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Hijabs and Freedom: How a U.S. Ad Shocked the French

The French controversy surrounding an advertising campaign featuring a young girl in a hijab has revealed cultural differences between France and the United States — the latter of which has applauded this diversity.

American ready-to-wear brand Gap was met with criticism in France in late July. The label’s advertising campaign for its back-to-school collection includes a young girl wearing a blue hijab (a type of Islamic veil). The child in question is shown posing with some 20 other students from the Adam Clayton Powell elementary school in Harlem, New York.

“Back to school: It’s time for celebrating our differences, sharing stories, learning new things — and living it up at recess” cheers the Gap Kids website. The campaign was rolled out across the United States and on social media. But while the Americans have applauded this item of clothing as a sign of diversity, reactions in France have been less positive. A petition entitled Le voile n’est pas un jeu d’enfant (“Veils are not child’s play”) has even been launched to stop the campaign.

“This marketing promotes submission to Islamism,” and “Where are #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc now?” declared French deputy Valérie Boyer from the Les Républicains party. Essayist Céline Pina, a critic of Islamism, also spoke out in a column for Le Figaro. “The Islamists have managed to impose their identitarian symbols in multiculturalist countries, to the point that the best allies in their offensive against equal rights and secularism are now in the United States.”

“What one camp would consider parental freedom, another would see as infringing the rights and welfare of a child,” explains an article in The Economist. But to be effective, an advert or campaign must consider its target audience’s defining cultural traits. In short, it reflects local culture.

“French and American values differ fundamentally when it comes to the role of religion in society,” says Claire Adida, professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego. “The U.S. approach is to prioritize freedom of religion via freedom of expression to fight religious intolerance. The French approach is to relegate the expression and practice of religion to the private sphere, which guarantees not just freedom of religion but freedom from religion.”

“To express one’s religion or race or ethnicity in France is to be communautariste, a term used by the French pejoratively, and which goes against the national drive for assimilation.” As some see it, the image of a young girl wearing a hijab has no place in the public sphere nor in commercials. By contrast, the government imposing certain dress codes that violate anyone’s religious faith is an affront to U.S. society. “Americans prioritize first and foremost the individual’s freedom and rights. The state has no say. For the Americans, this ad campaign is a celebration of ethnic and religious diversity.”

* Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies, Claire Adida, David Laitin, and Marie-Anne Valfort, Harvard University Press, 2016.

  • If I belonged to a religion that said that wearing clothes is a sin and I sent my child to school totally naked, it would be the same as sending a child wearing a religious symbol, like a hijab. There has to be a limit to religion just as there are limits to everything else.

  • This sweet young girl is just wearing a headscarf. Why make complications where there are none? One can’t politicize everything, although there are many who try.

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