L’affaire hijab in France is weighed down with almost 30 years of rhetoric, polemique and infamy and yet, 30 years on, it still won’t quit. The French obsession and stubbornness regarding the Islamic headscarf made headlines again recently with not one but three separate incidents (none involving actual Muslim women) which are both embarrassing for l’Hexagone. More importantly, they bring up unpleasant truths, which no one wants to concede.
«Il y a des femmes qui choisissent, il y avait aussi des nègres afric… des nègres américains qui étaient pour l’esclavage. […] Je crois que ces femmes sont pour beaucoup d’entre elles des militantes de l’islam politique. Je les aborde comme des militantes, c’est-à-dire que je les affronte sur le plan des idées et je dénonce le projet de société qu’elles portent. Je crois qu’il peut y avoir des femmes qui portent un foulard par foi et qu’il y a des femmes qui veulent l’imposer à tout le monde parce qu’elles en font une règle publique.»
When Laurence Rossignol, minister of Familles, de l’enfance et des droits de femmes, took to French radio show BFMTV and compared women who wear hijab to black people who support slavery, I sighed. Her remarks came at a most unfortunate time: Air France stewardesses had just mutinied against having to wear a hijab with their uniforms on the newly reinstated Paris-Tehran route, sparking a debate about human rights and cultural tolerance. Yves Saint Laurent co-founder Pierre Berge took a leaf out of Rossignoul’s book days later to criticize the growing attention of Western fashion houses to Muslim women and the modest fashion revolution, telling them to “ne pas enfermer les femmes dans des voiles, comme des prisons, plus durs que cela en a l’air.”
I cringed, because these statements seemed designed to shock, but also because there is an element of truth to them that is unsettling for me as a Muslim and diehard feminist. Although irritated that the French can’t just leave Muslim women and their clothes alone, I am not going to police-thought and word-police people for their opinions. The AirFrance flight attendants, I felt, were overreacting: after all, they weren’t protesting the fact that they would have to wear hijab while in Iran. They were protesting having to wear hijab from the time hey landed to the time they got to their hotel, with their uniforms. A two, three hour ordeal at most? Seriously? Yet I can’t quite condemn neither Roussignol nor Berge nor the flight attendants, because I understand what they are trying to say, and the dilemma that surrounds the hijab for non-Muslim Westerners and Muslims alike.
Out of the three, the Minister’s remarks generated the most ire, although the public was quick to point out that back in the day Berge and Yves a Saint Laurent (a major fan of Morocco) had sold hijabs and modest clothing in a beautiful advertising campaign. To which I thought: but back then, there was no Islamist Revolution in Iran, there was no use of the hijab as a political tool. I waited for the Muslim responses crying discrimination and Islamophobia, the personal narratives by young (always young) and proud Muslimahs wishing to explain to Mme Rossignol and M Berge how they are not oppressed or enslaved by their faith. I waited for the black community to respond, although slavery is certainly less of a looming tragedy in France than it is in the United States. I waited for the human rights activists to call for her resignation. And I waited for someone-anyone, but particularly a Muslim-to acknowledge that Mme Rossignol and Pierre Berge might just have a point.
All of the above happened, except for an eloquent analysis stating that there was a truth to these statements. The Air France stewardesses haven’t been condemned, probably because they were standing up to Iran, but I hold them in contempt for their lack of respect and tolerance. 17,000 signed a petition to have Mme Rossignol fired, while the Twitterverse exploded vitriol at the woman, who ironically also happens to have co-founded SOS Racisme. But perhaps it’s not so ironic as everyone gleefully pointed out.
Firstly, there were blacks who supported slavery, felt that life was better under slavery, as impossible as that might seem. Secondly, there are women everywhere who contribute to their own oppression, even though they might not realize it or may not have a choice per se; an obvious example would be the mothers who condone the honor killing of their daughters, or the rape of their daughters, or the arranged marriage of their daughters to someone twenty years their junior. Are they not somewhat complicit in upholding the patriarchal, sexist system that binds them? It’s not exactly Stockholm Syndrome.
