The Hijab In the Contemporary French and Colonial Contexts
Landorf & Pagan, (2005), state that the 2004 French law prohibiting conspicuously religious dress “is known by most people in France as the veil law,” (p. 173). The essence of the debate surrounding the veil can be surmised from the following:
…those who want their children to pledge allegiance to the flag everyday feel strongly that they are expressing their First Amendment rights to demand that, as do those who want to wear the hijab. In fact, some of the women in France who want to be able to wear the hijab in school say that it is a symbol of their liberation [from] the French “colonizer” to do so. On the other hand, those who feel strong [about] the pledge object to the invocation of God in school, therefore mixing church and state, in the same way that those who are against girls wearing the hijab in France cringe at overt religious expression in school (p. 175).
Thus, we can see that the veil or the hijab is seen both as a symbol of oppression as well as a symbol of freedom. This paper argues that this very dichotomy of the hijab as a symbol of oppression and freedom in the contemporary French context stems from their colonial history of exploiting women, where their experiences and desires are spoken for by males both brown and white. As a result, women are essentialized into this rigid and narrow space where they exist only as an instrument for mankind to use and exploit to their own ends. The purpose of this essay is to highlight the fact that these labels placed on women, which still persist to this day are rooted in the French phallocentric Orientalist gaze towards them, which is reflected in the French decision to ban the veil instead of the benign laicite that French law and policy-makers have insisted. Because women’s own voices were excluded from this issue, any attempt to define and label them by males is therefore based on the mistranslations of the lived realities of femininity.
Crosby, (2014), argues that France’s burqa ban can be viewed as Orientalism. Implemented by Sarkozy, the author states that the ban is predicated on Sarkozy desiring to “promote gender equality” (p.46). In other words, according to Sarkozy, there existed something inherently sexist about the hijab. She further states that Sarkozy argued “that the veil not only represents patriarchal oppression but more significantly presents a safety issue, since these veiled women are typically unidentifiable,” (p.47). Although France already had existing laws which banned outwardly religious clothing in public schools (Crosby, 2014), Sarkozy’s law against facial covering was “framed as promoting gender equality for veiled women rather than national security, [thus] exposing that this ban is not designed to limit facial coverings in general but the burqa and niqab specifically,” (p. 47). However, examining narratives from French citizens who are in the practice of wearing the veil offers “a refreshing representation in which women speak on their own behalf and articulate their own forms of agency,” (p. 50). This is attributed to the fact that instead of having someone else speak for them, Muslim women are speaking for themselves. And when they speak, they offer a revolutionary stance- that a woman can still be a feminist and wear the veil at the same time; in other words, one can be both a Muslim woman as well as a feminist (p. 50).
Al-Saji, (2010) expresses a notion similar to that of Crosby (2014), in that French representations of the veil project “gender oppression onto Islam, specifically onto the bodies of veiled women,” (p. 877). In this way, gender oppression becomes naturally associated with Islam. He argues that the French veil ban is predicated on such a notion, that Islam is intrinsically oppressive. The author shows this by first discussing the terms used to represent the veil. Le foulard islamique or “Islamic headscarf,” which “generates the impression that the article of clothing is a mere symbol and that it can be removed without affecting the bodily sense of self of the woman wearing it,” (p. 878), and “veil” which, “succeeds in evoking a history, but one of negative and exotic stereotypes and static, ‘regressive’ gender practices,” (p. 878) reflects this idea about Islam being inherently oppressive. This is the perception of the veil in the French contemporary context. However, “western representations of veiled women very often misrepresent the lived experiences of Muslim women,” (p. 877). Although the term laicite did play some role in the decision to ban the veil in France, it was “only when the meaning of veiling became inextricably tied to ‘gender oppression’…did passage of the law become possible.” (p. 879), which expresses “a form of cultural racism that hides itself under the guise of anti-sexist and even feminist liberatory discourse,” (p. 877). This, in the author’s opinion constitutes “a form of racialization,” (p. 877).
