I haven’t written about the hijab, burqa, or other forms of Muslim female covering for a while, simply because I’ve written about them so much that I have nothing new to say (for all the posts, go here). Now, though, the hijab is back in the news.
See here for a one-post summary of what I think, which is that the hijab (and similar garments) are forms of female oppression, are rarely “choices”, but that religious garments that obscure the face should not be banned except in situations when other religious symbols are banned, and in places like banks where one’s face should be visible. Overall, I share the feeling expressed below by Alishba Zaremeen, an ex-Muslim activist and feminist:
And a few more words about the “voluntary” nature of wearing hijabs. Many women, like Masih Alinejad in the video below, were forced to don the head covering at a young age and continue to wear it because of social or family pressure (Masih gave up Islam and her hijab, and is the world’s most active opponent of forced body covering). That is neither “voluntary” nor a “choice.” Of course some women truly do have a choice, and wear the hijab as a form of non-compulsory piety. That’s fine, but I believe that far fewer women who claim it’s their “choice” really had a choice.
To see how much of a “choice it is” in Muslim countries, you can do a kind of experiment: look at what women wore in those countries before the theocracy imposed religious dress codes. In that situation, hijab-wearing would be much more of a choice. But as I reported in two posts, in two such countries—Afghanistan and Iran—most women abjured the hijab until the theocracy came. Indeed, in 1979 in Iran, when the theocracy began, over 100,000 women protested the hijab en masse; and in 2017-2019 there were smaller mass protests against the headscarf there. Headscarves remain mandatory in Iran, even for visiting foreigners.
Now for the news, reported in this BBC piece (click on screenshot):
What happened is the the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, started a pro-hijab campaign, emphasizing that the headscarf was a sign of freedom and “choice”. As the article notes (their emphasis):
Europe’s top human rights organisation has pulled posters from a campaign that promoted respect for Muslim women who choose to wear headscarves after provoking opposition in France.
The Council of Europe released the images last week for a campaign against anti-Muslim discrimination.
A slogan on one advert read: “Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab”.
Several prominent French politicians condemned the message and argued the hijab did not represent freedom.
But some Muslim women who wear headscarves said the reaction showed a lack of respect for diversity and the right to choose what to wear in France.
France’s youth minister, Sarah El Haïry, said she was shocked by one poster, which showed a split image of one women wearing a hijab, and one not.
In an interview on French TV, the minister suggested the poster had encouraged women to wear headscarves. She said this message jarred with the secular values of France, which had expressed its disapproval of the campaign.
On Wednesday, the Council of Europe told the BBC that tweets related to the campaign had been deleted “while we reflect on a better presentation of this project”.
I too decry Islamophobia and feel that banning hijabs except in the most necessary situations is a violation of religious freedom, but images like the two below from the campaign don’t really convey the whole truth.
For example, there is no “diversity in dress” permitted in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. A woman who went out in shorts would be arrested. Even in Muslim families or communities in Europe, the hijab is not always optional. To use Alishba’s metaphor, images like these are equivalent to a campaign for “express your views by flying your flag” and then advertising it showing people waving Confederate flags.
How boring would the world look if everyone would look the same? Just look at Saudi Arabia or Iran compared to, say, Berlin or Paris.
In fact, the CoE doesn’t even hold the opinions expressed in the tweeted images:
The campaign was the product of two online workshops held in September and organised in collaboration with Femyso, a forum of Muslim youth organisations across Europe.
The wording of the campaign “reflected individual statements from people who took part in one of the project’s workshops”, the Council of Europe spokesman said.
The spokesman said the messaging did not reflect the position of the Council of Europe or its secretary-general, Marija Pejcinovic Buric.
The president of Femyso, Hande Taner, defended the campaign on Wednesday in an interview with the BBC.
She said “the campaign itself is still on” but added: “As for why the tweet was deleted, I can’t speak on behalf of the Council of Europe.”
Ms Taner said it was “really sad that the efforts of minority youth are being attacked and undermined” by politicians.
The reaction was “another example of how the rights of Muslim women are non-existent to those who claim to represent or protect notions such as liberty, equality and freedom”, she said.
Ms. Taner is partly right and partly wrong. First of all, it is Islam that largely abrogates the rights of Muslim women, who, even in Europe, are considered inferior to men and often relegated to domestic and child-rearing duties. Islamic pressure to wear hijabs is a violation of women’s rights. On the other hand, France does ban face coverings in public except during worship or traveling in a private car. Some could argue that this violates religious freedom. (For a counterargument in favor of the French law banning face coverings, see this article by Christopher Hitchens as well as his video clash with a Muslim woman in Australia.)
The Council of Europe made a misstep with this campaign. Promoting the hijab as a choice is disssimulation partly promoting the denial of women’s rights. There are better ways to combat bigotry against Muslims.
Why is a white Western man writing about the hijab? Because so few Western feminists do. Much of that is deliberate: we are supposed to ignore Muslim misogyny because they are “people of color.” That has been called “the bigotry of low expectations.”
The going-along with hijab mandates is the topic of Masih Alinejad’s eloquent and passionate speech below: