#HandsOffMyHijab: Women Cannot Be Empowered By Taking Away Their Autonomy

On March 30th, the French Senate voted in favour of legislation which, if passed, will ban girls under the age of 18 from wearing hijabs in public spaces. This change is not yet in effect and must first be approved by the National Assembly. The proposed legislation will impose the “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify an interiorization of women over men,” including a ban on burkinis (full-coverage swimsuits) in public pools. Hijab-wearing mothers may also be disallowed from accompanying their children on school trips. These laws, which are part of the proposed “Separatism Bill,” violently target the more than five million Muslims living in France.

The controversial bill against separatism appears to validate and legalize France’s rising anti-Muslim sentiment. For many, additional amendments have confirmed fears that the French state is using the bill to attack Muslims – and specifically, Muslim women – for their faith. One of the more common criticisms is that French girls are considered above the age of sexual majority at 15. A 15-year-old girl under this legislation would be allowed to legally consent to sexual relations, but she would not have the right to freely wear a symbol of her faith.

France’s History with the Veil

France has long had a fractious relationship with the veil. The latest drive to ban minors from wearing the hijab stems from a movement that has targeted women wearing the burqa and the niqab since 9/11.

In February 2004, the National Assembly began debating a bill which would prohibit religious symbols in schools, including Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses. The state has often argued that religious symbols like veils conflict with European principles of individualism and enlightenment.

A few years later, in 2011, France would pass a law prohibiting women from wearing the niqab. This ban was the first of its kind and clearly demonstrated how far France would go to further marginalize Muslim women. Right-wing parties, including the Republicans led by Nicolas Sarkozy and the National Rally led by Marine Le Pen, affirmed France’s “Christian heritage.” A national debate on the place of Muslims in France followed.

The European Courts upheld the ban in 2014, claiming their decision represented the preservation of national integrity. In 2016, several coastal towns introduced the burkini ban.

History shows that the new Separatism Bill is not a recent phenomenon. France has gradually introduced and enforced draconian and discriminative policies against Muslims in the name of national integrity.

Hijab – Oppression or Liberation?

The French government’s vision of the hijab as an oppressive tool is a prime example of the orientalist gaze. Palestinian-American researcher Edward Said introduced the concept of orientalism in his 1978 book by the same name. According to Said, the West continues to perceive and uphold the perception of the East as backwards and less developed. Indeed, it is still easy to find orientalist ideas in Western media’s representation of Muslim women.

From a Western perspective, the veil is exotic and threatening. A Muslim woman’s veil is a sign of her oppression. Since the emergence of second-wave feminism, a woman’s autonomy over her own body has been represented in the West as her being able to dress how she wants, show as much skin as she wants, and have sex when she wants. But if women have the right to make decisions about their bodies and how those bodies are exposed, why is the French government choosing to strip Muslim girls of their right to dress modestly?

Researcher and journalist Rafia Zakira has argued that white feminism has limited feminist liberation to sexual liberation. Zakira points to a shift from a deep and complex movement to a movement centred around the consumption of sex. “Within this movement, its biggest casualty is the stereotyping and exclusion of Muslim feminists, who struggle against terror, obscurantism and the weight of patriarchal domination, all relegated to a position of inferiority, based on their refusal to affirm that freedom essential means the freedom to have sex,” she writes.

Feminist movements in the West are often defined and led by white women, who focus on issues within their own societies that centre their own concerns. This approach leaves behind those with other experiences and fails to take into account the ways even common issues may be filtered through different racial or cultural lenses.

Thus, the feminist movement, particularly as the media presents it, focuses on sexual liberation and a woman’s right to nakedness on her own terms. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the French government has used mainstream assumptions about the hijab to justify the ban as a means to empower women.

The Western lens does not view the hijab, or other religious coverings Muslim women wear, as “empowering.” But for many of the people who choose to wear a headscarf, the hijab represents thousands of years of culture and tradition. The choice to wear the hijab – or not to wear the hijab – is a matter of personal autonomy. It is not for the French government or any other to tell Muslim women what they should or should not wear.

The idea that Muslim women must be freed from a life of oppression, and that said freedom must be accomplished by imposing arbitrary bans, is deeply rooted in both a white savior complex and the colonial mindset. Dictating how minority ethnic women should act and what they should wear under the assumption that they need to be saved is the complete opposite of empowerment.

The Western perception of “empowerment” is not the only one. The way to truly empower women is to create safe and welcoming environments where they can feel included, irrespective of what they choose to wear. To be truly liberated, a woman must have the right to choose what she wears without society or the government prescribing for her.

Anita Mureithi

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