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France's Hijab Ban Is Not Empowering — It's Islamophobia Disguised As Feminism

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France's Hijab Ban Is Oppressing Muslim Women

With governments in France voting to ban the wearing of the hijab in public for anyone under the age of 18, it’s time to rethink how we police women’s bodies and question why the feminist movement has left Muslim women behind. 

It began in 1989 when 3 teenagers in a French school were suspended for refusing to remove their headscarves in class. The scarves appeared to defy the country's strict rules on separating religion and state, but the mishandling of the case set the precedent for decades of increasingly Islamaphobic laws. 

Initially, it was determined that teachers could decide who got to wear religious items on a case-by-case basis, enabling clear bias in schools across the nation. 

Later, Islamic scarves were declared too “ostentatious” for the public while other religious items were deemed acceptable. 

In 2004, the first openly anti-Muslim law was passed, banning schoolgirls from wearing a headscarf. In 2010, burqas, niqabs, and any Islamic veil that covers the face were outlawed for all ages. 

Now, the latest iteration of this war on scarves has not only banned women under the age of 18 from wearing them, but has also forbidden their hijabi mothers from accompanying them on any school trips. 

In essence, the law forces minors from a vulnerable minority to reveal their bodies against their will and then forbids their mothers from being present to protect them. 

Keep in mind that the age of consent in France is 15, so the arbitrary law is not even in keeping with the country’s legal precedents for when women can make choices about their bodies. 

France’s anti-Muslim stance has long been a subject of debate as government leaders attempt to justify the archaic laws with excuses about female liberation

“It's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement,” former President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in 2010

But the excuses betray a misappropriation of the feminist movement as a coverup for racism and Islamophobia. 

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France is controlling women under the guise of female liberation and empowerment

The feminist movement has never been kind to Muslim women. It was decided early on by non-Islamic French feminists that the hijab must be a symbol of oppression. 

Leading French feminist groups have supported the ban on hijabs over the years, arguing that getting rid of them is a form of female liberation. 

The concept is ironic: a movement built on a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body decided that Muslim women could not possibly make their own choices and we must bar them from having options. 

In doing so, the movement reifies Muslim women as victims in need of saving from Western heroes and thus simply repackages patriarchal control. 

Since 2004, women could be expelled from school for wearing a hijab. Surely we cannot consider blocking women from their education a form of female liberation

Female liberation looks different to different cultural groups. The ban reflects a need for more respect for intersectionality in the feminist movement in order to account for the specific needs of different groups. 

White feminism misunderstands the double-edged discrimination that other women experience. 

Muslim women are targets of oppression from all angles because of their gender and their religion. If feminists truly cared for the wellbeing of all women, they wouldn’t seek to alienate Muslim women from the movement. 

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The ban is thinly veiled Islamophobia 

The feminist perspective is just one weak justification for the ban, but it's possibly not the most damaging one. 

Under the guise of political secularism, the French government has paved the way for racism to become acceptable. Those seeking to discriminate against Muslim women are essentially protected by the law to do so. 

In 2010, the burqa and face veil were deemed “not welcome” in France by President Nicolas Sarkozy. But the real implication is that women wearing these items are the ones that are unwelcome. 

Many have expressed concerns that these rules only cause Muslims to withdraw further from society. 

The misguided belief that banning veils will suddenly cause Muslim women to emerge from their homes and thank the government for freeing them exposes a lack of awareness about how it feels to be targeted by these laws. 

Equally, it betrays the government’s unwillingness to listen to how Muslim women actually feel about their headscarves.

The ban on religious face coverings that arose in 2010 has become a particularly contentious issue in the past year as France made face coverings mandatory on public transport to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Those caught wearing niqabs – face coverings that cover the same surface yet are deemed “religious” – can be fined while someone sitting next to them with a face mask on will not.

This hypocritical law also coincided with a 53% increase in Islamophobic attacks in France. 

Regardless of what reasons the government hides behind, the outcome is clear. The ban legitimizes, enables, and encourages Islamaphobia.

The secular bans are enforced unequally across religions

Though the bans in place are intended to prohibit wearing religious attire from any religion in certain public places, Muslims seem to be consistently singled out. 

In 2019, French officials defended a Catholic nun’s right to wear her habit after she was reportedly asked to remove it at a retirement home. 

Meanwhile, when a Muslim hijabi mother was asked to leave her son’s school trip that same year, the school’s decision was upheld under France’s “laicite” laws. 

French politicians have not minced their words when it comes to inaccurately associating the wearing of hijabs with terrorist incidents. 

Marine Le Pen, for instance, who heads the National Rally party, told audiences, “the veil is not a trivial piece of cloth, it is a marker of radicalism.”

France has a history of colonial occupation in Arab countries dating back to the 1800s, and this modern iteration of Islamophobia is just an extension of this historical desire to oppress and control. 

But as a country with one of the largest populations of Muslims in Europe, more needs to be done to ensure that the culture is protected.

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her Twitter for more.