PARIS -- The day after the terror attack at Charlie Hebdo, 18-year-old Maroi -- who asked to be identified by only her first name -- arrived at her public school in the 14th arrondissement to find a wall covered with huge copies of the magazine’s cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. A Muslim, she was offended but kept quiet, because now to be considered French, she said, you have to “be Charlie.” This has left Maroi and many other young French Muslims feeling like there's no place for them in France and imagining a future where Muslims create their own separate space within the steadfastly secular nation.
“The Jewish community found its place [here] because it created private structures for itself. There are a lot of Jewish schools and Jewish enterprises,” Maroi said. She did not want her last name published, like many other young Muslims, for fear of further discrimination at work and school. “We need to do the same thing. If the public doesn’t want us, we have to create our own structures.”
After the attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices and at the Hyper Cacher kosher market that left 15 civilians and 2 police officers dead, President Barack Obama urged France to better “assimilate” French Muslims into the community. A 2012 poll showed that 68 percent of people in France blame a lack of integration on the “refusal” of immigrants to integrate into French society. That integration includes conforming to what is called here "Laïcité," which translates roughly to “secularism,” the fundamental tenet that the French state and all of its institutions must be entirely free of any references to religion.
It’s an ironclad separation of church and state, and while it leaves religious belief entirely free in the private sphere, it legislates it out of the public space.
It also means that many young Muslims are being forced to choose between their religion and succeeding at work and school. Even some who don’t live in the banlieues, the immigrant (and largely Arab and Muslim) exurban ghettos, are contemplating moving there, finding it too difficult to go to school and work in the French secular system. That may only increase France’s high youth unemployment and school dropout rate.
“I feel like I have to take off who I am. So I have to come to school empty?” said Maroi. “When I wear my veil, I just feel so good."
Maroi is used to not wearing her veil at school, since France passed a law in 2004 banning religious symbols from public schools. According to an Open Society Foundation study, a year later 20 out of 36 women polled started wearing a niqab, a veil that covers the entire face except the eyes. In 2011, the niqab was outlawed in public spaces.
Maroi changed schools last year because Lycée Emile Dubois, in the 14th arrodissement, offered a program that interested her. She said she felt pressured because of her religion as soon as she brought in her application. Thinking it wouldn’t be a problem since she was not yet a student, she wore her veil when she went to apply. She was told to remove it, and she did, but the principal then objected to her long skirt because of its length and color, black.
“I told him: I don’t understand your charter, I’ve always worn my skirt to school,” Maroi said she told the principal during a meeting at which her father was present. “Then he takes out his passport and says, ‘I’ve been to Afghanistan. I’ve been to Qatar. When my wife goes there, she has to wear a [head]scarf. So when you’re in the Republic of France, you respect the law.”
Maroi was born in France, and she has dual citizenship with Tunisia.
It's not this strict in every school, Maroi said. Her friends who go to schools in the Parisian banlieues are allowed to wear long skirts.
“If I have kids, there’s no way I will send them to public schools after what I endured there,” Maroi said. “I want them to dress the way they want.”
For young Muslims who do manage to graduate, that pressure doesn’t lighten when they enter the workforce. Last year, France’s youth unemployment rate was 26 percent, with higher percentages in the banlieues. In one especially poor banlieue, Sevran, north of Paris, the overall unemployment rate is 18 percent, but it's more than double that -- 40 percent -- among the young.
“Muslims, and especially Muslim women, can be discriminated against in access to employment and at work simply because they wear specific forms of dress,” according to a 2012 Amnesty International report. However, discrimination now transcends forms of dress in certain areas of Paris.
“To find a job, you need to open up a business yourself. To get in with them, you need to act like them. I don’t want to do that,” said Sabrina, 28, who also did not want her last name published. A high school graduate, she has been looking for work for several years.
Sabrina’s brother works at a construction site that sells materials to workers. Whenever he gets to work with his beard “too long,” his boss sends him home to shave. Fed up with being constantly chastised for his facial hair, her brother is thinking about quitting his job. The beard, like the skirt, has become an unofficial religious symbol in France.
“If you walk on the street and you see a beard, they’ll immediately think Islam,” Maroi said. “If you have a Muslim name, you can get immediately overlooked. Even if you’re more qualified.”
Both Maroi and Sabrina asked this reporter if life was as difficult for Muslims their age in cities in the U.K or the US. Maroi said her sister heard from a friend that things are easier in the U.K. They both agree that New York would be more accommodating to their religious lifestyle, and Maroi said she might even like to move to London.
“I just want to be able to do what I like, while being who I am,” Sabrina said. She wanted to work with children, but realized she could never do so in France while wearing her veil. She hopes she’ll have better luck working with the elderly.
“They should accept us how we are,” Sabrina said. “Just because we have a little something on our heads, doesn’t mean we’re bad people. We don’t do anything wrong, we just want to work. We just want to study.”