Maryam Pougetoux,19, leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, found herself at the center of a controversy covered today in The New York Times. The issue? Wearing a head scarf in a television interview.
In an article in the Guardian, journalist Rokhaya Diallo describes Pougetoux as “the latest victim of France’s obsession with the hijab. It all started on 12 May when the political scientist Laurent Bouvet, known for his activism and sometimes referred to as a ‘gladiator of secularism,’ published on his Facebook page an image taken from a televised interview with the elected president of the Sorbonne branch of the national student union (Unef), Maryam Pougetoux. The interview was about student protests against government reforms, but Bouvet’s attention was caught not by Pougetoux’s comments but by the hijab that surrounds her face.
“The reaction on social media was immediate. On Facebook, the prominent socialist Julien Dray said: ‘As a founding member of Unef … the union leadership that approves this young woman as a leader defiles all the struggles we led in the universities.’”
Her head scarf elicited comments from French interior minister Gérard Collomb who called her appearance “shocking.” Marlène Schiappa, the minister of gender equality, said she exhibited a “manifestation of political Islam.” The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo put her on its cover.
“Ms. Pougetoux herself was baffled by the outburst,” writes The Times’ Aida Alami, “saying she had to research ‘political Islam’ online to understand the accusation. She also was not particularly outraged by the caricature of her on the profanity-laced cover of Charlie Hebdo, which many said made her look like a monkey.
“‘I first laughed. Charlie Hebdo mocks everyone, I didn’t take it personally,’ she said in a recent interview. What she liked, she says, is that, ‘they were the only ones who actually emphasized my message.’
“Still, she realized not everyone shared her sense of humor. ‘I was extremely hurt when I realized that it caused a lot of pain for my family and friends,’ she said.”
“… ‘laïcité’ … emerged during the revolution as a way to keep the Roman Catholic Church out of the affairs of state. But in recent years, critics say, some groups have used it to suppress the growing influence of Islam in France.”
“Ms. Pougetoux, who hopes one day to work for international nonprofit groups, said she believed that many politicians and intellectuals in France were set in archaic ways of thinking that do not reflect the more tolerant viewpoints of French citizens or, especially, her college peers.
“‘People think that we can never wear a head scarf by choice,’ Ms. Pougetoux said. ‘I wore it by religious conviction. It does not prevent me from having a normal life, and from having progressive values and dedicating my life to my political engagement.’”
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