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Please note: though in many conversations today (as we will use it) the word hijab is used to refer to the headscarf that some Muslim women wear, it is deeper than that. There is debate among scholars and differences of opinion about what is obligatory, recommended, and haram (forbidden). However, the majority of scholars agree that a woman must cover everything apart from her face, hands, and feet and a man must cover from the navel to the knee at a minimum. The concept of hijab refers not only to what is covered but also to how one carries oneself and is prescribed to both men and women and includes modest behaviour, lowering your gaze, speaking modestly, etc. 

All this being said, 2:256 in the Qur’an states “there is no compulsion in religion…” Everything in life is considered a test and while there are rules of right and wrong, everyone is on their own journey and must make their own choices. Just as the laws in France forcing the removal of the headscarf are wrong, so too is Iran’s law of forcing it.

We would like to acknowledge that while this article focuses on Muslims in France, these types of laws also have an effect on other religious minorities including Jews, Sikhs, and more. 

The French Senate recently voted on an amendment to an existing ‘anti-separatism’ bill which calls for minors to abstain from wearing “signs or clothing” in public spaces that “ostensibly manifest a religious affiliation” or “that would signify the inferiority of women to men.” The amendment did not specifically name a particular garment or religion, however, there is consensus that it will largely affect Muslims. Though it is unlikely this amendment will come into law when up for debate in the National Assembly, it sparked outrage, and the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab was used for people to share their stories and opinions. 

French officials, including President Emmanuel Macron, justify these laws through their supposed commitment to laïcité, a concept of state secularism, and the ‘values’ of the French republic. This ideal was applied in the 19th century when the church and the state officially separated and declared that the state would be neutral in regards to religion, meaning people were free to believe or not believe in whichever religion they pleased. This concept remained somewhat irrelevant until decolonisation in the 1960s, after which there was an influx of migrants from North Africa to France leading to a new generation of French-born Muslims. In 1989, debates began over whether or not Muslim girls could wear headscarves to school. Then, in 2004 religious symbols were banned from state schools and in 2010 full-face veils, like the niqab, were banned in public spaces. 

Colonial Roots

For European travellers and colonists in the Middle East throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the long-held fantasy of the women who existed there became heavily fetishised. Photographers were a prominent part of the colonial project as their work contributed to the European imagination of Middle Eastern women generally as submissive, available, and exotic. However, when Europeans arrived in Algeria and realised the public was inaccessible (for example, some women were concealed behind a veil), they saw it as a threat to their domination. Their covering was the opposite of what was expected of them and they were then perceived as being closed off to the civilising mission that the Europeans envisioned. 

The response to this was to unveil the woman in retaliation. Photographers did this by hiring women, often from the lower fringes of society, to pose in staged photos in a way that fulfilled their colonial fantasy: unveiled, hair showing, smoking, trapped in their homes awaiting liberation and sexually available. Algerian writer Malek Alloulle explains this colonial gaze of domination by stating when the Algérienne (female Algerian) is not willing to reveal herself, the photographer will stage her according to his needs, and in doing so taking “symbolic revenge upon a society that continues to deny him any access and questions the legitimacy of his desire.” These images, widely circulated in the form of postcards, upheld this idea that Muslim women’s potential could only be reached once the veil was removed.

France, like any other colonising country, approached Algeria and others with a goal of “civilising” the existing population and used this rhetoric to justify its mission. The way in which the French framed their colonial project only exposed their hypocrisy and their true goal of domination above all else. At the same time as France was promoting laïcité at home, it was simultaneously deeply involved in the religious affairs of the countries they colonised. Later in 1881, the push for a “French Islam” resulted in a decision by colonisers that only those educated in French universities and who had proven their loyalty to France could become Imams (one who leads Muslim worshippers in prayer). The sole reason for this was to maintain control of the population – yet they claimed it was because Muslims couldn’t comprehend the separation of religion and state, a trope continuously pushed in France today to justify discriminatory laws. 

In 1958, during the War of Independence of Algeria, “unveiling” ceremonies were staged across the country. Wives of French military officers would publicly “unveil” Algerian women in a show of the success of European values over Islamic ones. In retaliation to this, some Algerian women began to don the veil in a show of agency, and in some cases, used them to carry explosives when fighting the French. Ironically, once this technique was detected, women began to dress “French” in order to carry out their missions while easily slipping past French guards – because surely, a liberated French woman would support the colonists and not be part of the radical anti-colonial movement.

