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A View From the Margins of the Banlieue: the social exclusion of Salafi Muslim women

2 Comments 🕔10.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

Photo credit: Annabelle Shemer


by Z. Fareen Parvez

I first arrived in Lyon to do doctoral research in 2006, not long after the urban rebellions that shook France for 19 days. The surveillance that descended upon many working-class neighborhoods in the aftermath of the rebellions partially explained the intense suspicion I met as a hopeful ethnographer in the urban periphery. Eventually, I found my way, gained acceptance in a few mosque communities, and have since returned several times for research, totaling 15 months as a participant observer. I focus here specifically on my work with Salafist women in the working-class, stigmatized banlieues of Lyon. (Salafism refers to a sectarian, reformist tendency within Islam aimed at purifying religious practice of cultural innovations and returning to the original teachings of the Prophet.)

The city of Lyon is the proud home of Guignol, the famous puppet character born in 1808 into a global tradition of puppetry shows whose origins were in political satire. Guignol, dressed in a ragged coat and hat, mocks political figures, the bourgeoisie, and the hegemonic institution of the Catholic clergy. Undercutting the legitimacy of the rich and powerful is thus embedded in the historical fabric of this typical French city. It is a satire, in short, because it targets those with power—not those among the poor and vulnerable sections of society.

For a brief interlude, I lived next to the Musée de Guignol in Lyon’s tourist quarter. My companions from a Salafist mosque community in the working-class banlieue of Vénissieux gently disapproved: “Be careful!” one of the women, Asma, warned me repeatedly; “Downtown Lyon is full of racists. There are lots of ‘skinheads’ there.” I tried to assure her, unconvincingly, that I was fine. When she came one day to meet me there, she was almost terrified as we walked up the cobblestone alleys. To my astonishment, she had never been to this tourist center of Lyon, despite having lived in the municipal region most of her life. Then again, I should not have been surprised, as I knew how estranged many of my Salafist companions were from French society and public institutions.

Asma was black and born in France to African immigrant parents, who were not as religious as she later chose to be. Like most women who identified with the French Salafist tradition, she wore the djelbab, a loose dress that covers the entire body except the hands and face. And like most of the young women I knew in this community, she faced discrimination and hostility everyday due to her faith. Asma had been training to become an educator of disabled children but had to stop because of discrimination regarding her hijab. When she worked as a babysitter, she faced constant struggles with her employer, who told her directly: “You will never be accepted here,” and often scolded her for wearing the djelbab. At one point, Asma was told she would only be offered additional hours if she stopped wearing it. Indignant, she replied, “I don’t need to work extra hours. Forget it.’”

Asma and most other women whom I knew in her community never attended university because of overt hostility and estrangement from public institutions. One exception was Amal, a young Maghrébine woman from a non-religious working-class family that initially disapproved of her turn toward Salafi practice. Amal was one of my only companions who had earned a baccalauréat. She had a mixed experience at university, saying that although she learned a good deal, she was continually discouraged from participating. She once walked into a large lecture course, and the professor scolded her in front of everyone, saying, “The headscarf is banned. You’re in France.” In response, she left the class and never returned. While the headscarf is not banned in the university setting, this sort of experience is not uncommon. In place for the past decade, the headscarf ban in public schools has alienated Salafist women from the French educational system. Today, Amal keeps busy privately tutoring Muslim girls who are homeschooled due to the headscarf ban in pubic schools.

Additionally, a ban on “the burqa” in all public spaces was put into effect three years ago, often making Salafist women targets of discrimination and harassment. One afternoon, I was taking the bus with Amal when a drunk, middle-aged man stood up from his seat and walked over to us, saying: “The other day I saw a woman covering her face,” addressing Amal, who was wearing her djelbab. “You know it’s banned. Why do you do that?” He leaned in aggressively, towards Amal’s face: “We’re in France, you know. In France! Can you just explain to me why? You’re turning yourself into an object!” Another woman who was with us felt scared and quickly moved away from him, but Amal remained where she was, seemingly accustomed to such heckling. This was but one of many episodes of public outburst that I witnessed.

Such hostility and aggression is part of everyday life for these working-class Salafi communities and has reinforced their political withdrawal. For example, my companions do not typically vote in elections, even though they often feel affected by the outcomes. Dounia, who lived in a working-class banlieue, was so disenchanted after her town’s mayoral election of a Front Nationale candidate that she considered leaving France. However, neither she nor anyone else in her community had participated in relevant activism or demonstrations, and she, personally, had never voted in a political election.

How do these women cope with such circumstances? What sorts of substitutes have they created to provide activity and meaning amidst their exclusion and marginality? I have argued that the women struggle to provide a moral community of refuge for each other, despite the surveillance that they know surrounds their mosques and neighborhoods. In their struggle to preserve the structure of their worship and embody piety, religious teachings have come to function as a substitute for secular education. Gathering a few times a week for study sessions, my companions have developed their own pedagogy, as well as learned to question the meaning and purpose of knowledge itself. They were repeatedly encouraged to question the purpose of specific knowledge and its relationship to wisdom. Worldly knowledge in the absence of faith, they emphasized, ultimately lacks wisdom.