Lloyd, (2006) asserts that “from the beginning of colonialism the conflict between the colonizer and the colonized was played out over the veiled/unveiled bodies of women,” (p. 455). By this he meant that colonialism was just as much about domination over women than it was about domination over the colonized lands. This was very much understood even during that time; in fact, colonialism was enacted in this manner as evidenced by French assertion, “it is less about defeating a government than holding down a people,” (p. 455). This is mirrored in their approach to Algeria, “if we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, it’s capacity for resistance, we must look for them behind the veil under which they were hidden,” (p. 456). Because “colonialism intruded far into the social fabric,” leading to much “social disruption,” the family became the sanctum for the subaltern (p. 455). The veil thus became a “mechanism for resistance,” (p. 456) and was worn not only for the sake of convention, but also because, “the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria,” (p. 456). As a result, “during the period of colonialism and the war of liberation discourses and practices grew up around an idealized model of Algerian womanhood,” (p. 457). Women were used both by both the colonizer and the colonized; the former, “subjected women to symbolic violence when unveiling or photographing [which] violated their privacy,” (p. 457), while the latter inducted them into the armed forces while expecting “them to postpone their aspirations for equal rights — to wait until later — ‘a patriarchal time-zone’,” (p. 457). This was the perception of the veil in the colonial context, both in terms of the colonizer and the colonized. Both share similarities in that women existed as an instrument for males both brown and white who sought to use them for their own respective agendas. The former insisting that the veil was inherent to the local tradition, and the latter insisting that the veil was inherently repressive, and that unveiling these women were the only recourse. In both regards, it was a case of women’s experiences and desires being spoken for by others.
Malika Mehdid in her thesis, Tradition and subversion: Gender and post-colonial feminism : the case of the Arab region (with particular reference to Algeria), states that women in Algeria have been historically conceptualized as “the trustees of national identity and the custodians of the Arabo-Islamic identity,” (p. 63), and that these were roles that men expected them to play. This reinforces Lloyd (2006)’s notion of the woman being made subaltern twice, by the French as well as by their own, “indigenous culture,” (Mehdid, 1993, p. 63). The specific term she uses is ‘Oriental.’ French colonial rule was perceived as being aimed at “suppressing Algerian national culture and identity [which] lead to feelings of distrust and bitterness towards French policy makers,” (p. 67). In fact, the colonized male, was forced to cede responsibility and authority in the public sphere (p. 69), and upon his return to the domestic sphere he, “subsequently assumes a female role,” (p. 70). Because, “the colonized male was [now] effectively constructed as a feminine subject,” (p. 8), colonized females were conceptualized by said males as being “even more feminine than they were already in the earlier context of Arabo-Islamism,” (p. 8), which was then accomplished by “de-sexualizing them by imposing the wearing of the hejab,” (p. 8). Nationalism became homogenized with notions of Arabo-Islamic masculinity and male selfhood, (p. 70) which was under direct attack by the French, whose colonizing project cast the Algerian male into the role of, “mere colonial subject,” (p. 67). As a matter of fact, “among the attempts of the French at eradicating the roots of Arabo-Islamism from the country was their initiative in the final phase of the colonial period towards unveiling Algerian women,” (p. 70). This gave rise to a ‘new woman’ which was, on one hand associated with, “anxiety-inducing feminine models such as the ‘ogress’,” (p.75); while on the other hand being associated with the colonial female, with whom this ‘new woman’ shared, “the exposure of the unveiled body and the sexual appeal gained by women who could now, like the female settler, entice men and remain somehow ‘unapproachable’,” as well as close ties to French imperialism (p. 75). As a result, the male Algerian view regarding this ‘new woman’ was mostly negative due to notions of both culture as well as nationalism, leading to “the post war male who has not yet resolved his own conflicting views towards concepts of womanhood, motherhood, nation and identity,” (p. 9), seeking to accuse ‘new women’ of “turning their backs on Islam and their ‘cultural roots’” (p. 9). However, this “socio-cultural” role that women are cast into, “as guardians of the home and tradition and in terms of a resurgent patriarchy,” (p. 9) within Algerian society as an oppositional stance to French colonialism, is a case of Algerian patriarchy essentializing women, confining them within this framework, and replacing their identities with whatever they assert women are supposed to be. In their case, this happened to be