PARIS -- Waiting by the Metro in the 20th arrondissement, an immigrant-heavy area, Nora Boukhari blends in easily, with her black veil and dark djellaba. Younger women greet her as they pass by with a respectful "assalam alaikum," Arabic for peace be with you. She is, in fact, a police officer herself. But she is not a typical Parisian cop. She is Muslim, and she said she feared for her safety in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks -- maybe even from her own employer. The 39-year-old mother of four has been suspended from her job for refusing to take part in a minute of silence for the attacks, and accused by local media of having been “radicalized."
It's a label she refuses, and one that highlights a risk in French society -- the possibility of increasing clashes between a growing Muslim population and a traditional ban on religion in the government sphere.
In France, government employees must abide by the republic’s strict adherence to secularism, which "implies a prohibition on them wearing any form of religious and cultural symbols and dress,” according to a 2012 report titled "Choice and Prejudice: Discrimination Against Muslims in Europe" from Amnesty International. This means the veil, or hijab, prayer and any other religious activity or symbol are banned for public servants, not just Muslims. But, Boukhari said, the enforcement of secularism turned in her case into what she called “religious harassment.”
Boukhari said she was suspended Jan. 14 for refusing to observe a moment of silence six days earlier, mandatory for all civil servants in Paris, for Charlie Hebdo and the 17 victims of the twin attacks of Jan. 7 and 9. Boukhari, like many other Muslims in Paris, did not condone the attacks, but also did not condone the French satirical magazine’s mocking the Prophet Muhammad. So she did not comply.
“They were not punished for insulting my religion. I will pray for the victims at home but I will not hold a moment a silence for Charlie, and I never will,” she said. "They insulted my religion. I cannot.”
Prayers of any kind are banned in the workplace in France. Practicing Muslims must skip some of the five required daily prayers if they happen to fall during a work shift. The minute of silence for the terror victims violated that rule, Boukhari said. “What’s a minute of silence? A contemplation. What’s a contemplation? A prayer," she said.
An article in Le Journal de Paris claiming, without naming names, a police officer had been suspended for refusing to observe the moment of silence also said the officer already had a number of infractions against her, and she was “known to have been radicalized.” Boukhari said the article was about her but was inaccurate.
“If you’re not Charlie, then you’re a terrorist,” she said of the accusation that she was a Muslim radical. “If you don’t fit in their square, then you’re a terrorist."
When contacted by International Business Times, the Paris police press office would not confirm or deny Boukhari had ever been an employee but wanted to know if someone who worked there had given an interview to this reporter.
Boukhari said she had been working in different positions as a Paris police officer since 2002. IBTimes saw copies of her professional evaluations, which were positive until 2005.
In the decade since, she said she felt like she was the “girl with a bomb,” was told to go back to her country, treated like she was a “terrorist” and addressed in an accent used to mock Arabic-accented French. Boukhari is of Algerian descent, but she was born in France -- and though she is learning it, she does not speak Arabic.
Two days prior to her suspension, Boukhari met with IBTimes in a tea and hookah lounge in the 18th arrondissement. She chose the restaurant, in lieu of a more commonplace meeting in a cafe because she felt comfortable telling her story in a place where she wouldn’t be judged for wearing her veil, as was likely in a heavily trafficked cafe.
Trouble at work began in 2004, she said, when she began getting summoned to dozens of meetings with supervisors, accused of doing things like praying in the dressing rooms at work and wearing her veil into the building, or under her uniform cap. She did admit to wearing her veil to work at least twice.
In 2008, when Boukhari was pregnant with her son, she got a doctor’s note to permit her to dress in “civil” attire when inside at work. Her boss refused, saying she had to get a note from the police doctor. Even after doing that, she was chastised and brought before a committee when she came in her everyday attire, a djellaba, the long robe often worn by both sexes in North Africa. She said she did not wear a veil.
“She [her boss] looked at me and said, ‘Mrs. Boukhari, you should dress like me. When I go to your country, I have to dress like you.’ Her arms were showing,” Boukhari said. “I felt like they were in my closet with me every morning. I dress like this every day, why would I wear a little T-shirt to work?”
Boukhari had been suspended once before in 2009 when she defied the ban on religious symbols and went to work in a hijab. The next day, she returned to work and asked for documentation of the suspension. After waiting two days for a meeting, she said six employees locked her in the office and physically removed her from the building. One of them filmed the event, hoping to “discredit her,” she said.
“Six police officers grabbed me by the legs. They took me like in a sandwich,” she said. “They brutalized me. Through the doors I could see my colleagues. Some of them were crying. I was so humiliated.”
IBTimes has seen the medical records of her admission to a Paris hospital Dec. 23, 2009, for an injury to the knee and traumatization.
“After that day I’ve always had a fear. There has been a lot of sadness. Even in my family relations, it was very hard," she said. "I felt excluded from my kids, from my husband. I felt I wasn’t of use to anyone anymore, and that I was always to blame.”
After hiring a lawyer and bringing her employer to court, she was able to resume work. She has also filed a formal complaint with the High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality. The authority responded to her complaint, saying the organization would look into the matter, but dropped it once Boukhari was reinstated.
But now, more than five years later, she is facing the same situation.
Her current suspension hinged not only on the minute of silence, where she did disobey employee protocol, but also, she said, on her participation in a pro-Palestine rally last summer. Only 11 people attended the rally, she said, adding as a police officer, she knew that she was not allowed to go. Police arrested five demonstrators, including her, and detained them for 48 hours.
The women from the group of protesters who were detained were sent to a Center For Administrative Detention where Paris police hold people without immigration status. At the detention center, the women were forced to remove their veils, Boukhari said, in front of nuns who were veiled and who worked, she said, for the agency, a division of the Paris police.
Boukhari said she is now in contact with another police officer, whom she only identified as Nouria, who is experiencing the same "injustice.”
“I will continue down my path, even if it hurts,” she said. “I proved my skills. I proved myself professionally.”