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:
28 thoughts on “The Council of Europe retracts pro-hijab campaign”
If I was a performance artist I would wear a hijab made from a Confederate flag.
Anyone going to dare to suggest “patriotic” condoms? 190-odd flags available as patterns.
I’m trying to remember if there are any “pre-perforated” flags. The Holey See, maybe?
I always thought that African Americans should wear Confederate Flag underwear
Better to use Confederate flag toilet paper.
Absolutely perfect, they are on the same footing.
A good piece from the much-missed Hitch. And a poorly thought-through campaign by the Council of Europe – combating Islamophobia is one thing, but going about it in this misguided way is another. It’s good to see that it’s been forced to reconsider.
I believe that the theocracy was established in 1979 in Iran, not in 1919.
Yes, although an unsuccessful attempt was made in the early 20th century:
Did I say that? Oy, that’s a typo. I’ll fix it, thanks!
Thank you for this post, Prof. Coyne. In fact, Iearned from it about the pro-hijab campaign of the Council of Europe, though I am a European.
It was in the news in some European countries three days ago.
Including the BBC article our host cites above, although I don’t believe that it was flagged up on the main page of the website. I certainly hadn’t seen it before this post and I keep a pretty close eye on the Beeb’s radio and online news.
You know what’s weird? Jews have been beaten, robbed, had their homes and stores destroyed, and been the subject of genocide throughout Europe’s history, often only based on their clothing (or, in some cases, even genetic features. Yes, there are many Jews out there who you can tell are probably/i> Jewish based on physical features + geography), but I’ve never seen a campaign about how wearing a yarmulke or the dress of Hassidim is liberating and all about diversity. Just another one of those weird quirks where it seems there’s one set of rules for Jews, and another for other people.
Regardless, NONE of these things are “liberating.” When it comes to wearing the dress of Hassidim, or just a yarmulke, if you’re not a true believer then the “choice” is really about whether you’re willing to be ostracized by your family and community. If you want to keep your family and community, you’re FORCED to wear these things. And for Muslim women, as with Hassidic women, leaving often isn’t a choice at all, because their communities can be so insular that they can be punished harshly without the outside world even knowing about it.
Personal experience, and I’d be interested in reading others’ experiences related to this: I, an USian, have Muslim women friends, also USians, of Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian, and Iranian descent. Some of them wear head coverings, most of them don’t. Of course, the big deal here is that the USA is a free country.
Here in Munich it seems to mostly hinge on where the family originally came from. Most Muslimas of African descent wear a kind of abaya. Those with a Turkish background are split 50:50 between more or less strict veiling and none at all. Kurdish women are less likely to wear a veil. Muslimas of South Asian descent often wear very loose fitting, colourful veils. And only the German converts seem to opt for niqab or burqa.
Everyone should of course be free to decide what to wear or not. But what really angers me are the little girls with hijabs. To be fair, most Muslimas I know, even those who chose to veil themselves, share my sentiment concerning the veiling of girls before the onset of puberty. They see it as pure virtue-signalling, often call it unislamic. It seems to be most widespread among those hailing from Nigeria or Sudan.
I will stop berating women wearing the hijab when they will stop berating women who do not wear the hijab, quite simple
The purpose of the hijab is to help women practice the virtue of female modesty, keeping their hair hidden lest they excite the lust of men whom their father or husband do not approve. It’s not so much a symbol of Islam as of Patriarchy. A modern woman choosing to wear it is like a descendent of slaves deciding to put on chains and manacles.
I am so down on organized atheism and I don’t think I will ever want to work with them again.
They freely talk about India and how bad it has gotten under Modi, but not a word about the “Islamic Republic” of Pakistan, where things are much worse; they condemn politicking in churches, except when it is done by Kamala Harris to help Terry McAuliffe; they talk about secularism, but don’t offer a single word of praise for its biggest champions in the world, France and Quebec. I suppose the latter is because it “victimizes” extremist Muslims.
Goodbye, American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation.
You’re so right !
Could this be because atheism leads to moral and cultural relativism ? Because of the link between atheism and collectivist utopianism (marxism and all its derivatives) ?
After all, the first wokes were part of the atheist online community. Do you remember elevator gate and Dawkins dear muslima ? The Atheism + schism (atheism plus social justice…) ? PZ Myers ? etc, etc…
Dawkins does himself no favours with that kind of writing. But I’m not sure that atheists turn a blind eye to Islam, as HL claims above, or that “the first wokes were part of the atheist online community”?
Do you remember elevator gate and atheism + ? These were the first online manifestations of wokism. The first wokes were definitely part of the new atheists community…
The actual new atheists did not turn a blind eye to Islam, that is not the impression that you get if you read Hitchens or Harris at all.
But now the situation is different, I suspect it is because most atheists are politically left leaning and, as we know, the unholy pact between Islamists and leftists in the 21st century (“Islamo-gauchism”, as the French call it) requires that any criticism of Islam be denigrated as “Islamophobia”. Hence total apathy toward defense of secularism by France. It would also explain why atheist organizations object to politicking in churches by political right but not political left.
You’re right that the first so-called new atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc…) were critical of Islam.
But quickly, it was clear that many members of the online new atheists community were interested in attacking religion only if it was the religion of the righ-wing western oppressors, i.e. christianity. For these atheists, the most important and motivating goal is to bring down capitalism and western culture (that they see as its most powerful foundation). After elevator-gate came atheism + and from then on, it was all downhill.
This is not surprising. Historically, there’s always been a clear link between atheism and both collectivist utopianism, as well as moral and cultural relativism. When you combine the two, you get wokism.
I agree with most of what you write here, as on most other topics. Of course the fact that many wear the hijab in countries where it is required is because they would be punished otherwise. But they grow up with that, that’s all they know, and many absorb it to some extent.
Here is a comparison which probably not all will agree with, but it is food for thought. In Europe, it is not uncommon for women to be topless on the beach. (For that matter, there are many nude beaches, but women topless is better for the comparison.). Where it is not common it is usually forbidden. When women from such countries come to Europe, do they say “wow, freedom” and take off their tops? Usually not. And they certainly don’t agree that they are somehow oppressed because they grew up in a society where toplessness is considered to be bad. They will say that it is their choice not to be topless.
If one could magically legislate that hajibs, burqas, and so on were suddenly no longer compulsory where they are now, my expectation is that women who make use of that new-found freedom would be greeted with similar to reactions to those who choose to go topless if one could magically legislate that toplessness is legal where it is now not so. In both cases, diversity is allowed to go only so far.
But there is one area in which this comparison falls short. Hijab is obligatory for many not JUST because of laws forcing it on them (comparable to going topless, where laws in some countries ban it). It is also obligatory because of family pressures, and even fear of hell fire.
It would be interesting to see if you could remove all such intimidations to see how many still prefer to cover up in the midst of a heatwave. I guess we will never know.
There are certainly Christian churches where it is believed that the road to hell runs right by that topless beach. And family pressure is there as well.
I have lived both in places where topless or nude sunbathing is the norm, and places where Islamic dress is normally worn. Women are safer and freer in the former. It might even be seen as an indicator of relative safety. A city where young women feel comfortable sunbathing topless in city parks on their lunch breaks is a city that is safe for everyone.