the wardens of Algerian nationalism as well as well as Arabo-Islamic culture. The former notion at the very least, would not have been able to take hold without the impact of French colonialism. Regarding the latter, it can be argued that French colonialism lead to a “radicalization of resistance in various domains [such as the domestic sphere, which] led to asserting the function of femininity,” (p. 66), as such. This is in contrast to indigenous Tunisian conceptualizations of the veil as “an outward symbol of anti-secular and therefore anti-democratic sentiment,” (Cotton 2006, p. 3). In an attempt to redefine Islam as being progressive and modern, Tunisian policy makers are also adhering to the notion that what is ‘right’ is in fact, “Western culture in opposition to everything in Muslim culture being ‘wrong.’,” (p. 27), all the while overlooking the fact that conceptualizations of the veil are based on, “history, gender identity, and the dynamics between a country and colonialism,” (p. 37). Thus, in Tunisia as well, the function of femininity is asserted by patriarchy, though in this case, the woman’s function is to serve as a symbol for democracy, freedom, equality and progress. This assertion, both in Tunisia and Algeria, despite their polarities because this was a distinction made by men seeking to appropriate women to the socio-cultural roles that menhanded to them, was there a case of forced feminization, more than it was about freedom through feminism.
Neff, in her 2012 thesis Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion: The New Laïcité In France asserts that the concept of laicite in relation to education, “first appeared in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789,” (p. 14), followed by a set of other, similar laws aimed at establishing, “republican ideals of equality in its students and abolish old ideas of privilege due in part to one’s position in the Church,” (p. 15), all of which, “culminated in the law of December 9, 1905, which 20th and 21st century lawmakers and politicians would herald as the legal precedent for laïcité (secularism),” (p. 15), which was also the first instance during which laicite had bled into the public domain (p. 15). This was a law that, “clearly allows funds to be transferred [to religious institutions] for charitable purposes, but more importantly, this law guarantees the free exercise of religion — not just in principle, but in the practice of obtaining an education,” (p. 17), with secularism being imposed so that the state could not favor one religion over another. While the Constitution of 1791 “guaranteed that the free exercise of the faith to which one is attached is a natural and civil right,” (p. 18), it wasn’t until 1946, that the concept of laicite appeared in the Constitution, but only then in relation to France being, “an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic,” (p. 20), with religious ideology being tolerated so long as they adhered to common customs and belief (p. 20); in other words, what was considered to be French customs or beliefs. However, even the 1958 Constitution, “assures equality of all citizens before the law without distinction of origin, race, or religion,” (p. 20). This runs contrary to Deputy Jacques Myard’s proposal on September 23, 2008, which stated that, “no cultural or religious prescription authorizes veiling one’s face in public,” (p. 26), before culminating in the April 11, 2011 law, “prohibiting the burqa, the niqab, cagoules, and masques,” (p. 26), with restrictions being put upon veiled women, who were, upon threat of sanctions, prohibited from wearing attire of their chosen religion in a variety places; ranging from schools to public transportation as well as the driving seat of cars, with justifications ranging from the poor visibility provided by the hijab (pp. 27- 28), to Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France asserting that the burqa, “is a sign of debasement,” (p. 28). Why was an entire religion targeted and being discriminated against, and essentially labelled as being inherently sexist? Increased immigration had brought a wave of Muslim Algerian men and women to France in the 1960’s (pp. 21- 22). This, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US’s World Trade Center as well as terrorist attacks in France in 1995 (p. 22), meant that, “visible differences in the appearance and practices of France’s growing Arab/Muslim population,” (p. 22) was viewed as a distinct threat by a country, “intent on unity as a means to peace,” (pp. 23–24). The CAI (contract of welcome and integration) was, “required of all newly- arrived foreigners since 2007,” (p. 35); whose, “sections regarding equality and learning French are clearly aimed at Muslim immigrants,” (p. 36), as forced marriages, female submission and gender segregation were all points of contention with this particular demographic (p. 38). Neff further expounds:
This document claiming to better integrate all immigrants in France contradicts its own text by speaking directly to one particular immigrant group — because of its religious beliefs and practices — rather than maintaining the neutrality towards religion that earlier sections of the text had emphasized. (p. 38).
