• Svetlana & Dipanvita Sehgal

Opinion: Veiling Politics as Law: Playing it French

The hijab/niqab holds very different connotations for different women. While for some it serves as the gateway to connection with God, others say it keeps their faith going, stronger by the day. Some call it a tool to resist and fight islamophobia and yet another group argues that it makes them feel safe. Whatever their reasons, the one common sentiment we saw among all the Muslim women we talked to was, ‘we wear it because we want to.’ That assertion spoke volumes on empowerment and freedom of choice. To view the hijab singularly as a vehicle of oppression is not only inaccurate but also wildly ignorant, just as it is limiting to view all women who wear make up as humans succumbing to the patriarchy and dressing up for the male gaze. While conditioning is a real thing, choice is too and at many points, even though people’s choices might surprise us and not fit in with our ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘agency’, they still remain valid and legitimate choices.

France has, for years now, witnessed a complex relationship with Islam and its over 5 million French Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Europe. A special bill that the French conservatives believe, will be a stepping-stone in tackling religious extremism/terrorism, has been the subject of much controversy. Its newest amendment, passed last week in the Senate has run into an even bigger opposition from not just within the lower house of the parliament but also across the world. This amendment bans any girl less than 18 years of age, from wearing a hijab in public. It is not the first time that France has passed a law singling out the religious clothing of Muslims. A law passed in 2010 stipulated that no one shall wear any piece of clothing that covers the face in public, directly banning the niqab that is a full-face Islamic veil. What is also surprising is, that France is not the only European country to have banned the full-face veil in public. Countries like Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Bulgaria and Bavaria have passed similar laws. These legislations often use security related reasons as their defense but their actions are inevitably, not only rooted in Islamophobia, but also help perpetuate it, knowingly or not.


While experts believe the newest bill along with the amendments has no hope of becoming law, its passing in the French Senate is representative of a much larger political landscape in France. As stated by political Scientist, Jean-Yves Camus in an address with the NPR, Paris, "these amendments are attempts by the Conservative Right to win back votes." The Muslims sadly, have mostly found themselves in the midst of reactions to radicalism or such vote-seeking bids in this part of the world.


Such laws are a major chain reaction that we can trace back to 2011 or even before. Charlie Hebdo, the famous French satiric magazine, reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a February 2006 edition. After many court battles, when the magazine once again announced a special edition called ‘Charia Hebdo’ with the Prophet as Editor-in-Chief, their editorial offices were subjected to bomb attacks. After another shooting at its Paris office that took the lives of 17 people in 2015 by radicals who had pledged allegiance to the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the country witnessed a resurgence of Islamophobia. More recently, in a suburb near Paris, a French school teacher was beheaded after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in a freedom of expression class. He had given the Muslim students an option to leave the class or close their eyes if they felt it would hurt their feelings.


This series of violent attacks by radical extremists, as a supposed means to protect their religion, has instilled a feeling of partisanship within a nation that stands behind the motto of ‘Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.’ So, with skepticism and fury being heavy in the air, introducing xenophobic laws is the easiest ticket to building a substantial vote bank with the majority. The country is singling out a part of the Muslim population, claiming that it cares for its ‘upliftment’ while actually deciding for it and subconsciously, as one may observe, trying to give back to extremists from the same religious group. The constant violence, both physical and political, between the state and the community stems from the state’s nonchalant, apathetic discourtesy to a group’s religious sentiment, to which the group responds with radically dangerous methods. In whichever way, national security and peace are necessary points that a government needs to take care of, but what a woman wants to wear or not, she can very well decide for herself.


While most supporters (read biased followers) view the move as a means to uplift Muslim women and grant them a sense of legal freedom, some of its very obvious effects are ironic. But we would digress just for a moment here to crack an old joke: a bikini-clad woman and a hijab-clad woman were both sitting at a beach, at a distance from each other. The bikini-clad woman looks at the other woman thinking sadly, “just an object of patriarchy.” The hijab-clad woman looked at the bikini-clad woman after some time and thought sadly too, “just an object of patriarchy.”


Legally prohibiting women from choosing is the fundamental opposite of granting them freedom.

In addition, as mentioned by a U.N Human Rights Committee in response to the niqab ban, such a move could lead to these women being confined at home and subsequently marginalized by way of missing out on important interactions as well as opportunities. The government is answering some extremes with its own extremity by ‘assuming’ that a political call taken on paper will suddenly, as if by magic, also alter years of cultural thinking of families that rest great importance on hijab and how a woman should not leave home without her head covered with it. For many women, their hijab or other forms of covering are a way to abide by what they believe God wants them to do. Depriving them of that choice to manifest their belief might leave them with little to no option but to protect themselves and their faith by way of isolation. It also does, disturbingly single out a community that is already fighting a highly widespread misbelief about their religious ideals. In such an environment, what moves like these do is no more than not only creating a divide within communities that have lived together for hundreds of years but also bulldoze the rights of women, and once again become the supreme decision makers for those who have been fighting to have a voice of their own irrespective of their religion, country, and ever changing governments.