By Sarah Mumeni (2014)
“[The veil] is simultaneously, depending on the speaker, the cause of or solution to the systematic oppression of women; it is either the sign of a civilisations advancement or its retardation” (Chaudhary, 2005: 351).
In March 2004, the French government passed a law forbidding state school students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” (cited in Daly, 2012: 298). Although the law also prevented students of the Christian faith from wearing large crosses; Jewish male pupils from wearing kippahs; and young sikh males wearing turbans, the law is commonly referred to as ‘la loi sur le foulard’ (the law on the headscarf). Muslim female students and the hijab (the Arabic word for headscarf) were seen as the primary target. Later, in October 2010 a law was passed which “prohibit[ed] concealing the face in public space” (cited in Salzbrunn, 2005: 699); again the dress associated with Muslim women was perceived as the target. This law banned both the niqab, a face veil that leaves the area around the eyes clear, and the burqa, which covers the entire body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through. These laws were declared as a necessary move under the practice and principle of Laïcité – “the French version of secularism and separation of the Church and State” (Chaudhary, 2005: 349), as well as statement of France’s commitment to gender equality (Al- Saji, 2010: 876). Indeed, French politicians in favour of the these laws and (mostly) Western liberal feminists tend to agree that ‘veiling’ (e.g.the wearing of the hijab, niqab or burqa) is oppressive and grounded in patriarchy. Many, notably non- Western/ Islamic feminists however, challenge this view and argue that in fact these recent French bans on ‘veiling’ are oppressive and therefore can be viewed as anti-feminist. This essay will enter this debate, to assess the extent to which the recent French laws concerning the Muslim veil are anti-feminist. To begin, this essay will identify the incidents that led to the creation of the laws; to show its association with a concern for the “liberation” of Muslim women. Secondly, it will examine the key arguments put forward in Western liberal feminist thought, which argue that that the laws are necessary for their liberation. Finally, this essay will consider arguments from Non-Western/ Islamic feminist thought which argue that on the contrary, such laws are an obstacle to the liberation of Muslim women. This essay argues that the French laws on veiling can infact be deemed anti-feminist.
The contemporary veil debate in France
The contemporary French debate on the veil is said to have originated in 1989 when three schoolgirls in Creil were suspended for refusing to remove their hijabs in class (Al- Saji, 2010: 879). The issue was referred to the ‘Conseil d’Etat’ (the Council of the state) who concluded that wearing the hijab did not violate Laïcité as it was not considered a form of proselytism (Akan, 2009: 244). In 2003 the issue returned to the political agenda, when two more Muslim schoolgirls were expelled for the same reason (Gemie, 2010: 18). In December 2003, president at the time Jacques Chirac, argued that there was “something aggressive” about the Islamic veil (cited in Henley, 2003), and instituted the Stasi commission to prepare a report on the application of Laïcité within the republic. Headed by the then ombudsman of France Bernard Stasi, the report indicatively read:
In the last couple of decades new religions [have] developed. Islam, resulting principally from populations of Maghrebi, African and Middle East origins, is represented by the largest country in the European Union…France is the most diversified in the spiritual plane among the European countries (cited in Akan, 2009: 240).
Our political philosophy was founded on the defence of unity of the social body. This concern with uniformity dominated over any expression of difference which was perceived as a threat…Laïcité today is facing the challenge of forging unity while respecting the diversity of society (cited in Akan, 2009: 240).
Consequently, the report recommended that “clothing or symbols demonstrating any political or religious affiliation in public primary and secondary schools” should be prohibited in order to “strengthen the existence of common values” (cited in Salzbrunn, 2012: 694). The 2004 law was passed on the basis that schools should be neutral spaces, free from politics and importantly religion. It therefore ensured that “schoolgirls [were] not subject to inordinate pressure to veil themselves” (Daly, 2012: 294). This was the assumption made by President Chirac and also liberal feminists who gave their support to the ruling (Daly, 2012: 294). Indeed, Bernard Stasi, concluded, “the veil stands for the alienation of women” (cited in Scott, 2007: 129). It was maintained that young girls were being coerced into wearing the veil by male figures in their family or community. Accordingly Ivan Rioful, a French political commentator argued that the law was “even more necessary in the name of gender equality than it [was] in the name of secularism” (cited in Chaudhary, 2005: 357).
On 26 January 2010, following Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2009 declaration that “the burqa [was] not welcome on the territory of the Republic” a parliamentary report on the full body veil was published, titled “rapport Gérin” (Daly, 2013: 184-185). The report determined that the burqa not only conflicted with Laïcité and French Republican values but denounced it as damaging to women. “Rapport Gérin” described “the full-body veil as a symbol of the inferiorisation of women”, “the first chain link to enslavement” and concluded that a ban would “liberate women” thus “reaffirm[ing] France’s support to persecuted women all over the world” (cited in Daly, 2013: 698). The October 2010 law which prohibited face coverings was therefore evidently targeted at the Islamic face veil, which was viewed by the French government as a symbol of women’s oppression and described by President Sarkozy as a representation of female “subservience and debasement” (cited in Hassan, 2010).
