Updated: Aug 24, 2021
By Irisa R. and Lamisa H.
In our community when women choose to wear less they are called “modern” (one side) or they are shamed (the other side). It is a lose-lose.
Irisa: My friend in high school once turned to me and asked me if I had burn injuries on my legs. I looked at her in horror, “No, why would you ask that?” She responded, “Well, why else would you cover your legs?” She assumed that I had life-altering burn injuries as the secret reason for why I chose to wear pants instead of a skirt to school. When I explained that out of respect for my religious beliefs I chose to cover my body, she responded with, “That’s really sad my Grandma said to flaunt it while I have it.”
What is “freedom”?
It has been found that our current social media platforms have skilfully created a connection between the concept of being, “empowered”, “sexy” and “liberated” with women wearing less. Three years ago Instagram’s algorithm was exposed for having a secret inbuilt process where it was 54% more likely for a post of a woman in a “state of undress” to show up on your feed. This might seem harmless. But what this algorithm did was it normalised these images, and then rebranded them as a digestible and exciting form of feminism.
Confusing feminism with wearing less can’t just be boiled down to social media and traditional advertising. It comes from a very specific context. In the 1950s during the suffragette movements in both America and Australia, white women were protesting for the right to dress as they please, without being subject to the stigma that comes with wearing less. What we would now call slut-shaming was common for that time.
Therefore, the act of wearing less was considered an act of defiance against a conservative state, where women were fighting for their ability to choose how they dress. It is understandable that in countries such as ours, with this history, that wearing less can be symbolic of fighting for choice, and this is valid in its own right. But it is most definitely not the only way to exercise agency over our bodies. Our choice to dress modestly, is usually questioned and definitely not celebrated in a culture that correlates being progressive with wearing less.
Why you so obsessed with [my hair?]
Essentially in Islam, to be modest is to cover oneself. This is given the reasoning and intent that in covering your body you are both respecting the sanctity of the body, where it’s seen as a home for the ruuh (soul). This is a simplification but it captures the essence of modesty and what it means to us. Covering our body is our way of honouring the idea that our purpose is beyond being seen. That is where the liberation of the hijab comes from.
Just last week, the EU Court of Justice, the highest Court in the European Union, agreed that any employer in any EU company could ban the hijab in their workplace. Practically, this means that an employer could turn to a staff member that wears the hijab and simply say you can no longer work here unless you remove the hijab. If this sounds extreme, France, Belgium and the Netherlands already have laws that prohibit the hijab in either schools or places of work. In this decision, the court maintains that this is for the purpose of maintaining a “neutral image” or to prevent “social disputes.”
“Neutrality” is a loaded word. What does it mean kind sir when you say ‘neutrality’? By definition, it means to be impartial. In another definition, it is the absence of a view, expression or strong feeling. We don’t know about you, but banning a piece of clothing seems pretty partial to us. It seems like a violent act that is most definitely, taking a side.
Can you imagine taking off your clothes because a white man asked you to?
So in this case, what is “neutral” code for? Its code for erasure, code for assimilation and code for upholding and maintaining a colonial state.
Lamisa: If wearing the hijab is my version of neutral, who are you to contest that? If by neutral, you mean secular (which you do), at what point does being neutral impede on a woman’s choice and agency?
You might ask, what’s the difference between enforcing a uniform and enforcing a no-hijab policy? Is it really discrimination if all forms of political, philosophical or religious beliefs are prohibited? The court also clarified that this expression must be visible. It is unlikely that they would see a Sikh woman wearing a kara, and suspend her for not removing it; it isn’t visible enough, and doesn’t defy dominant cultural hegemony. This recent court decision is a roundabout way of the policing Muslims, and it is being done through the most visible indicator of ‘Muslim-ness’ -- the hijab.
This begs the next question - Is it just because the hijab is a visible marker of Islam that makes it problematic, impartial and subjective? Or is there a whole colonial history to all of this? Let’s take France as an example. Why was it the first to ban the hijab in schools? Why has it been so busy, busy with policing Muslim women? What’s its history?
The Hatred of the Hijab
We know how colonisation worked, it was an exploitation of land and people but it was also psychological warfare. The French led the way when it came to convincing the world that their colonialism was for the “greater good”. France spent one hundred and thirty two years colonising Algeria, where the Algerian people spent the last five years of French rule fighting for their independence. The French needed to systematically undermine the agency and autonomy of both Arab and Berber women, and they could see that Algerian women were becoming the face of the liberation movement. Therefore in 1957, France’s Psychological Warfare Unit designed and executed a propaganda campaign that would showcase their colonial rule as “saving Muslim woman” from a “barbaric Islam” and therefore, would be used to justify why the French colonised Algeria in the first place, and why they were refusing to leave.