I would like to propose that just because someone doesn’t support the hijab does not mean that they are racist. After all, there are Muslim women who do not wear nor support wearing the hijab. I like to call these women the forgotten Muslimahs. Because when you’re talking about Muslim women, these women just do NOT COME UP. They are of no use to Islamists, to Islamophobes, to feminists or to Muslims. Their existence throws a wrench into the argument that ALL Muslim women are oppressed, just as it complicates the argument that Muslim women must wear hijab.
“Les femmes ont droit de se voiler, mais je ne vois pas pourquoi on va vers cette religion, ses habitudes, ses moeurs absolument incompatibles avec celles de la liberté qui sont les nôtres, occidentaux”.
For a woman who is the minister of women’s rights, Mme Rossignoul’s comment might have been Ill-advised. But: she is the minister for women’s rights. Most women in France view the hijab as constricting women’s rights. Even if you support hijabi rights-heck-even if you wear hijab, you could concede that Rossignoul and Berge have spoken some unpleasant truths.
The problem is that to admit these truths requires heavy unpacking of Islam, of interpretation, of feminism, of human rights, of culture, of right and wrong. It’s a messy discussion, not a crystal-clear debate. It’s a sensitive topic where it’s impossible to not stick ones foot in ones mouth or offend someone. I surely am not doing a precise, eloquent job of arranging my thoughts here, but I’m brainstorming anyways. We have to have the courage to talk about things in this thought-police world that may make us uncomfortable, that may be to our disadvantage, that might buck the status quo on both sides.
I don’t believe that the hijab embodies women’s disenfranchisement. But if you wear the hijab, are you not saying that you don’t want men to look at your body, are you not implying that men absolutely will look at your body in an inappropriate way because they cannot contain themselves unless you cover? Rather than wearing whatever one wants, hijabi women thus cater to men’s uncontrollable actions and desires not by giving them what they want but from hiding from them. Their body might be meant for their husbands only, but it in fact belongs to the patriarchy. (I am fully aware that this argument at wearing sexy clothes also caters to the patriarchy, but no one forces an American woman to wear sexy clothes. Most women do not wear tube tops and mini skirts on a daily basis, or ever, so I resent that being the candle to which hijab is compared to. Most wear normal clothes that cover their bodies.)
“…être le complice de cette dictature qui impose cette chose abominable qui fait qu’on cache les femmes, qu’on leur fait vivre une vie dissimulée”.
Theoretically, in my opinion, modest dressing caters to mend dominance, whether you actually put a hijab on it or simply hide your body. I myself am guilty of choosing to dress a little bit more conservatively these days, because I hate men looking at me in the city. I am indirectly choosing to hide from bad men and letting them dictate what I wear, when if I was at home I’d happily run around in shorts and a tee shirt. I am letting them occupy public space, where they can wear whatever the fuck they want while I hide under a long trench coat or baggy shirts.
The act of choosing to wear hijab is a sign of liberation on the surface. But as some scholars have argued, how much choice is really in that choice, and how much of it is subconscious influence from family, friends, neighbors, society? The hijab does not prevent rape not sexual assault. It does not prevent men, especially in its fashionista version, from seeing the shape of women’s bodies. Hijab does not prevent women from being women, discriminated against, abused against: from being living, breathing women. A burqa, contrary to the ads, does not turn one into an actual trash bag, or bed sheet, or ghost. Men know that you have lady parts under there.
We can sit here and vilify Rossignol, Bergne and AirFrance. We can see red at the word negre and demand resignations, apologies, blind acceptance. But if we don’t look at the other side-that is the Rossignol and Berge and stewardesses side-of the coin then we are doing an immense disservice to discourse and Muslim women alike. What makes us uncomfortable is that Rossignoul is a self described non racist, just as Bergne describes himself as not an Islamophobe. We don’t like that l’affaire foulard is neither black nor white, but the grey area cannot be covered up any longer.