PARIS: French lawyer Sarah Asmeta wears a hijab to work, but that means she is banned by her local bar from representing clients in the courtroom. She fought to overturn this rule.
Next Wednesday, France’s highest court is due to rule on the Asmeta case in a judgment that could set a national precedent and resonate in a country where the hijab – a headscarf worn by some Muslim women – has become a flashpoint in a debate on identity and immigration.
“I cannot accept the idea that in my country, to do a job that I am capable of, I need to undress,” Asmeta, 30, told Reuters.
Asmeta, who is French-Syrian, was the first person in her family to study law. She was also the first person at her IXAD law school in Lille, in the north of the country, to wear a hijab.
In 2019, when she had to take the oath and enter the profession as a trainee lawyer, there was no specific law that prohibited her from wearing her hijab.
But in the months following his swearing in, the Lille bar adopted internal regulations prohibiting any sign of political, philosophical and religious conviction to be worn with the toga in court.
Asmeta disputed this as being targeted and discriminatory.
She lost the case in a court of appeal in 2020, taking the case to the highest court, the Court of Cassation. The March 2 judgment will lay the foundation for nationwide bar advice, Patrick Poirret, the attorney general, told the court last week.
While religious symbols and dress are prohibited for civil servants due to the French principle of “laïcité” (secularism) – the separation of religion and state – this does not extend to independent professionals like lawyers.
But beyond these legal specificities, the hijab carries a symbolic weight and is a recurring theme in French debates around so-called republican values and national identity.
In France, Muslims represent about 6% of the population, according to the Observatory of Secularism, many of whom are from Africa, the Middle East or other countries formerly colonized by France.
In recent years, as politics veered to the right, French lawmakers and politicians have sought to extend restrictions on wearing the hijab, for example, to cover mothers who accompany their children on school trips and soccer players.
In the run-up to a presidential election in April, candidates focused on identity issues, including the hijab, although Asmeta’s case was not referenced.
Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally said she would completely banish clothing from public space. The right-wing Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse, referring to the symbol of the republic, said in a campaign speech: “Marianne is not a veiled woman”.
Currently in France, the majority of bars, including the largest in Paris, have internal regulations that do not allow religious symbols such as the hijab.
Of the bars representing 75% of practitioners, 56% have banned the wearing of religious symbols with the toga, according to a survey commissioned by Poirret for this case.
“In this general prohibition, there is specific and indirect discrimination [of Muslim women]”Asmeta’s lawyer, Claire Waquet, said in court last Tuesday.
Lille bar lawyer Jean-Philippe Duhamel rejected the idea that banning religious and political markers discriminates against Muslim women.
“If you want to play football but prefer to pass the ball with your hands, are you discriminated against because we say you can’t play?” he told Reuters.
He said the wearing of religious symbols undermines the lawyer’s independence and equality within the profession.
Asmeta said she found it more difficult than her peers to find internships despite her experience, good grades and language skills, which sometimes led her to seek internships with lawyers of Muslim background.
A recent study found that email inquiries to law schools from someone with a North African name are a third less likely to receive a response, compared to 12.3% less likely to receive a response for law schools. higher education in general.
The argument for banning the hijab in the courtroom in the name of equality and universalism is part of France’s historical philosophical tradition, said Clara Gandin, Asmeta’s lawyer.
“[That] to be equal we have to erase all the signs that show we are different,” she said.
In Britain, which has a more multicultural approach to immigration compared to France’s more assimilationist policy, lawyers can defend their clients while wearing the hijab, alongside the robe, and are not required to wear the traditional wig.
After positive experiences of internship at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and working as a legal assistant in Brussels, Asmeta plans to go abroad again as a last resort.
“I was very happy there, I could work, people saw me as a person with skills and not as a problem,” she said.