French student on hijab, media and being used as political puppet

3:04am on Tuesday 30th April 2019
Maryam Pougetoux reflects on 'wave of racist hatred' unleashed by her wearing of headscarf on TV a year ago.

Paris, France  - Last year, the 19-year-old elected leader of the Paris-based Sorbonne branch of the French National Students' Union (UNEF) found herself at the centre of a frenetic controversy.

Maryam Pougetoux had appeared on a brief segment on national TV following demonstrations across France by students protesting against the changes to ways they can choose their universities after high school.

But it was not her comments that incensed TV pundits and French politicians alike. It was the fact that she wore a hijaba headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, which for a few weeks became the focus of polemic once again.

The hijab has for decades been a source of controversy in France, which in 2004 banned it from being worn in public schools.

Gerard Collomb, France's interior minister, called Pougetoux's appearance "shocking" and likened her hijab to a symbol of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group.

The country's gender-equality minister, Marlene Schiappa, said she viewed Pougetoux's hijab as a "form of promoting political Islam".

UNEF publicly condemned the comments as a "wave of racist, sexist, and Islamophobic hatred".

One year after the firestorm, Maryam Pougetoux sat down with Al Jazeera and talked about how the backlash changed her life, the support she received and France's fixation with the hijab.

Al Jazeera: Following the hostile public exposure you received last year, how has your life changed?

Maryam Pougetoux: I'm still one of the co-presidents of the student union. In the professional area, nothing has really changed. We're still working on students' rights within the university.

I'm graduating in a few months. Whenever I'm at university, I'm just a normal 20-year-old student: I attend classes, have essays to write, meet up with my friends.