PARIS, France — The youngest of six children, all born in France to Moroccan parents, Mariame Tighanimine was in her last year of high school when the 2004 act was passed prohibiting the "conspicuous" display of religious symbols (including the veil) in French state schools.
“There were four of us who had to make a decision," Tighanimine, who had been wearing the veil for several years, said. "We decided to respect the law and [instead] wore bandanas that we bought at Zara.”
The current debate in French society over the burqa recalls the brouhaha over the headscarf that began at least 10 years ago. At the time, Le Figaro magazine famously asked the question: “Who has to adapt, Islam or France?”
On July 13, the French parliament voted to ban full-length veils in public. The vote underlines once again Europe’s discomfort with issues of immigration, religion and ethnicity that have come to the fore in countries such as France, which has grudgingly become a melting pot. But many young French Muslims can’t see what all the fuss is about.
“France is a land of immigration,” said Tighanimine, now 23 and co-founder of a French-language women’s webzine called "Hijab and the City."
"I’ve never known anything but France. Everything that I’ve ingested has been French. I support secularism and don’t impose my religion on anyone else," she said.
Tighanimine’s parents came to France from southern Morocco in the early 1970s and settled in the Paris suburbs.
Tighanimine passed her baccalaureate and went on to get a university degree in sociology and economics. Her older sister, Khadija, who had studied architecture and urbanism, in the meantime could not find a job.
“She was basically told that if she took off her head scarf then she would be hired,” Tighanimine said.
“We’re in a country where we constantly have to prove ourselves. Other countries focus on the environment or social issues. Here they focus on something as simple as a veil.”
All of Tighanimine's five sisters wear a head scarf. It would not have been a problem for her parents if she hadn’t wanted to wear one, she said, but it seemed like a natural continuity.
“I hadn’t anticipated the problems this would cause in France,” she said.
Khadija and Mariame decided that if no one would hire them, they would go into business themselves.
"Hijab and the City," a webzine for “French women of Muslim culture,” went live in May 2008 and has been steadily attracting readers.
The tongue-in-cheek combination of the word Hijab, a broad word for head coverings, with the Candace Bushnell-inspired TV series, is intended to underline that “we are Western Muslims, who live our religion while remaining women.”
Tighanimine likes to say, “We are more than just walking veils.”
The site’s clean and simple design covers such broad topics as cooking, fashion and beauty, single and married life, psychology and spirituality. Written in a “lite” tone, the sisters and their columnists (none of whom are veiled) write about everything from the environment, consumerism, rape, AIDS, extra-marital affairs, the burqa and the Soccer World Cup.
“We have no taboos,” Tighanimine said.
For the “psychology” section of the site, the Tighanimine sisters were able to convince Fatma Mamouni, a clinical psychologist, to work pro bono answering readers' questions.
Mamouni was "hired" as much for her knowledge of Islam as her open-mindedness.
"She doesn’t moralize. She understands religious sensibilities but she doesn’t repeat verses from the Koran as a solution,” Tighanimine said, laughing.
While Khadija concentrates on writing editorials about the more “serious” subjects, Tighanimine is far more comfortable in front of a camera and regularly produces videos on subjects ranging from fashion to cupcake bakeries to workouts with a personal trainer.
Tighanimine’s evolution as a videographer is evident when comparing her early work, in which she collapses into giggling, to a more professional tone in later ones, albeit still keeping the atmosphere fun.
“We’re not interested in being militant. We find it’s counterproductive. What we want is to create bridges and provide a forum for discussion,” she said.
Tighanimine also sees herself as an entrepreneur and hopes the site will become a real enterprise.
For the moment "Hijab and the City," with 46,000 unique visitors per month, pays for itself, although the sisters still work out of their parents’ home. They said they are close to signing a lease on an apartment in Paris.
Advertising is up but “we don’t have the same opportunities as others because advertisers see us as being 'too Muslim,'” Tighanimine said. “At the same time we don’t want to accept too many advertisements for Halal butchers — I mean either you’re glamorous or you’re not!”
Making a head scarf seem glamorous in France is not easy.
“We are often insulted by women, we are called Iranians. I’ve even been pushed,” she said.
On the question of religion, Tighanimine is tired of being held responsible for what happens in the rest of the Muslim world.
“Islam is not monolithic religion," she said. "The Islam in Yemen is not the Islam that I practice. I would never tell a woman that she should wear a veil or take it off for that matter. Of course I am against draconian laws that allow violence towards women or where a women’s dignity is concerned.”
As Hijab and the City gains in notoriety, the Tighanimine sisters are asked to participate in round-table debates and conferences on women. Tighanimine chuckled, recalling how a well-known Islamologist she recently met at a conference told her it was the first time he had felt respect for a veiled woman.
“Look,” Tighanimine said. “We are not imamettes. Our approach to our site is entrepreneurial. We’re neither interested in religious [nor] political institutions. We believe in discussion and want to go beyond the microclimate that is France.”