PARIS — She is a 19-year-old student union president who never wanted to be a culture warrior. But this is France, and Maryam Pougetoux wore a headscarf on national television.
In the two weeks since her appearance, one cabinet official has accused her of “proselytism” on behalf of the Islamic State; another has chastised her for promoting “political Islam.” Charlie Hebdo, France’s beloved satirical newspaper, depicted her on its cover as a doddering monkey.
According to her detractors, Pougetoux’s offense is that she violated the national creed of “laïcité,” or secularism, which guarantees, among other things, the separation of public institutions and religious organizations.
In the name of secularism — and gender equality — wearing a headscarf, or hijab, has been illegal in French public schools since 2004. Face-covering niqabs and burqas have been banned in public spaces since 2010. And the country was consumed for weeks in 2016 by the question of whether Muslim women should be prohibited from wearing the modest “burkini” to the beach. (The courts struck that one down.)
The irony, Pougetoux said this week, sitting in a Paris cafe after completing an oral exam, is that her television appearance at the root of the controversy had nothing to do with her faith.
Students across the country have been protesting over coming changes to ways students can choose their universities after high school. In conjunction with those protests, Pougetoux appeared, briefly, on a popular television program this month in her role as the elected head of the national student union’s chapter at the prestigious Paris-Sorbonne University’s Faculty of Letters.
She was wearing a hijab, she said, because she always does. It is also her legal right: The headscarf ban applies to public schools but not to public universities, on the grounds that adults are free to make their own choices.
Pougetoux laments that so few people have engaged with what she had to say: “They commented not on my words, but on the fact that I wore a veil.”
Interior Minister Gérard Collomb was among the critics. “We cannot let this be a sign of identitarian will, something that shows that one is different from French society,” he said on television. (In French, the precise word he used, “identitaire,” carries a strong nativist connotation, often associated with the far right.)
Collomb also likened Pougetoux’s veil to a symbol of the Islamic State — the terror group that has been linked to attacks in France and that has drawn as many as 1,910 French nationals to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria — noting that “a certain number of young people can be attracted to the theses of Daesh.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
France’s gender-equality minister, Marlène Schiappa, was also critical, as were other prominent French feminists.
“I see it as a form of promoting political Islam,” Schiappa said.
Essayist Céline Pina decried “the fact” that “the veil is not a marker of Islam but of Islamism and communal withdrawal.”
Pougetoux disputes that her veil is political. She also notes that she was taking part in the civic life of a French public institution, not attempting to withdraw or separate.
“Frankly, I’m a student,” she said. “People forget, but I’m just a student who engages in a union at my university and who carries the values of the union and not at all those of the extremes. It’s why I’m there.”
“I’m 19,” she added. “They’re giving me a significance I don’t have.”
For some, the case is an example of efforts to silence Muslim women when they venture into the public sphere.
“Each time, it’s the same,” said Laura Youkana, a spokeswoman for Lallab, an organization devoted to combating racism and sexism, as well as to “making Muslim women’s voices heard.” “For us, it reflects something systematic, structural.”
Another recent example is that of Mennel Ibtissem, a 22-year-old singer who wore a headscarf during a performance on France’s version of “The Voice” talent show in February. She was pressured into dropping out of the competition, however, after viewers combed through her digital history and declared her to be a radical.
For other Muslim women, the Pougetoux case is maddening because it suggests they are somehow less French than others.
“There are French Catholics who wear crosses, Jews who wear kippas, and we are all members of the same national community,” said Hanane Charrihi, who lost her mother when a truck driver plowed into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice in 2016.
Charrihi said what troubled her most was that two government officials had spoken out against Pougetoux. “When they speak, they speak on behalf of the state — and that’s the problem,” she said. “It’s completely unjust.”
Officials in France — a state closed for business on every major Christian holiday — are not always consistent in their attitudes toward secularism.
For instance, Collomb told a Protestant audience in 2013: “I am not among those who want to relegate religions to the private sphere. On the contrary, I believe they have their place in the life of the city.”
Since the late 1980s, “the veil” has been a regular source of controversy in France. But the emphasis has changed in the past decade, said Joan Wallach Scott, author of “The Politics of the Veil.”
Initially, to defend secularism in France was to defend the state’s neutrality in the face of religion, she said. But since 2003, when the conservative politician François Baroin released a report on a “new laïcité,” the collective focus has shifted from the practices of the state to the behavior of individual citizens when in public.
This new type of secularism, Scott noted, can carry ulterior motives. “The insistence that ‘laïcité’ is a fundamental principle is a cover for a continued assault on the rights of Muslim citizens in French society,” Scott said.
For Pougetoux, the question of the veil seems a generational matter, which she expects will be less divisive with time, given the diversity of French society.
“My generation has come to the point of accepting the changes that have come,” she said, “but the older generations have more difficulty understanding that evolution is progress.”
In the meantime, she said that in a sense she appreciates the Charlie Hebdo cover, which distorts her face but actually includes a phrase she said during the student protest.
“At least they transmitted some of my message,” she said, laughing.