The mother of a man killed in a series of attacks in southern France in March 2012 was booed in the country's parliament on Tuesday for wearing a headscarf.
Latifa Ibn Ziaten had been invited to the parliament to speak at a conference on secularism. Another attendee, a student wearing the veil, was also interrupted by the audience when she stood up to defend the hijab. A former French minister told the student to go to a country "where women have no rights," the minister told BuzzFeed News.
Ibn Ziaten's son, a 30-year-old paratrooper, was one of seven people killed when Mohamed Merah attacked three sites in the cities of Toulouse and Montauban only months before France's last presidential election in 2012. Merah targeted soldiers and a Jewish school.
Ibn Ziaten, who heads an organisation called Imad-ibn-Ziaten, named after her son, that aims to "defend the values of the republic and of secularism," was invited to speak at the conference organized by the Socialist Group in the National Assembly, the parliamentary body where France's MPs discuss laws. Historian Patrick Weil and former MP and women's rights minister Yvette Roudy were also invited.
Roudy told BuzzFeed News that Ibn Ziaten was booed and admitted that she herself suggested that she shouldn't wear a scarf.
"I told Latifa Ibn Ziaten that I thought it wasn't a good idea to wear her scarf," she said. "There are laws in France, we don't enforce them. If Latifa Ibn Ziaten is working, she wouldn't have the right to wear it."
While the niqab (a veil that covers the face but leaves a gap for eyes) is banned in public places in France, rules about wearing a traditional headscarf, which only covers the hair, are more relaxed. Students are banned from wearing it until they are at university, but it is allowed in other public places.
The law is stricter when it comes to French public servants, who are banned from wearing any kind of head covering when working, in the name of secularism.
Ibn Ziaten, who is not a public servant, explained that she wears the headscarf as a way of mourning her dead son.
After she spoke, two guests who were not MPs walked out of the room. One attendee told BuzzFeed News it was "like being at a meeting of the National Front," referring to the country's far-right party.
The Socialist MP Jean Glavany defended her on stage, as did the historian Weil. In a statement after the event, Glavany said:
"Our guest wore a scarf as the law allows it in a public space. Two members of the audience – out of a total 200 – who were neither MPs and obviously not socialists questioned the fact she wore a scarf, clearly lacking respect for a woman who explained that she wore it to mourn her son.
"I therefore invited the two people to leave the room. Socialists worthy of the name would never hiss or boo this respected woman, as some have suggested on Twitter."
Witnesses interviewed by BuzzFeed News disputed Glavany's claim that he had asked the people to leave the room, but confirmed he defended Ibn Ziaten afterwards.
The former women's rights minister also told a student wearing the scarf to go to a country "where women have no rights".
Yassine, a law student, was in the audience at the event and told BuzzFeed News that his friend was subject to heckling by Roudy, the former women's rights minister.
"The former minister Yvette Roudy held very harsh views against the scarf and said it was 'the banner of jihad' and that "behind every religious person lies a dormant jihadist'," he said.
"My friend took the floor to explain her choice to wear the veil, but was immediately interrupted. There were mocking laughs and Yvette Roudy advised her to 'go traveling in fundamentalist countries' to criticize her choice to wear the veil. I felt like I was at a meeting for the National Front rather than a meeting largely made up of socialists."
Roudy confirmed to BuzzFeed News that she "advised her to go see for herself, in the places where women have no rights". She said: "There was no real incident. She was a very pretty girl, very easy on the eyes, but she came to recite her lesson. I said the hijab was a symbol of submission to the patriarchal law and that fundamentalists used it as an entryway."
An official at the National Assembly told BuzzFeed News the silence of the room was surprising. "What's clear is that the majority of the room agreed with the people who booed Latifa. No one moved, no one defended her or the veiled young woman. I'm going to write to some MPs to ask them to condemn these public acts. It's unacceptable."