In 2004, the French parliament passed a law that prohibits the display of any conspicuous religious symbols in French schools. The ban, which passed by a vote of 276-20 in the French Senate and and by 494-36 votes in the French National Assembly, was signed into law by President Jacques Chirac on March 15, 2004. It is widely viewed that, in practice, the law is chiefly concerned with eradicating the hijab from places of education; almost all of the controversy surrounding this ban has actually been, relative to other religious symbols, focused on the existence of the hijab.
Seven years after the 2004 ban, in April of 2011, another law passed that barred any form of face-covering in French public spaces. Similar to the 2004 ban, although this ban outlaws attire ranging from helmets to full-body costumes, it is principally fixated on eliminating the burqa (also known as the niqab)—a face veil worn by some Muslim women—from French society. Both 2004 and 2011 bans continue to be supported by many French officials and citizens as advancements in the constitutional requisite of laïcité—the French principle that defines the separation of religion and state.
An Infringement on Freedom of Expression and Religion
Laïcité is a principle that has been used to apply the ideals of secularism that the French Republic was founded upon. However, expanding the idea of laïcité to allow for bans on religious symbols like the hijab has been criticized as an infringement on the right to freedom of religion and expression. International law mandates that countries avoid restrictions on forms of religious practice or expression unless such endeavors impose a threat to public safety, infringe on the rights of others, or form an obstacle to the education system. Although some can make the claim that the burqa may restrict educational interactions, hijab-wearing women, by international mandate, seem to have a clear right to incorporate the hijab as part of their daily attire. These beliefs were echoed by Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. In 2004, Roth reacted to the initial proposal to ban the hijab with the the following statement, “The proposed law is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice. For many Muslims, wearing a headscarf is not only about religious expression, it is about religious obligation.”
Assumptions at the Core of the Bans
What is more pressing about the bans in France is the set of assumptions underlying the bans themselves. The supporters of the prohibition on the veil—a term that defines both the hijab and burqa—root themselves in the assumption that women are oppressed into wearing them. A close inspection of the 2011 bill reveals this supposition: a woman wearing the burqa would be fined 150 Euros for her criminal act, while a man who is found to have forced a woman into wearing one would be fined 30,000 Euros. Furthermore, in 2009, the then-president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy stated that “the problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France.”
Sarkozy’s comments encapsulate what has become a commonplace conviction not only in French society, but in Western countries; embracing the veil is seen as an act of submission and a threat to freedom and individuality. Many Westerners presume that veil-wearing women have been forced to adopt such a lifestyle, even taking it upon themselves to liberate these women by calling on other countries to follow France’s lead and impose similar restrictions on the veil. Although one cannot deny nor condone the unfortunate reality in which some women are actually forced to wear the veil, the Western image of the tradition falls far from the mark.
The veil is an umbrella term that is commonly associated with both the headscarf (hijab) and face-veil (burqa/niqab) worn by many Muslim women. However, the hijab and burqa are only some aspects of the overall conception of the veil, which generally consists of anything women use (or do not use) to hide their adornment. The Holy Quran requires all men and women to live modestly; for many Muslim women, the veil is a means of achieving that. Others view it as a symbol of their identity and a fixed part of their culture. For freelance writer Hanna Yusuf, it is a sociopolitical statement that represents an emancipation from the shackles of a society that objectifies women’s sexuality. To most, however, it is a form of liberation.
What is liberating ... is the choice of how to dress, act, and express oneself.
One may wonder about the liberating value of the veil. But, as Yusuf describes, the veil is not emancipating in itself, just as nudity is not inherently liberating; what is liberating, however, is the choice of how to dress, act, and express oneself. When speaking to the Harvard International Review, Professor Leila Ahmed, a distinguished Islamic feminist whose analysis of veiled women in the United States won her the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion emphasizes that women, especially in the West, are “deciding to wear it [the veil], and they wear it for their own reasons, not for imposed ones”. In recent history, the West has flourished as a haven for freedom and acceptance, which underlines the irony of the anti-veil claims. Within Western society, surely women would be allowed the freedom to choose their own attire. Those who argue against the veil – whether in France or elsewhere in the West – disagree.
‘White Savior Complex’ Drives Anti-Veil Dogma
In France—as in other Western countries—the prevalence of such beliefs about the veil is generally attributed to the idea of the ‘white savior complex’. Many Westerners harbor the belief that they are more advantaged than people in other parts of the world. It is hardly a surprise that they hold this belief, for within the nominally-secular West, people enjoy—among other benefits—greater gender equality coupled with increased freedoms and social welfare. For some, this impression of privilege—although justifiable—has gradually paved the way for a sense of Western superiority. Accordingly, some Westerners seek to ‘liberate’ less privileged people and societies in other parts of the world by acting on their behalf. There is no denying that these endeavors may actually stem from magnanimous intentions and that they can, in some cases, actually provide help. However, one has to note that the undertakings of these supposed saviors are often presumptuous in nature and detrimental in outcome—as is the case in the anti-hijab campaigns.
