. A number of these hijabistas stress that they are converts to Islam, such as Tajima herself and Nadira Abdul Quddus who advises her fans on how to make their own clothes. This is an important point and may be linked to the fact that many are TCKs (Third Culture Kids), coming from hybrid cultures seeking an identity they can call their own, something which Tajima herself has explained at length, being of Japanese and British parentage.

Others make the point that they have chosen to veil and this step inevitably becomes part of their personal foundation myth. This is the case for Mariah Idrissi in London, the first model to explicitly wear hijab for an advertising campaign, thereby infuriating Madame la Ministre in Paris. Purportedly modest clothing for these highly sophisticated, carefully curated young women appears to be the ultimate form of ostentation and quite the opposite of subordination. How religion buttresses and justifies these hip hijabistas’ personal style is open to debate – but at any rate such efforts can hardly curry favour amongst Fundamentalists totally opposed to any such display of sinful vanity and above all, independence. Here such discussions between fashion and respectability are totally non-negotiable and are reduced to the ubiquitous opaque black head to toe shrouding. What goes on underneath is naturally another matter. Even Iranian fashionistas in Tehran have been able to play around with sartorial restrictions in a remarkably inventive ways that would be unthinkable in Jeddah or Rakkah for that matter.

Multicultural Britain has been at the forefront of these trends, in keeping with a hallowed tradition which has allowed London to be at the centre of inventive creativity since the Sixties. The growth of Islamic fashions have been facilitated by their sheer everyday visibility on the street and in the shops. The Equality Act of 2010 applied henceforth to minority religious groups has meant that sales staff may wear headscarves. As sociologist Reina Lewis has shown, this has been a boon for the retail trade, especially in youth-orientated outlets, as these young women have shown themselves to be perfect representatives of the brands on sale, ideally combining faith with fashion. They act as mediators between traditional cultures (the parents’ generation) and their contemporaries, helping them to build up their identity through guided consumerism.

The British avant-garde scene these days is carefully scrutinized for its commercial potential, inciting even the most conservative investors to scour art schools and marginal cyberspace. This is how Hana Tajima found herself recruited by Uniqlo, one of the most powerful and influential Japanese brands around, with shops in just about every major capital. The first collection was premiered in Asia but the spring collection is now sold in in the US and Britain. Following the lead from hijabista vloggers, Uniqlo has also produced online tutorials on how to wear hijab fashionably

The French Minister for Women’s rights and her cohort of her self-righteous followers seem to think that this is part of a plot to endorse and indeed encourage Fundamentalism. As a marketing strategy, this hardly make sense as it is unlikely that Uniqlo plans to conquer the hopelessly impoverished Iraqi and Syrian market any time soon. So obviously this is about encouraging potential consumers who actually have the option to buy such garments. This is not the case for France where Uniqlo does not intend to put this collection on sale, something which neither Ms Rossignol nor M. Bergé seem to have factored in. France may have the largest Muslim population in Europe, but this is not taken into account by major brands, whether they invest in Islamic apparel or not.

According to Alice Pfeiffer « The point is that these brands, of which none is French, continue to fantasize about Paris, it’s all about the icon of the Parisienne like Ines de la Fressange, totally unrelated to immigration. At the heart of the myths governing the fashion world, there is a rift between the ultra-rich Gulf State Arabs and the French hailing from North Africa. On one side luxury, on the other the dreaded banlieue, the loathsome, dangerous suburb.

Actress Leila Bekhti or ministerial high achievers such as Rachida Dati or Myriam El Khomri have all displayed perfect integration into the dominant paradigm of state secularism. Despite (presumably) being Muslim, their life style, career and clothing are the ideal product of French ‘laicité, something which also applies to the Jewish new Minister of Culture, Audrey Azoulay, born in Morocco, like Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the present Minister of Education. Achieving success in France for all migrants means openly accepting the mantra of secularism and going through the hurdles and rites of passage associated with its institutions. It is inconceivable that any of these ladies would consider wearing a headscarf in public, but it is just as improbable that they would subscribe to Pierre Bergé’s view stated in the interview quoted above: women need to be taught how to remove clothing, as if nakedness (as opposed to covering up) signified female liberation in the 21 st century. Monsieur Bergé appears to be stuck in the ’60s and ’70s groove of his protégé’s heyday… It is likely that a measure of religion will need to be skilfully  factored into French public life without threatening its basic human rights principles.

It is hard to evaluate what this controversy is really about. Whereas Madame Rossignol is blaming fashion designers for enacting political and religious fundamentalist strategies, France continues to bolster and finance countries that have the worst human rights records on the planet: selling weapons and military aircraft to Egypt or the Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia which publicly beheads or lapidates those convicted of extramarital sex in any form (rape victims included) homosexuality or simply being an atheist. And supporting Erdogan in Turkey as he slaughters the Kurdish minority and jails all opponents as well as cashing in on the monstrous refugee situation.

On March 6 this year, President François Hollande awarded France’s highest decoration to Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Naif: in order to celebrate, did his lady wife go on a shopping spree on avenue Montagne, Paris’s Haute Couture sanctum, guided by her cousin, the supreme Saudi fashionista Princess Deena Abdulaziz? Nothing of the kind has been revealed so far. These revelries took place in the Elysée palace on the same day President Hollande held talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding the fate of Syrian refugees. It is not known whether the pious Crown Prince chose to financially alleviate the plight his fellow Muslims starving at the doors of Europe. Au contraire, it seems more likely that his ladies were generously salvaging Haute Couture’s shaky finances. Yet none of this created any uproar in the media or amongst those so virulent about the latest trend in high street fashion, which unlike the Rafale and Mirage produced by French military industry, is fated to be just what it is, just a trend which will melt into the urban landscape like the once-outrageous miniskirt and denims of yesteryear. However, it is likely that a measure of religion will need to be skilfully  factored into French public life without threatening its basic human rights principles. After all, French public TV broadcasts Catholic mass every Sunday


Carol Mann is a Paris-based historian and sociologist, specialized in Gender and Armed Conflict. A research associate of L.E.G.S. at the University of Paris 8, she directs ‘Women in War (www.womeninwar.org)