France and the hijab: allow women their freedoms

The Council of Europe made a good start in standing up for Muslim women. It can do more

In 1933, the actress Marlene Dietrich arrived in Paris, one of the highest paid stars in the world. She was wearing trousers, despite a warning that she would be arrested for doing so. She declared “I dress for myself, not for the image, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.”

It was only in 2013 that it finally became legal in France for women to wear trousers, although, of course, many had already been doing so.

I was reminded of these facts when the news broke last week that France had opposed a rather charming social media image exploring diversity and womanhood, created and shared by the Council of Europe. And like France’s law about trousers, the opposition today to what women want to wear, feels even more outdated.

Attitudes of women are changing and so is the world. And those who insist that women must be subjugated to their antiquated and parochial laws (including women who insist on them) are starting to find themselves as lone voices, and thank goodness for that.

The image in the online campaign was of two smiling women spliced in half and joined together, on the left wearing a hijab, on the right without. The text read: “beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab”, followed by the line, “how boring would be the world if everyone would look the same? Celebrate diversity and respect hijab.”

It was part of a bigger campaign to tackle hate and discrimination. The Council of Europe, with its 47 member states and population of approximately 820 million (of which around 140 million are Muslim), said that the tweets reflected statements made by individual participants. As a Muslim woman, and as someone who has spent decades looking at representation, expression and Muslim social trends, I can say that many (not all) Muslim women who use a cover would say they find "freedom" in hijab to be true.

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While this continues to be a disaster for our sisters in France, and we stand in solidarity with them

But in the 2020s, where with a straight face can you tell a woman that her own experience and her own autonomy is not as she says it is?

France’s opposition to choices by Muslim women regarding their attire is well-known. Somehow Muslim women who wear the headscarf are oppressed and submissive, while at the same time, being offensive, anti-freedom and an existential threat to the French state.

But this has nothing to do with wearing hijabs or niqabs. We know this because of the contradictory position that France seems to hold. A Muslim woman can be fined for wearing a niqab while at the same time someone in France can be fined for not wearing a face mask. In 2018, an Algerian Muslim woman was denied French citizenship for saying she did not want to shake hands with a male official. Today, rules suggest shaking hands is not a good thing (for Covid-19 related reasons) and that a woman’s space should be respected (for #MeToo related reasons).

These getting-your-knickers-in-a-twist controversies about the hijab are so predictable, I predict another one will be along shortly. And another one after that. It is why in general I have largely refrained from writing about them. It is the same outrage recycled, with no change in the conversation.

While this continues to be a disaster for our sisters in France, and we stand in solidarity with them, I wrote this piece because it signals a bigger shift. It is laudable that the Council of Europe initiated this campaign in the first place, although clearly – since it has been pulled – we need more backbone and more progress.

But in this trajectory of hope and optimism, certain French policies appear to exist as if from a bygone era. But it's something to wonder, why the Council of Europe, is not standing up for the Muslim women it represents. It made a good start in its campaign that talked about diversity, but it needs to keep going. It even quoted the words of a Muslim woman in its social media post about freedom and that’s great. But now for the next and harder step: to stand in the shoes of Muslim women and push back with us.

Because if it doesn’t, this is literally a vetoing of some Muslim women’s voices. It needs to stop. Or, if I may add to the words Marlene Dietrich, not only do “I dress for myself”, I speak for myself. Stop erasing me. Start standing up for me.

Published: November 8th 2021, 9:00 AM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National