Liberal feminism: The veil as a symbol of oppression
Western liberal feminism advocates these laws and the ‘unveiling’ of Muslim women; viewing the practice of veiling as detrimental to the feminist movement’s path to emancipation (Chaudhary, 2005:367). French feminists Anne Vigerie and Anne Zelensky argue that the veil “symbolises the place of women in Islam…That place is in the shade: it’s her relegation, her submission to men” (cited in Gemie, 2010:37). Similarly, Juliette Minces asserts that it stands for “Islam’s belief that women [are] inferior, sexually dangerous and in need of protection” (cited in Scott, 2007: 130). They argue that Islam is an inherently patriarchal religion and that the veil is a manifestation of this. For Liberal feminists the veil implies the subjugation of women by their male counterparts and often equate it to sexual apartheid (Lazreg, 2009). By this logic, the veil is not a choice for the women who wear it and as such the process of unveiling is synonymous with their liberation (Chaudhary, 2005; Bullock, 2002).
Whilst this thinking is typically associated with Western feminism, there are also non-Western Muslim feminists who hail these bans as a move toward the liberation of Muslim females. Notably, Egyptian-born Muslim liberal feminist Mona Eltahawy who has caused controversy in her writings regarding the treatment of women in Islam and by Muslims (Malik, 2012). In a recent interview (2014) with Mehdi Hassan on Al-Jazeera’s Head to Head, Eltahawy equates the burqa and the niqab with the “disappearance of women” in society and argues that they “dangerously equate piety with that erasure”. The scholar praises France’s move to have these kinds of attire outlawed and calls for a blanket ban across the world (Eltahawy, 2014). Eltahawy adheres to liberal feminist thought; suggesting that ban on the burqa/ niqab is in defence of women’s rights.
Overall, liberal feminism views the Islamic veil as a barrier to women’s emancipation; as such it is in agreement with the arguments made by the likes of Chirac and Sarkozy, that the recent French laws concerning it are not anti-feminist but ‘pro-feminist’.
Non- Western and Islamic feminism: The laws as oppressive
These readings of the veil are rejected by many non-Western commentators and Islamic- feminists. Marjane Satrapi (2003) argues that “the Western woman is so entranced by the idea that her emancipation comes from the miniskirt that she is convinced that if you have something on your head you are nothing”. Similarly, British-Muslim Natasha Walter (2004) remarked on Western feminism in response to the 2004 ban,
Many women in the west find the headscarf deeply problematic. One of the reasons we find it so hateful is because the whole trajectory of feminism in the west has been tied up with the freedom to uncover ourselves…It is hard to imagine any journey that doesn’t take the same trajectory, that doesn’t identify moving bareheaded into public sight with independence of mind and body.
Both challenge the idea that the path to emancipation projected by Western liberal feminists (or those who submit to its ideas) is the only one. Moreover Satrapi (2003) challenges this Western path, “The women who are forced to wear the veil, and the women who are portrayed naked to sell everything from car tyres to orange juice, are both facing a form of oppression”. She questions the depth of the achievement of Western feminism, suggesting that what liberal feminists perceive as emancipation may in fact be as oppressive as the practices they are denouncing. Satrapi highlights the tendency in the West to portray veiled women as passive victims of patriarchy, whilst celebrating the liberation and freedom of Western women.
Some describe this perspective as ‘colonial feminism’; the idea that within western feminism there is a propensity to view women from other cultures paternalistically and make generalisations about their values (Ahmed, 1992; Al-Saji, 2010). Saeed (2014) refers to “the contemporary machine of neo-colonial salvation” arguing that Muslim women are presented as “constantly in need of salvation…they need help”. Liberal critiques of the veil, then, are said to stem from a sense of Western superiority. It makes presumptions that Muslim women are being saved through these laws and that the salvation provided is inherently greater and of course more liberating than that of the veiled woman’s (Abu-Lughod, 2013). By this logic, Western critics are presuming to know more about the veiled woman and her oppression than the veiled woman herself. As Salzbrunn (2012: 693) argues, Western reactions “transform these veiled women into objects of discussion and consideration rather than considering them as agents with their own various life trajectories”. Here, Salzbrunn accuses the French government and Western feminists of assuming that Muslim women lack the capacity to be able to choose freely. Western views hold that the woman is only veiled as a result of coercion; by either a male member of her family/ community or by her patriarchal religion. She simply can’t have come to the conclusion by herself. It could therefore be suggested that the condemnation of the veil as a symbol of oppression, reflects the Wests own derogatory view of Muslim women as weak and incapable. This, perhaps, lends itself to the argument that the recent French laws are anti- feminist.