Just as the Algerian male had projected their understanding of gender roles into women’s lives as a response to Algerian selfhood being attacked by the French colonizer, so too did the French, in their own soil, as they perceived French selfhood to be under threat. As a result, the function of femininity was once again asserted, this time by the French. In their case, the function of femininity was to be exposed and free, from both Islam and oppression so as to remain a symbol of distinct ‘Frenchness,’ in both its contemporary and colonial contexts.
Keaton, (2005), asserts that Muslim girls, as “youth of color,” (p. 406), are racialized in France and are “viewed as the antithesis of French identity,” (p. 406). Because of this, the veil invokes a “triggering [of] laws and policies aimed at Franco conformity,” (p. 406). This resulted in a ““return of assimilation” in France,” (p. 405), that is based on “social incorporation,” (p. 406), that required Muslim women to adapt not to a mainstream culture, “but rather to multiple reception contexts in a society,” (p. 405). This ‘return to assimilation’ is predicated on the notion that certain acts such as violence against women and female excision, “are strictly related to Muslims, although this violence is well documented among non-Muslims across the globe,” (p. 412), which, when, “juxtaposed to cultures of the “West,” a cultural supremacy emerges, suggesting that these practices are displays of pernicious cultural values reflective of a cancerous element in French society, namely undesired groups, for which cultural assimilation becomes the “cure,”,” (p. 412). Al-Saji (2010) had called this a “form of racialization,” (p. 877). This is because, “being African or Arab, or being identified as “black,” has never carried the same advantages in French society as being perceived and identified as French, a racialized signifier of European ancestry and increasingly “white.”,” (Keaton, 2005, p. 414). Furthermore, this creates the notion of a distinct national identity which, “operates in the interest of [French] national unity,” (p. 416). Because ‘arrogant assimilation’ was a national interest (p. 415), this racialization was thus nationally imposed. The veil law, because it is a piece of “legislation [that] targets a specific group constituted as “other” and identifiable by visible features, names, and religion-all stigmatized and indeed inferiorized,” (p. 418) is thus also racist as well as Xenophobic.
Galonnier, (2015), highlights how, “Islam has been racialized as brown and foreign.” Focusing on the experiences of white converts to Islam in France, Gallonnier places “white” into the life of “brown.” These white converts, while choosing religion, face race instead, just like the Muslim Frenchwoman who chooses to don the veil. The racialization of the veil, and of white converts to Islam are therefore two sides of the same coin. In France, for example, “the crux of the conflict between the French Republic and its Muslim citizens is the issue of secularism, as French Muslims are deemed too conspicuous in their religious practices,” (Keaton, 2005 p. 418). Notions of religion and race are intermingled with one another to the point where, “embracing Islam has an impact on converts’ perceived racial status. In some instances, racializing experiences proved traumatic,” (Galonnier, 2015, p. 575), with converts being conceptualized as being, “traitors to the nation,” (p. 577–578). French colonial history in Algeria as well as the increase in Algerian immigration to France, lead to conceptualizations of Islamism and Arabism being intermeshed with one another, as well as being, “associated with poverty, crime, delinquency, and social exclusion,” (p. 578). As a result, “French converts have to bear the complex legacy of colonialism or experience a drop in social status since their conversion associates them with lower-class citizens of North African descent,” (p. 579), which highlights “Islam’s racialization…in Europe,” (p. 579), or to be more specific, the racialization of Islam in France.