The French state still views women who cover or veil themselves, whether with the hijab, niqab or other forms, as challenging their authority. The perceived discrepancy between being Muslim, especially visibly by the wearing of hijab or niqab, and being French was not manifested by the colonised. Rather, it was intentionally put in place by the French authority who allowed these notions to become part of their identity, only furthering divides. Without acknowledging the very real trauma and effects of colonial violence and historical Islamophobia, which the French government has made clear it will not apologise for, progress cannot be made. All the while, by controlling what women wear, especially with this history in mind, France continues to undermine Muslim women’s agency and ability to assert their identity all in the name of liberation. 

The French state’s obsession with patrolling what Muslim women wear is not new, nor is it truly about upholding secularism and is definitely not born out of a desire to protect Muslim women. These laws have deep roots in France’s colonial legacy, specifically in Algeria, and are a continuation of France’s obsession with unveiling Muslim women as a means to satisfy its hypocritical ideals of liberation.

Women’s rights and secularism: a Muslim Perspective

In the context of the historical perspective, the frequent restrictions on how women dress has implications on the collective sense of belonging among us. As a young Muslim woman, this is not a new experience for me in my life. Quite often decisions are made for young women under the assumption that what they are choosing to do is due to a lack of awareness, freedom and simply not knowing any better. International speakers attempting to “rescue” women out of this mindset set by religion and society would explain to us that this thinking of ours was a hindrance to our long-overdue economic and social development. In our minds, it placed women’s rights as a geographical phenomenon found only in a certain part of the world where church and state were not placed together. Thus, gender equality was framed not as an intentional approach towards making laws and policies in a state that assures equal rights to all gender identifications, but as a natural consequence of enlightenment bestowed only to developed nations. 

While higher education in history and politics opened my eyes and changed this perspective, the weeks following the news about France’s ban have been a brutal reminder that so much we are taught about development and progress is an illusion, for it does not guarantee rights. It guarantees forwarding political agendas in the name of liberal ideas that can be twisted to suit the changing political climate. So when it is in vogue, as the classic Hermès headscarf is in France, the headscarf is socially acceptable, but when the same piece of cloth is used by Muslim women to cover their heads it is an indication of their oppression and submission at the hands of their faith. In the post-9/11 world, it seems the only thing truly in vogue is to connect religious fundamentalism with Islam and Islam only. 

As discussed earlier under the history of colonial roots, the French tirade on burkinis, hijabs and face coverings donned by Muslim women is another product of the same thinking that is looking for an easy scapegoat for religious fundamentalism. Little is more terrorizing to the male-dominated, political world than women choosing to dress however they want. Ironically, the same idea is mocked when women’s clothing is blamed for sexual abuse. In both cases, it is a woman’s choice and agency to decide what she wants to do that is weaponized. Meanwhile, school shooters and males donning suicide bombing vests continue to operate as the international focus is on regulating women’s behaviour. 

The latest development in France has also exposed how easy othering groups of people in the name of anti-separatism is, without taking into account the nuances of global migration and settlement. The rationale of integrating young women in French society from an early age comes with the assumption that their choice of clothing will affect their ability to partake in French cultural activities, as if Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are only accessible to those who are not wearing modest clothing. This thinking is quite the opposite of creating globalized societies that embrace multiculturalism while sharing their unique culture with the world, as Western countries have claimed to do for years in front of the rest of the world. Weren’t trade and globalization of ideas direct fodder for European colonization across the globe? Now that the cross-fertilization of ideas and culture takes place on European soil, it seems there is suddenly a threat of isolation and separatism. In fact, isolation and separatism are now a possibility more than ever when 20% of Muslim women in France (and perhaps even more in solidarity!) will slowly withdraw from society, knowing that the state requires them to give up who they are rather than enhance it. 

I leave sharing the empowering experience of the hijab to those who wear it and have an authentic experience, but as a Muslim woman living in Vancouver, Canada I can assure that my clothing has not come in the way of adopting Canadian values over the last 5 years of my life, and my modest dressing only empowers me to feel comfortable and contribute to Canadian society. Simply put, it is what I moved oceans from Pakistan to Canada for and thankfully, still have the freedom and privilege to do. 

For years, we have been lorded over by Western ideals in the East as the harbinger of modernization and development, so the hypocrisy of regulating women’s dressing in the name of saving them is not lost on us. What is lost on us is what went into making this decision, except for a huge amount of bias, Islamophobia, and sexism by the same people who for decades told us that our women needed emancipation for our part of the world to become successful. Frankly, there is not much difference between the religious fundamentalists who place all honour in a woman’s body and clothing, ignoring her intellectual gifts, and the French who believe a headscarf determines belonging in a society. As anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have established through their work, Western secularism has become more about regulating religious rights than separation of church and state and ensuring individual agency. It is in disentangling this that the peace between states and religion lies. 

Maham Kamal Khanum

Maham is a International Relations graduate from UBC, now working in the university in higher education fundraising and development. Maham is passionate about working in international education programs...