What I observed contradicts a common claim in the literature on Islamic education, which is that the traditional Islamic pedagogical style leads to stagnation and rigidity. This is a problematic generalization. First, the existence of doubt is something that my companions explicitly discussed and did not completely discourage. Although believers must struggle to combat it, doubt, in fact, is seen as a sign of faith. After all, it was said, the “devil tempts precisely those who have faith.” Second, the internal struggle to strengthen one’s faith and “purify one’s heart” is an active process that is never considered to be finished. This renders one’s relationship to Islamic learning and education profoundly dynamic. For example, thinking about one’s actions, praying for forgiveness, or reflecting on the effects of one’s speech are all processes that require thinking, reflection, and effort. As Dale Eickelman argued, although Islamic education does center on truths enshrined in foundational texts, we cannot infer from this a lack of mental flexibility or thoughtless technical training. In sum, for my companions, their prayer and study of Islam were both stimulating and sources of deep satisfaction. This understanding of the critically engaged nature of Salafist individuals with their faith is ever more critical as their status as French citizens remains precarious.


The problem with “je suis Charlie”

Given the insularity of this community, it is troubling that Salafis, or religious Muslims in general, are viewed as undermining laïcité. Since the tragic events of January 2015, part of the fear that underlies the discourse around free speech and pride in French traditions (playing into the hands of the nationalist right) involves the notion that practicing Muslims are eager to alter public space with their prayers and veiling. The irony is that the Salafi women I know have no interest in seeing their faith thrust into the public domain. They want only to protect their private sphere and to be able to practice their faith without facing hostility. Yet publishing so-called satirical images of the Prophet indeed forces Islam into the public sphere and politicizes religious communities. This begs the question: Who exactly is politicizing Islam and why?

From the religious point of view, what is the problem with imagery of the Prophet? As Saba Mahmood writes in Is Critique Secular, the sense of moral injury caused by the cartoons comes from the violation of a particular relationship of “dependency” and intimacy with the Prophet that cannot be understood through juridical language (72). There is also a resistance to imagery more generally. The teachings that I observed during my research emphasized, above all, faith in divine unity (tawhid) and discouraged those things that could potentially undermine such faith. For example, my companions cited various cultural consumption practices, popular media, desire for money, and glorification of particular individuals (celebrity or not) as carrying the risk of encouraging believers to attribute divine qualities to people or objects. Images of any of the prophets can in principle facilitate glorification of them as individuals and possibly, the grave sin of worshiping them. This is yet another irony of this debate. The Islamic tradition of avoiding representations exists, not due to some fanatical adoration of the Prophet Muhammed, but on the contrary, to prevent extreme adulation from taking root. Because this set of beliefs is so sacred to some Muslims, including many Salafis, even the most innocuous imagery of the Prophet is nothing short of disrespectful.

For this reason, the implications of the slogan “je suis Charlie” are not as straightforward as they are made to appear. To say “je suis Charlie” is not only to denounce the killings and express one’s sympathy with the victims and their societies. It is not only to show one’s support for protected speech and the use of satire. Rather, it simultaneously has the effect of dismissing and invalidating the persistent reality of aggression, harassment, and political and economic exclusions that have been plaguing French Muslims, especially women among the unemployed working-class. Furthermore, it ignores the history of satire and perverts its logic by prodding and provoking those without social power—those who are excluded from public space and denied various dignities of citizenship.

To be sure, the teachings in the predominantly Salafist mosque I attended strongly condemned violence, and they vehemently condemned any displays of disrespect for non-Muslims. Many, including French politicians, have made it clear that the Hebdo killings were not about religion. The stories of my companions in Lyon’s urban periphery are related to the events of Charlie Hebdo only in the sense that they show us the larger context of crisis that has come to define everyday life for sectarian, working-class Muslims. For Salafist women, this is a crisis of public schooling and unemployment, and it has been exacerbated by the ban on veiling practices. But anti-veiling legislation has had a wider impact than this. It has stigmatized entire Muslim communities and, thus, perhaps inevitably angered some individuals (often not religious), peripherally observing this phenomenon while facing their own hopelessness about their futures.

Sadly, the dozens of anti-Muslim incidents following the Charlie Hebdo killings have raised the sense of isolation and hurt. Among my companions in Lyon’s periphery, however, there is a strange resilience. Many remember clearly the passage of the headscarf ban in 2004 and the debates leading to the 2010 ban on the burqa. They felt under siege during those periods, but they survived and retreated into their communities and faith. Surely, this will happen again. Two weeks after the events last January, I received a message from one Salafi companion, “we’re hanging on [on s’accroche].”


Z. Fareen Parvez is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. She has done comparative ethnographic research on the politics of Islamic revival in France and India. Her book manuscript, Politicizing Islam, will be published by Oxford University Press.


This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.


  1. 🕔 15:44, 15.Aug 2015

    Born Democrat

    This is a scholarly written article about a very sensitive issue facing many working class Muslim women all across Europe and United States of America–though to a lessor extant. The author has real time knowledge and experience conducting researh in France and in India. The article has good take home message for those who observe socio-cultural practices and their impact on societies with open minds and eyes.

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  2. 🕔 6:27, 28.Sep 2015


    I have worked in the French “banlieue” of Seine-Saint-Denis for nearly 25 years, where I have observed the growth of the Salafist-version of Islam. I teach in a French university and teach to many veiled students, many of whom wear the djelbab. My university may be particular in that my experience shows that veiled students can and do find their place and they have good and even very good relations with their professors. From my point of view, this article does not take into account recent French history or legislation and it underestimates the trauma felt by the French in general after the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper-cacher. Be it in France or the US, fear of Islam is on the rise and there is definite prejudice expressed by the non-Muslim population towards Muslims. Yet, to write on France, I believe the author should have taken more deeply into account the particularities of the French situation and French democracy.

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