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Gendered Islamophobia: Reading the colonial undertones of the French hijab ban

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

This piece was inspired and derived from my learnings from the Gendered Islamophobia Workshop by Justice for Muslims Collective, HEART, and Vigilant Love.

Gendered Islamophobia operates on a broad spectrum of violence that targets Muslim communities, particularly women and girls. The following working definition has been adopted by Justice for Muslims Collective: “Gendered Islamophobia consists of the ways the state utilises gendered forms of violence to oppress, monitor, punish, maim, and control Muslim bodies.” This is a distinct form of violence which operates on the structural, institutional, interpersonal and internalised level.

Structural Islamophobia is defined as ‘the systematic dehumanization and otherisation of Muslim communities and Islam. It is a system of violence that is constructed by the state that portrays Muslims and Islam as foriegn security threats for the express purpose of maintaining and expanding power, domination, and control.Interpersonal Islamophobia manifests at the levels of physical, emotional, psychological, and verbal violence directed towards Muslim women. This could be at the workplace, at university etc. The last form is Islamophobia that operates at the community level and is internalised Islamophobia, this is where we have ‘internalized the negative dominant messaging of the State against us’. For instance, as a Muslim, thinking that Muslim women in the Global South have less rights /or seem ‘oppressed’ because of your positionality of being born in the West.

Structural Islamophobia is normalised and codified by the state, through various means such as government policies, political exclusion, and social exclusion. Perceptions of Islam and Muslim communities have been long constructed to shape social behaviours and attitudes which make space for punitive reponses from the State. This means that certain policies and legislation are used to increase inequalities and maximise the state's arsenal of power. Take for example of the ongoing ‘War On Terror’ instigated by the United States, and the recent proposed legislation by the French Government to ban the hijab.

The new French hijab ban comes in a series of outrageous decisions that have attempted to criminalise women’s clothing and police women’s bodies. Muslim women are constantly seen through a binary lens which sees them either as agentless, oppressed individuals in need of liberating, or extremists who are sympathetic to or perpetuating “terrorism”. It is this distorted logic which has driven France to pursue this bill.

This obsession with what a Muslim woman wears is not new for the French.

Unveiling Algeria

‘The Arabs elude us because they conceal their women from our gaze’

Thomas-Robert Bugeaud; the French Governor-General of Algeria, 1840’s

France has a long and complicated history with its Muslim population. One cannot offer a meaningful critique of the proposed hijab ban by accepting vague justifications using ‘secularism’ without taking into account France's colonial legacy. In Algeria, a former French colony, rhetorics of ‘unveiling’ the native population was a colonial tactic used by the regime to break resistance to their ongoing colonisation, exploitation, and looting of the country.

French occupying forces held grand unveiling ceremonies of Muslim Algerian women, which would serve as a public spectacle, and a performance of the dresscode. This apparent show of strength, and efforts to present French western culture as far superior is likened to how Palestinian academic Edward Said described the ‘western penetration into the native society’. The practice of unveiling became the French power of showing ‘we have freed them reframing this unclothing of women as liberating them.

‘The veil was worn…because the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria’

- Malek Alloula

The unveiling discourse is underpinned by orientalist thinking, including the ways otherised communities are eroticised and fetishised by white Europeans within the colonial narrative, whilst also being degraded, disposed of and seen as inferior.

This is demonstrated in the countless colonial postcards and staged photographs which depicted Algerian women (actors were hired to take part in these fantasies as actual Algerian women were inaccessible to the photographers) in sub-erotic poses, ‘lounging in harems, smoking hookahs, trapped in the prison of their own homes, topless, sexually available.

The historical discourse of the veil is discussed by Leila Ahmed in her book ‘Women and Gender in Islam’. Ahmed stipulates that the rhetoric behind unveiling women became the discourse of the west as a way to show colonial dominance. Therefore, the veil became the symbol of national resistance against western aggressors. It became a political act by women, who chose to veil as methods of control and subjugation centred around the female body, a landmark of the entire colonial project. The veil, however, refuses to submit to the colonial gaze.

France: the construction of a national identity

France today is going through an identity crisis. Its attempts to assert itself as a secular republic is at the expense of Muslim women, who are pawns in a political playing field where the national fabric of the state is, at best, weak. By employing aggressively violent policies which single out a minoritised group despite there being many others who use similar face covrings, the state reveals its obsession with controlling and regulating the bodies of Muslim women. And in undertaking these steps, France attempts to fashion itself with the image it has constructed as a secular state.

This blatant example of institutionalised Islamophobia intentionally works to keep visibly Muslim women, who don the hijab, out of the public sphere, and push them into the private domain. Where is the feminist outrage about clothing being criminalised? For a state that prides itself on ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, it is extremely concerning to see it demonise a segment of society under the pretense of secularism. What is to stop the French government from infringing upon more rights under the guise of ‘national security’?

As Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan said, ‘both the feminist force and the colonial force comes together on the street when the racist shouts ‘take it off!’. In this framing, the only way for a Muslim woman to be free is via what the white gaze determines for us, because to be seen is to be understood. To be unveiled is to be free. Other warped discourses include ‘feel-good’ rhetorics of saving Muslim women; Muslim women do not need saving.

We cannot achieve collective liberation for marginalised folks everywhere until we dismantle Gendered Islamophobia, and that means pushing back against colonial narratives, rejecting false claims of ‘security’ and ‘secularism’, building power with grassroots organisations that work to tackle Islamophobia, and extending sustained solidarity to the Muslim community. It is only then, we are able to imagine a world where we can foster radical hope and healing for our communities.

Habiba Akhtar is a Project Lead at The Rights Collective. She is a graduate of SOAS University of London with an MA in Human Rights Law and works as a Researcher for the Legal 500 in London.



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