The Gender Security Project
France: The endless debate on the veil is evidence of the rise of islamophobia
By Adenikè ADEGBIDI
Source: The Independent
"For our children and grandchildren not to experience barbarism, for our daughters not to be veiled (...) " This is a statement made by the far-right candidate, Éric Zemmour, during the announcement of his candidacy for the 2022 presidential election in France. The veil is once again a topic during this French presidential election. For several years, the veil has been the focus of all public debate in the country. This resulted in the French government banning the niqab in public places in 2010. Nowadays, an increasing number of political actors are keen to ban the veil altogether.
The will to impose on women the appropriate way of dressing has been around since ages. For example, on 7 November 1800, a legislation named “Ordinance concerning the cross-dressing of women” was introduced into law. This legislation forbade the “transvestitism of women” by stating that “any woman wishing to dress as a man must go to the Prefecture of Police to obtain permission”. In concrete terms, this law prohibited women from wearing trousers, for instance. This law was only repealed on 31 January 2013, although it had not been enforced for a considerable time.
The veil represents, according to its opponents, the submission of women to men. However, when women wearing the veil try to explain what the veil implies to them and the reasons behind their choice to wear it, such as their spiritual journey, no one is willing to listen. Instead of seeing the veil as a piece of clothing like any other, these individuals, motivated by widespread islamophobia, see the veil as a political symbol of insurgency, lack of integration in society and a menace to France. The desire to render invisible women wearing the veil in the public sphere is accompanied by an excessive emphasis on the topic of the wearing of the veil in public discourse.
It is essential to remind that human rights entitle everyone to freedom of expression and to manifest their religion or belief. These rights imply that individuals should be free to choose their style of dress, to wear what they want and not to wear what they do not want. As Amnesty international reminds us interpretations of religion, culture or tradition cannot justify the imposition of dress rules on those who choose to dress differently.
Women who wear the veil are, as some people say, forced to veil. This image fits well with the widely popular western image of the Muslim woman as a victim and submissive. Muslim women are often portrayed as victims of the barbaric nature of Muslim men and of Islam. In other words, Muslim women are mainly seen as oppressed and passive victims, and this imagery is visually reinforced by “Islamic clothing” such as the veil, which the west generally interprets as signs of great oppression.
Islam has always been portrayed as a uniquely patriarchal and misogynistic religion. As indicated by June Edmunds, the hijab and even more so the niqab, are, for mainstream western secularism, “archaic fetishes”. It appears evident to the former, that women who wear such garments in a secular environment do so without freedom of choice reflecting the patriarchal oppression of Islam. Muslim women are portrayed as subservient to the dominant and aggressive male and deprived of autonomy.
This idea has often been used in political rhetoric, particularly after 9/11. Both the American and British First Ladies at the time, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, echoed the idea that Muslim women 'need' to be rescued. Veiled women in the west are seen as unwilling to be saved. The actions of Muslim women who choose to wear the veil are interpreted as a betrayal of the generosity of the west who welcome them and wish to free them from the yoke of their tormentors - Islam and Muslim men.
Dress rules are the reflection of underlying discriminatory attitudes and a desire to control and deny the personal autonomy of women. It is time to cease voicing judgement on women's clothing. No matter how women desire to dress, there is a societal issue. A woman who wants to wear a veil is not suitable, so is a woman who wants to wear a miniskirt. Women are free to dress as they wish, women who wish to wear a veil have the right to do so and there should be no further arguments arising every week.
These negative discussions have a major impact on society, therefore discrimination and actions against women who wear the veil are proliferating. A striking example is that of a mother in October 2019, accompanying a group of children present in a council chamber as part of a school outing during a session of the regional council of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, who was asked to remove her "Islamic veil" by Julien Odoul, of the far-right movement Rassemblement national, to remain in the chamber. It is high time that those who protest the imposition of the veil on women and the consequent restriction of their freedom to dress as they wish in certain countries, realize they intend to do likewise in their own country by attempting to prohibit women from wearing a veil.
All these nauseating debates highlight the existence of a two-speed citizenship, in which citizens, depending on their background and/or religion, are not all equal. This underlines the persistence of the 'us versus them' ideology, which places minorities on the margins of the French nation. European Muslims are seen by their governments as Muslims first and citizens second, with an implicit distinction between “trusting (assimilated) and distrustful (headscarf or beard-wearing) Muslims”. This obviously implies that, in the eyes of the state, French Muslims are considered less French than non-Muslims. In the case of Muslim women, the discourse on gender intersects with that on neo-orientalism. As Martini states the latter portrays “western values” and “western civilisation” as superior to those of other cultures, and as universal and sought after by all. This orientalist discourse perpetuates a truly dominant ideology: that of the West over the East.This ideology serves as a breeding ground for Islamophobia and the rise of the far right in the country will do nothing to rectify this.
About the Author:
Adenikè Adegbidi is a recent graduate of a Master's degree in international law and international politics from the Université du Quebec à Montréal. Adenikè’s master's research focused on an intersectional analysis of Shamima Begum’s deprived citizenship in the United Kingdom.She also hold a BA in political science with a major in international relations. During her studies, she participated in 2 United Nations Models. She is currently an editor for R Magazine. Her research interests include women's rights, minority's rights, citizenship issues and internationals relations.