Further, Chaudhary (2005: 358) asserts that “the concept of forcibly unveiling women as an expression of those women’s liberty invokes a[n]…idea of the necessity of forcing people to be free”. It is self- defeating. The state is coercing Muslim women into ‘liberation’; forcing someone to become liberated undermines the very concept of liberty. Hunter- Henin (2012:627) implies that the coercive nature of the French laws are anti-feminist, “Penalizing women who wear the burqa does not liberate them”; “fighting the veil with [these] measures may…go against the feminist tradition of claiming equal rights with men”; (Hunter-Henin, 2012: 627). It is suggested the recent laws can in fact serve to further control and oppress Muslim women.
Hassan (2010) suggests that the adverse consequences of the laws may be that they also serve to further “isolate and seclude the marginalised Muslim women whom they are supposed to help liberate”. The schoolgirls expelled for wearing their hijabs in school will miss out on education and the women who wear burqas may not want to leave the home. The 2010 law is reported to have resulted in the verbal and physical abuse of women who continue to wear the burqa/ niqab (Chrisafis, 2013). For some women, the threat of being heavily fined has meant that they have avoided leaving the home and are “effectively under house arrest” (Chrisafis, 2013). A law, which was presented as a force for these women’s liberation, is seemingly transpiring into the opposite; it appears to have lead to their subjugation and oppression (Hunter- Henin, 2012: 627). Consequently, it is contended that the recent French laws have lead to the isolation and seclusion of ‘veiled’ women; as such the bans may be viewed as oppressive and therefore anti- feminist.
Furthermore, many Islamic feminists argue that the veil itself can be deemed liberating. Catherine Bullock (2002: vii) asserts that “in a consumer, capitalist culture, the hijab can be experienced as liberation from the tyranny of the beauty myth and thin ‘ideal’ woman.”, Bullocks suggests that veiling can be understood as a fight against the oppression of Muslim women rather than a symbol of it. Her arguments assert that the veil can be seen as a form of protest against the conventions of capitalist society and challenge traditional conceptions of beauty. Similar sentiments are shared by the celebrated Iranian sociologist (of religion), Ali Shariati,
A woman who has attained the level of belief chooses her own life, her way of thinking, her very being and her form of adornment. She actualizes herself. She does not give herself over to television and passive consumption. She does not do what consumerism tells her to do. She is not afraid to choose the colour of her dress because it may not be in style that year! She has returned and returned vigorously! To what? To the modest dress of Islam. As what? As a believer and a committed human being (cited in Kassam, 2010:307, emphasis added).
Leading up to the 1979 revolution, women in Iran adopted the hijab in protest against the Westernisation the Shah of Iran had imposed (Kassam, 2010:307); Khomeini viewed it as a weapon for women, in the fight against the their western oppressors (Chaudhary, 2005: 354). Additionally, as Shariati suggests the veil can emerge as an expression of a Muslim woman’s identity; how ‘she actualizes herself’. The laws which prohibit ‘unveiling’, thus, repress this autonomy. By this logic, the French Republic and liberal feminists, irrespective of their intentions, are now denying a group of women the right to express themselves; a fundamental barrier in their quest for emancipation, and what one might label this anti-feminist.
The debate over the Islamic veil is certainly problematic and the 2004 & 2010 French laws concerning it have been contentious to say the least. This essay has given an account of and the reasons for these contentious laws and seeked to establish whether or not they can be viewed as anti-feminist. The essay first focused on arguments made by defenders of the laws, including French politicians, commentators and liberal feminists who argued that the veil was synonymous with the oppression of Muslim women. It then moved on to the arguments made by non-Western or Islamic feminists who suggested that liberal feminism was short sighted in its perception of the veil and criticised the French laws, and it’s supporters, for their ‘colonial’ attitude toward Muslim women. It was suggested that the condemning of the veil as a barrier to female liberation is founded in Western ideas of superiority, which tend to view Muslim women as lacking the capacity to freely choose according to her own will. Moreover, it was contested that rather than a symbol of oppression, the veil is viewed by some Islamic feminists as a fight against oppression. To conclude Islamic feminism, with validity it would seem, argues that the inability of a Muslim woman to be able to act according to her will, if her will is the veil then indeed the laws are oppressive and thus anti-feminist. Further, if a Muslim woman is coerced or forced into Western liberation then indeed she is oppressed and the laws are anti-feminist. Finally, if Muslim women are being targeted and discriminated against by laws then indeed that law is anti- feminist. This is not to ignore the fact that some Muslim women may be oppressed by the veil, however it is to acknowledge that it may be the case that many are not.
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