Nora: 'my hijab is my freedom'

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The French government's move this year to ban the wearing of the burqa or niqhab in public led to passionate debate about multi-culturalism and national identity. Mediapart talked to Muslim men and women of different ages, backgrounds and occupations to learn their views of the issues and what it is to live with their faith in France. In this second report we talk to Nora, born to Algerian immigrant parents. she says she was once a "totally anti-Islam" teenager. Now 30, Nora considers herself' "reconverted" and has worn the hijab for the last four years. She believes that is why she was failed in exams to become a teacher. But she says it's for her to define what is her personal freedom, not society. This her story.
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There will be no photo. Nora is categorical about that. "Haven'’t you understood? I don’t want people to focus on the veil," she chides. "Listen to what I say. Here's what I'll tell your readers: don't judge me by the way I dress."

Nora is 30 years-old and wears a hijab, a traditional headscarf that covers the hair1. "Under my headscarf, I have skills, but no one is interested in them. Yet I'm outgoing, I put on a smile, I make conversation. I'm not an alien from outer space! I go to the loo just like everyone else.”"

Nora says she was 'reconverted' to Islam. As a teenager, she didn't pray, she "back-talked", "hurt people" and "kept secrets". Rather than following Islam, "her parents, immigrants from Algeria, lived "in a backward traditional fashion," she says. As a teen, in La Courneuve, she associated with "a pseudo-feminist group" where she was told to "Get out of the house" and "Don't follow Ramadan"”.

"I was taught to renounce religion", she says. "We were told that Muslim women were locked up, beaten, raped. We were brain-washed. I was totally anti-Islam," she says. Her parents didn't care. They trusted the group's chair, an Algerian woman "who claimed to be Muslim".

At 16, Nora had a group of friends and her parents were fairly permissive. But she started having doubts when her uncle was a victim of the GIA2 in Algeria. "Why do people kill in the name of Islam?" she wondered. At the same time she witnessed traditions that kept women shut up inside the home. She asked her mother "Where does it say that a woman can't speak to a man? Where is that in the [sacred] texts?" Her mother didn't have the answer.

At the Assas Law School (University of Paris II) she found herself in a minority. "There were four Muslims in the amphitheatre. It was the first time I was confronted with my roots," she says. She met a young Muslim woman who "spoke lovingly of religion". She advised Nora to "find out about Islam, it's not what you think. Those who killed your uncle have corrupted the religion."

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1: The French use veil and headscarf interchangeably but most often they mean headscarf or hijab. The authorities estimate that 2,000 women in France are actually veiled.

2: Armed Islamic Group (GIA), established in Algeria in 1992 to support the FIS (Islamic Front for Salvation): after the FIS had won the first round of legislative elections in December 1991, the Algerian army stepped in to prevent it winning the second ballot. The FIS was dissolved in January 1992 and the GIA was created. Ten years of bloody civil unrest ensued.

 

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This one of ten interview-portraits of Muslims living in La Corneuve, a Paris suburb characterised by high-rise housing estates where half the population is estimated to be Muslim. We spoke to men and women of different ages and backgrounds about their experiences of living with their faith in France today. Once a thriving industrial area, La Corneuve was badly affected as of the 1970s by the displacement of industrial plants situated around the capital. The suburb's public housing schemes, such as the massive cité des Quatre Mille estate, built in 1956, became notorious examples in France of urban decline. The interviews were conducted in May, 2010.