France is a secular country. Religion is not forbidden but it is meant to be a personal matter and not “displayed” in public. There is no state religion and they even have laws which prohibit religious dress or symbols to be worn in public schools and certain offices.
Since Islam is a way of life that is practiced all throughout the day, every day, it is kinda hard to hide in public, so many Muslim families struggle, torn between the laws of the land and the laws of God.
Islam in France
In the cities I have travelled to since becoming a Muslim, I have seen that many Muslims (of course not all of them) have given in to the French way of life and while they are still Muslims at heart, many have abandoned regular prayers, ladies do not wear the hijab (Islamic head covering) and among the young generation there is confusion, a problem of identity: yes they are Muslims because their parents are Muslims, but they have never been taught what it meant, never really been given any Islamic education… all they have is a Muslim name in a country that doesn’t understand Islam.
Expat and Muslim in France
A little about me first to understand where I come from (geographically and islamically). I am a French revert Muslim, which means that I accepted Islam later in life, I wasn’t brought up a Muslim and no one in my family is Muslim.
I am from France and I became Muslim in 2005 in England so when I traveled “back home” to France after that, it was a totally new experience, a bit like being an expat in my own country.
I have visited my family a few times now since I became Muslim and mainly stayed in central France (small rural towns) and even spent a week by the sea in the south of France once. I was a little bit stressed the first time I went back, but I had made the decision to hold onto my religion no matter what.
I went there with my long black abaya (long dress covering the whole body) and my hijab, no niqab (full face covering). I was expecting some hard looks, nasty comments and I was a bit worried for my family: small town talk can be deadly!!!
Yet I was very surprised (so were all those people who had seen me grow up) to realize that most people either played the indifference card: “nothing to talk about here”, were truly tolerant if only a little confused, or totally accepted my somewhat unusual choice: “well if you’re happy this way”. Others seemed interested in this oddity among them and used the opportunity to ask questions: “do you have to wear black all the time? Aren’t you hot in there?”
I did get a few stares and double takes, but nothing bad. It was actually quite funny. The hardest part was to avoid hurting people’s feeling when I refused to exchange kisses on the cheek or shake men’s hand. (French are world famous for kissing everyone all the time to say Hi).
I came up with a few tricks, like always having loads of things to carry to avoid shaking hands, as for the kissing, either me or my family would explain that “no offense, I simply do no wish to be kissed”.
Being a Muslim in France is…
a little hard I think. Overall it’s no problem, people in particular are mostly kind, open and respectful of differences. However there are two main difficulties where i’m concerned:
1** finding the right balance between my faith, my duties toward God and respect for my family’s values. Seating down for lunch can suddenly become tricky: meals have to either be re-organised to include Halal (in accordance with the Islamic guidelines) options or i just leave aside part of the meal. Family gatherings in France often include alcohol too and here again, there is a conflict: as an expat my family rarely sees me so i can’t just skip the gathering altogether but it is hard for me to be doing something which i know comes into conflict with my faith.
2** Shopping is a nightmare as there is alcohol or pork in just about everything in France, even in some seemingly “innocent” products. In the UK where there are a lot of Halal shops i had come to trust what i bought but here you just can’t do that. I ended up buying some mayonaise i couldn’t eat (it had alcohol in it), some fruits cakes that was given to me went untouched for the same reason, as for meat, many supermarkets don’t have any halal options at all. My advice to Muslims: Read ALL the labels on ALL the products, never assume they are halal.