Tied to the ‘white savior complex’ is the idea of ‘white liberal feminism’. Some groups associated with this movement pressure all women into accepting and celebrating their narrow view of feminism and notion of liberation, assuming that the Western woman has the license to act on behalf of the ‘oppressed’ woman, thus interfering in her struggles in order to liberate her from all forms of oppression. These ideas are reflected in the International Topless Jihad Day , organized by Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN in 2013. FEMEN organized various topless demonstrations in front of mosques and embassies to call for a ban on the veil in an aim to ‘liberate’ all veil-wearing women.
What groups like FEMEN disregard, however, is whether the women whom they are demonstrating for actually believe themselves to be oppressed in the first place. Moreover, even if these women do indeed believe that they are oppressed, such groups have falsely assumed the correct way to pursue their liberation. In the case of FEMEN, perhaps the primary goals of the oppressed women do not include a crackdown on the veil but rather leaps in education and employment opportunities. Additionally, even when veil-wearing women speak up to declare their sovereignty against pretentious intrusions, they are often silenced by white liberal feminists who knowingly or unknowingly circumscribe their agency. Professor Ahmed asserts that ‘white liberal feminism’ stems from an assumption that “Western, white people know best and the others are ignorant and have to be saved”. Ahmed further attributes such presumptuous notions to elements of “ignorance” and “racism”.
Growing Islamophobia Creates a Two-Fold Predicament
In France, veil-wearing women have been struggling with the presumptions that stem from the ‘white savior complex’ for some while. Their plight, however also extends to the implications of another burgeoning force in their country: Islamophobia. As this ever-growing fear of Islam continues to support the anti-veil notions that result from the ‘white savior complex’, the suffering of the veiled woman looks sure to continue.
From 9/11 to the Paris attacks, islamophobia has been a growing force in the West. Recently, however, a global crisis has emerged to contribute to the mounting fear of Muslims in many parts of the Western world. Many Western countries—especially
in Europe—have been dealing with an influx of Syrian refugees looking to emigrate from war-stricken Syria. The largely politicized reaction to the crisis has been distressing. Governments and societies alike have expressed a significant reluctance to accept refugees. In France for example, a poll conducted for Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France showed that 55 percent of those surveyed reject any easing of laws to to accept more Syrian refugees. This opposition has intensified in light of the Paris attacks, which have further stigmatized mainstream Islam. But what does this mean for veil-wearing women?
France, along with several other Western countries, appears to be shifting further away from its foundational attachment to religious freedom toward increasingly xenophobic, populist positions.
To veil-wearing women, this presents a significant issue, for their plight becomes two-fold. They are not merely discriminated against because of the assumptions regarding their veil; they also face opposition since their veil identifies them as Muslim in a society that is growing increasingly fearful of Islam. Although one might want to imagine that Islamophobia is waning in the Western world, signals out of countries like France seem to indicate otherwise.
France, along with several other Western countries, appears to be shifting further away from its foundational attachment to religious freedom toward increasingly xenophobic, populist positions. The French political scene reflects this critical shift. Most notably, the French National Front (FN) has been gaining great momentum and public support of late. FN is known to be a xenophobic far-right group that is vociferously opposed to EU membership. The group’s president, Marine Le Pen, has come under a lot of fire in recent years for her blatantly Islamophobic remarks. In 2010, for example, she drew significant controversy when comparing Muslim prayers to Nazi occupations. Le Pen said, "for those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it's about occupation, then we could also talk about it [Muslim prayers in the streets], because that is occupation of territory". Le Pen’s current campaign has thrived on anti-immigration rhetoric and increased nationalism and xenophobia. She continues to emphasize the current ‘incompatibility’ of Islam with the values of the French Republic, and has even advocated for more stringent bans on different forms of the veil. It is noteworthy that France is not the only country seeing a more radical shift to the right, with countries like Holland and Finland—among others—following its precedent. Unless such countries take active measures to combat right-wing extremism, they continue to run the risk of enveloping themselves in a shell of religious and cultural intolerance under the banner of freedom and nationalist pride.
For the veiled-woman, whether in France or elsewhere, her future is daunting. Her veil marks her as oppressed, while she is simultaneously ostracized as a Muslim. Nevertheless, I urge her to resist—to fight to assert her autonomy—for that is the truest manifestation of freedom.