An official order shared between French army officials read that for:
“Muslim woman to [become] a modern, civilised woman...like the French woman...each Muslim woman must remove the veil...that smothers her, that impedes her in her work, or during her education...and which above all else deprives her of her liberty and imprisons her between four walls.”
The French occupying army started with the disturbing practice of unclothing Algerian women publicly and broadcasting this to the French public in what was called “unveiling ceremonies”.
It was as crude and disturbing as the name suggests. It was a practice where Algerian women would be forced into unveiling themselves and then burning their veil before the French officials. These photographs were then shared across local and international press platforms to prove that Algerian women wanted to be “free of Islam” and that the French were there to “liberate” them. Surprise! The idea of tying liberation to the state of unveiling had officially taken root.
The French army enlisted European women to attend and run these “unveiling ceremonies,” where they would respond with shrill ululations (essentially a modern day woo-hoo) in support of this undressing. This solidified the idea that European women were “modern” and “free” in comparison to Muslim women who were “oppressed by the veil”. Similar forced unveiling violence was used by Russian forces as a part of their colonial rule over parts of Central Asia and by the French in Egypt. The French army officials in Algeria touted that ‘only the hand of a European woman could lift the veil of a Muslim woman’. This is why European women would attend these ‘ceremonies’ - it is a particularly violent part of the history of white feminism where women served the colonial state under the pretense of universal women’s rights.
White feminist much?
When we say white feminism, we mean women in the Global North dictating what they consider freeing or limiting and then imposing those ideals on women in the Global South under the blanket term of “liberation”. It’s the reason that Michelle Obama can export her program “Let Girls Learn” to Afghanistan under the claim of feminism without ever being questioned on whether that feminism was to serve the girls of Afghanistan, or to serve the American empire.
The Algerian women refused to fit into this whitewashed narrative, and remained absolutely steadfast in their decision to observe the veil. This defiance can be seen in the famous war photographs taken by a French national, Marc Garranger. This man was asked by the French army to photograph Berber women and when the women refused to remove their veil the French officials forced them to. The photographer later described this as a,
“Terrible humiliation for these women, to appear with uncovered hair in front of the French and most of them expressed an incredible distress...The response of the women to the act of aggression against them is visible in each of their expressions.”
These photos can still be found with a quick Google search. Yet, these photographs are visceral and when we first saw them we almost had a guttural reaction. It is so clear that they did not want to be photographed without the veil and yet these are some of the most popular images found on the Algerian liberation effort. To be humiliated not once but every time those photographs are seen (which by the way, the Times published). So we have taken this opportunity to respect their wishes.
Asking someone to undress, even if it might not seem like undressing to you, is the most aggressive and humiliating use of power.
The women are still immortalised as serving at the forefront of the liberation movement and shaping the nation’s vision of independence in a brutal campaign by the French military that targeted not only their freedom and independence - but also their bodies.
It’s Not Always Her Choice
Let’s get into this - even though neither of us had the experience of having a father, or husband, or a man in our life tell us how to dress, or what to wear, we know that this happens. There is also the quiet assumption that when we decide to dress modestly we are doing it to obey our parents or the men in our lives, or that we’ve been conditioned to doing so. If this were the case, why would so many women be posting on instagram with the hashtag #handsoffmyhijab? Obviously, ‘Muslim women’ are not a homogenous group, and we do not all share the same experiences. We may be two Muslim women but we could never speak on behalf of all.
The way that Muslim woman can sometimes be policed within our own communities can fall into the colonial trope that “Muslim men decide how Muslim woman should dress,” and also shows the lack of awareness about the fact that choice is at the centre of how we practice. There are so many aspects of our religion that are obligatory, for example, to fast and to pray. However, we would never force a stranger into praying or fasting. This analogy can be drawn out to show how nonsensical it is for strangers to decide whether a woman should cover her body, or whether she should show more. But here we are, where strangers on a court bench made the decision on behalf of many Muslim woman that wearing the hijab to work may no longer be a choice that they can make for themselves. Therefore, the fact that women are often at the forefront of any modest dress debate is precisely the problem.
So many might ask - how about when we visit a Muslim country and we are expected to cover? A tourist is expected to wear a veil when they visit a mosque in Dubai and although this might be uncomfortable it cannot be considered equal to a German employer requiring a woman to take off her hijab before she goes to work. One is putting on an extra jacket and the other one is being asked to take off your pants.
Editor: Tahmina R.
Neil Macmaster, Burning the veil The Algerian war and the ‘emancipation’ of Muslim women 1954–62, 2020.
Sara Heshmati, Saba Rasheed Ali & Sneha Pitre, Transnational Feminism and the Policing of Muslim Women’s Bodies: Implications for Therapy, 2021.
Raissa Killoran, Gendered Secularization and the Body Policing of Muslim Women, 2011