France’s New Minister of Women’s Rights Misses the Mark

When newly-elected French President François Hollande appointed Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 34, to the high-profile positions of minister for women’s rights and spokesperson for the government, Muslims in the nation were optimistic.

So optimistic that some polls estimate an astounding 93 percent of French Muslims helped boost Hollande into office. In a new era of socialist administration dedicated to fundamentally egalitarian principles, Vallaud-Belkacem, a Muslim woman with a Moroccan background, seemed the ideal mouthpiece for a nearly five million person community–many of whom are dedicated to overturning what they see as an oppressive “burqa ban.”

Just last year, former president Nicolas Sarkozy instituted the ban on the public wearing of the niqab, an Islamic face veil, arguing that it’s a symbol of women’s oppression, a contradiction of the secular country’s vision of equality and a potential liability to the safety of French citizens. Police estimate that only a handful of Muslim women actually wear the veil–an estimated 2,000 individuals. During the presidential election, Sarkozy used the ban as the centerpiece of a campaign seemingly targeted toward exacerbating stigmas against French Muslims. Notorious for his anti-immigration policies, he openly praised the Christian heritage of France and frequently touted his anti-niqab policy as a crucial success of his term in order to garner votes from conservative, far-right National Front supporters.

But Vallaud-Belkacem, instead of targeting the ban–which has been vilified by human rights groups and French Muslim women alike as a stigmatizing measure against the country’s second largest religion as well as an affront to freedom of self-expression and religion–announced that her first goal in office was to “see prostitution disappear” in Paris.

Appointed on the tail of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn disaster, which sparked unprecedented discussion in France about sexism and assault, her crusade against sex work is unsurprising, though French prostitution is a “relatively well-contained” industry. Vallaud-Belkacem’s proposed measure aims to criminalize individuals seeking sex services–something that prostitution activists, including the STRASS prostitutes’ trade union, argue will only drive sex work further underground and put the lives of women at risk.

For a cabinet defined by its supposed dedication to social equality and fairness, ignoring the niqab ban–which the significant Socialist majority in parliament could easily do away with–challenges the most basic principles of the party. Is it truly the government’s role to legislate the “ideals … of a woman’s dignity,” as Sarkozy put it?

Fiercely critical of the former president, the Socialist party went as far as to abstain from voting on the 2010 veil ban, though many agreed that it was a means of lawful discrimination against Muslims.

Salima Kader, who continues to wear a full veil, is a 38-year-old living in the Paris suburb of Evry. She described the effect of the ban to The Guardian, saying,

Since the ban came in [Muslim women] have experienced unpleasant attention from the police, but it is the hatred which comes from other people that makes it worse. They think the ban is official authorization to insult, spit at and even physically assault. The ban has become a symbol of hate against all Muslim communities.

At its core, the niqab ban is a means of controlling women’s bodies and freedom of choice. Whether such overreaching regulations are posed under the guise of patriarchally driven religious tradition or government fearmongering, the effect is equally restrictive. Vallaud-Belkacem should be working to protect the equal liberties of all women under her charge; even if she does not push to overturn Sarkozy’s ban, she could offer smaller gestures–such as creating women’s-only swimming hours at public pools or lifting restrictions on building mosques–to a population that was reviled during election season and continues to face discrimination.

Photo of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem from Wikimedia Commons. 


  1. anncy göranson says:

    In Sweden o buy sex is a crime. (not to sell). It´s been rather successful in changes of attitude and more buyers think twice. The “underground” prostitution doesn´t seem to be increasing. It´s also harder to get away with human trafficking than in most countries. It´s similar with the criminilisation of beating cildren. Attitudes change. And most people that see or hear the abuse, even if it´s “just” a slap on the cheek, react strongly. So the law came first and the change in attitudes followed.
    In the beginning anti feminist sniggered and said that these laws made Sweden the laughing stock in other countries. Instead many countries have followed. Even in Tunisia (!) there´s now a law against child abuse. It may take a while but beating children will eventually became stigmatized. Attitudes can change. Fortunatly!
    Anncy in Malmö

  2. I’m not sure what the niqab ban has to do with implementing the Nordic model in France? Why must we choose to address one or the other? I applaud the minister for working to address exploitation, violence against women, and the human rights of women. Setting up these issues as though she somehow chose one over the other strikes me as unproductive and intellectually dishonest. The Nordic model is the most progressive option we have currently in terms of addressing prostitution. We should be supporting the minister for taking a stand, not tearing her down.

  3. This article misses the mark!

  4. “At its core, the niqab ban is a means of controlling women’s bodies and freedom of choice. Whether such overreaching regulations are posed under the guise of patriarchally driven religious tradition or government fearmongering, the effect is equally restrictive. Vallaud-Belkacem should be working to protect the equal liberties of all women under her charge”

    This is exactly what the point is. Many believe that the veil is oppressive – in fact, I believe this myself – but more important than telling women what they can and cannot do is allowing them the freedom to choose. France has tended further and further toward a nanny-state in recent times as far as religion is concerned. Rather than trying to “protect” women from their own choices, maybe we should allow them to decide for themselves.

    • I agree that we should allow women to decide for themselves, but that means we all have a responsibility to show people the consequences of their choices.

      Some choices further the status quo and make it difficult to women to have a brighter future. Choices that challenge the status quo are more difficult but ultimately, they make it easier for women to achieve their potential.

  5. Vallaud-Belkacem is brave for taking on this fight and standing in solidarity with women who are at the frontline with patriarchy.
    Very disappointing to see a feminist magazine like Ms. so unreflectively parrot the pro-status-quo, pro-men, capitalist line that prostitution is simply a matter of women’s choice (and not an issue of freedom from violence and inequality, or women’s rights, or structural violence, etc.).

  6. Gina Bisaillon says:

    The niqab should be banned everywhere in the world, including Muslim countries. Period. It is an insult and an obstacle for the equality for women.

    • Gina, I agree that the niqab is an insult and obstacle to the equality of women and I cringe when some feminists say it’s a woman’s “choice.” However, I think it’s way over-the-top to make it illegal.

  7. Gina Bisaillon says:

    Ariel, when you’re brainwashed from birth, what CHOICE do you have? None!

  8. How is she missing the mark, Ms Magazine?

Leave a Reply to Meghan Cancel reply


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!