The notion of the veil as a threat to the French identity is mirrored by Killian (2003), who asserts that the veil has been portrayed by the French media, “as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism,” (p. 572). And Islamic fundamentalism, as I have previously mentioned, was homogenized with notions of female submission and oppression. Given that the issue highlighted in this paper so far has been the mistranslation of women’s experiences and roles in society in relation to patriarchy both brown and white, understanding Muslim feminine conceptions of the veil will show not only show what women actually derive their identity from, but also gives us an opportunity to hear from those who have been spoken for so long. Some of their arguments, by Killian’s assertion, are more culturally French than North African. In a study she had conducted to examine feminine conceptualizations of the veil, she interviews 45 Parisian first-generation female Muslim immigrants, with variations in, “age, country of emigration, ethnicity (Arab or Berber), education, employment history, marital status, and number of children,” (p. 573). Findings reveal that, “age and education are the best predictors of responses,” (p. 586). While young, educated women, “often dislike the veil”, they are, “using a discourse of rights and equality seen as legitimate in the West,” (p. 586). Poorly educated women on the other hand, “do not engage in the debate over laicism,” (p. 586), with their arguments on why the veil should be allowed in schools being reflective of them conceptualizing Islam as being, “practiced in private and [so] should not interfere with life in French space: on the street and especially at work or in schools,” (p. 586). Age and education however, did not indicate the response of a third group of women, whose, “opinions support those of the majority of French people and stand in opposition to those who desire tolerance and the legitimization of expressions of culture and religion in the public space of the French schools,” (p. 587). This shows that, “despite all growing up in North Africa and all being Muslim, the participants see the world very differently given their ages and especially their levels of education,” (p. 588). The arguments for the veil are also predicated on the woman being able to express her identity in any way that she chooses, whether it be religious or otherwise, with a positive correlation to level of education. Thus, the assertion that Islam is inherently oppressive towards women is proven to be a mistranslation, a notion which is predominant in Western feminist liberatory discourse (Al-Saji, 2010, p. 877); as by a woman’s own assertion, religious clothing such as the veil can be an article for women to choose their own identities as a French feminist woman as well as a Muslim.
French assertion that Islam is inherently oppressive towards women and backwards in the socio-economic sense, leading to the unveiling laws as a form of liberation- with women existing as symbols for French conformity is thus rooted in its colonial history, especially it’s colonial history in Algeria. This mirrors the Algerian assertion that French colonialism was inherently oppressive towards Algerian nationalism and male Algerian selfhood, leading to veiling as an oppositional stance to colonialism, with women existing as symbolic defenders Arabo-Islamism. Both assertions, seek to essentialize women into these respective roles, with any fluctuations within these roles being labelled as deviant femininity due to the of a foreign deviant culture, which is distinctly “Other”. Since forcing women into this dichotomy identifies women as being naturally always one way or the either, the lived experiences of women and their conceptualizations of the veil serves as a means for women to seize their identity, their very essence for their own selves and according to their own choices. And when they do identify themselves, they tell us that, regardless of religion, femininity is not monolithic, but rather, just as diverse as any gender identity.
Al-Saji, A. (2010). The racialization of Muslim veils: A philosophical analysis. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 36(8), 875–902. https://doi.org/10.1177/0191453710375589
Cotton, J. (n.d.). Forced Feminism: Women, Hijab, and the One-Party State in Post-Colonial Tunisia. 46.
Crosby, E. (2014). Faux Feminism: France’s Veil Ban as Orientalism. 15(2), 16.
Galonnier, J. (2015). The racialization of Muslims in France and the United States: Some insights from white converts to Islam. Social Compass, 62(4), 570–583. https://doi.org/10.1177/0037768615601966
Keaton, T. (2005). Arrogant Assimilationism: National Identity Politics and African-Origin Muslim Girls in the Other France. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 36(4), 405–423. Retrieved from JSTOR.