In 2004, a law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves came into force in France and has proved very controversial. This will be an analysis of the embargo and the response of the French government to the issue of the wearing of the Muslim headscarf. This will also touch upon why women wear Muslims headscarves and the empowerment and disempowerment that comes with wearing one.
The scarves that women who follow the Islamic faith come in a myriad of styles and colours The word hijab comes from the Arabic for the veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. The type most commonly worn in the West is a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear. There is also the al-amira which comes in two pieces. The first part is a knitted cap and comes with a tube-like scarf. The Shayla is popular in the Gulf region; it is one long rectangular scarf. It is then tucked in or pinned at the shoulders. The Khimar is long and cape-like, it hangs down until it reaches the wait, completely covering the hair and shoulders, but the face is clear. The Chador is similar but does, however, cover the whole body not only to the waist but does again leave the face clear. The niqab is like the chador but does cover the face also leaving only the eyes clear. Finally, there is the Burka which covers the body and faces entirely leaving only a screen to see through.
The feeling of empowerment
There have been people criticising women wearing hijabs for decades. Some would even describe it as a symbol of ‘oppression in a patriarchal society’. Many Muslims including women disagree with this train of thought and rather believe that wearing a hijab is not only a symbol of their religious values but also ties in with their strong sense of cultural identity. Many followers of the Islamic faith believe that a hijab can, in fact, be empowering for a woman.Safiya a Muslim woman living in Canada said:
“The one thing I don’t understand is why people assume hijab/niqab is a symbol of oppression. Never once in my life have I been told to wear the hijab. For me, it has always been part of my life growing up, and every morning when I see myself in the mirror, it makes me happy because I decided that I wanted to wear the hijab.
When I wear my hijab it makes me feel confident, I feel like myself, this is how I have always been. But this isn’t how the majority of the world looks upon the hijab. We live in a strange society where walking around half naked is acceptable but being modest and covering up is frowned upon.
Not only this but also the fact that forcing a woman not to wear what she likes is OK when clearly it is oppression itself. How hypocritical is the French government.”
[Safiya in Canada,2015]
A study into female empowerment for Muslim women in America by Anderson Beckmann Al Wazni in 2015 found that:
“Regardless of whatever outright or assumed discrimination participants faced, all of them ultimately identified as feeling very much empowered, and that Islam as a religion was the source of their rights and power as a woman. At some point in the interview, every single participant stated that the hijab gave them a sense of respect, dignity, and control over who has access to their physical body. All members felt that this, in turn, offered them security, self-confidence, and empowerment
.[Al wazni, Oxford Academic social work]
There has been quantifying research showing the emancipation of women according to Mussaps research 2009:
” Quantitative study surveyed Australian women and found that those who follow the Islamic faith and wear hijab were not necessarily any less likely to compare their bodies to the body ideals produced in the media, but that the hijab did offer protection by “buffering against appearance-based public scrutiny (through adoption of traditional clothing) and by insulating her from exposure to Western ideals (by discouraging consumption of body-centric media)”
[Mussap Quantitive study, Muslim women in America 2009]
Not all Muslim women agree that wearing a Hijab empowers them but find it to be disempowering and are in fact a symbol of oppression.
“For many the hijab, along with the dehumanising niqab and burqa, are symbols of oppression, not some national costume to be worn for kicks and giggles.
Somalian-born author and activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, describes Muslim headscarves as a means in which a deeply patriarchal culture oppresses women.
“The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, non-persons,” she said.
“The veil sets women apart from men and apart from the world; it restrains them, confines them, grooms them for docility.
“It is the mark of a kind of apartheid, not the domination of a race but of sex.”
Just how is social cohesion advanced by these ludicrous proposals?
As someone from a Middle Eastern background, I’ve seen first-hand the pressure on girls to obey their devout parents as well as their community’s wishes regarding how they dress.
That pressure to conform can be overwhelming.
You risk not only being judged, denounced and reviled but completely ostracised.
Being a source of shame to your family for not abiding by accepted cultural practices can be traumatic for any young girl let alone one raised in cultures where she’s considered subservient to men.
[Rita Panahi, The Daily Telegraph, This is a symbol of oppression. Please don’t celebrate it, April 20, 2015]
This is however mostly is taken a first hand from Middle Eastern countries and not the West.
The French Ban
The ban in 2004 of religious symbols has been contested since its implementation. The law has been dubbed the ‘Muslim headscarf ban’.The law banned all religious symbols but was aimed at the followers of the Islamic faith. According to a Human rights watch report from February 2004:
“The proposed law is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice, For many Muslims, wearing a headscarf is not only about religious expression, but it is also about religious obligation.”
[Human rights Watch report, February 2004]
Due to immigration from parts of Africa and former colonies, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. There have been several appeals made to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), all, however, have been rejected every time.The law concerning la séparation des Églises et de l’État was passed by the chamber of deputies in 1905 and has been in effect since then. This intends to separate church and state law entirely. The law has been upheld and most recently” Loi interdict la dissimulation du visage days l’espace public was passed…it was an act of parliament adopted by the Senate of France on 14 September 2010, resulting in the ban on the wearing of face-covering headgear, including masks, helmets, balaclavas, niqabs and other veils covering the face in public places, except under specified circumstances.”[ Allen, Peter, Daily Mail (14 September 2010).
The French ban has had many criticisms of the ‘Muslim Headscarf’ ban and individuals claiming that nuns and others have been allowed to wear their habit without contention. The ban has forced mostly Muslim women and girls to reveal private parts about themselves, pay fines, or being expelled from school. The ban needs to be looked at less like a ban on a piece of religious clothing but rather a part of cultural identity. It could be claimed that women have been wearing the hijab for thousands of years before Islam was even part of the Middle-East and throughout Arabic countries. The wearing of a Hijab is rather part of not only many people’s religious ideals but also cultural values. Not only it is religiously inappropriate, but culturally it would be incredibly revealing and embarrassing to many people. It is true that the ‘cultural web’ changes and adapt but not when it is forced ” There are significant structural ‘strands’ in culture such as the social, religious, economic, and political dimensions of life. They shape and define the culture and its smaller strands. All of the strands of a culture are interconnected and influence and sustain each other.” [Introduction to anthropology and culture 2012, Kimmage development studies centre]. Europe is increasingly reaping the harvest of multicultural policies that have served to divide rather than unite.Religious Identity isn’t something you can take off in public.The European Court of Justice has, in fact, turned the headscarf into a symbol of resistance.