A “fear of Islam” has swept through European countries thanks in part to a large influx of Muslim immigrants and a rising birth rate for Muslim families in the last decade (Douthat). This has led many nations to enact laws attempting to combat Islamic influence. In 2004, France banned conspicuous displays of religion in public schools, although this was mostly aimed at Muslim headscarves (Scott, Politics of the Veil 1). The French government then made further attempts to remove “conspicuous” religious outerwear in all public sectors in the name of secularization and gender equality. However, the French argument is flawed. It fails to address how, despite popular assumptions, secularization does not necessarily share a direct relationship with gender equality – and should not be called a direct cause of gender equality. Additionally, French feminists believe that headscarves, like the niqab, rob women of their femininity and personhood, while completely ignoring the reasons Muslim women give for wearing headscarves.
The French believe that secularization, the process in which religion is removed from the public sphere and from social significance, is the key to achieving gender equality. The problem is that the French have somehow conveniently forgotten their own history of secularization and how women have been treated. As Joan W. Scott points out (“Sexularism”), the French Revolution, which sought to remove the Catholic influence from the country, was fraught with misogyny. Women were accused of being easily seduced by priests’ fanaticism and seen as the embodiments of tradition and religion by the de-christianizing forces (Scott, “Sexularism” 3). Secularism and gender equality are in no way necessarily related, despite the French Stasi commission claim that “secularism can no longer be conceived without a direct link to the ‘equality principle between the sexes’” (Selby). As Joan W. Scott demonstrates, the struggles for secularism by the French government actually lead to more women being treated as the enemy (“Sexularism” 4).
When assembling a report on the niqab, the French determined that the use of face veils somehow inevitably leads to women losing “their dignity, their femininity, and their very identity as persons,” (Selby). One leader of a French feminist organization declared in front of the Gerin Commission, which was organized in 2010 to investigate the wearing of facial veils, how she, unlike her veiled fellow women, was not ashamed of her body (Selby). In this almost painful debate to remove ostentatious religious clothing from public spaces, the French are ignoring the voices of the women they are supposedly trying to defend. Almost none of the proponents for the ban on facial veils are Muslim women. This leads us to wonder if Muslim women themselves feel the subjugation that the headscarves supposedly represent? The French arguments against headscarves basically deny the possibility that Muslim women are freely choosing to wear facial veils. Facial veils can be a part of one’s spiritual relationship just like prayer is (Scott, Politics of the Veil 143). Some Muslim women found a sense of emancipation when wearing the headscarves. Additionally, some Muslim women argue that wearing a face veil is not about their submission to men, but to God (Scott, Politics of the Veil 145), which they choose in hopes of self-transcendence (Mahmood).
Perhaps it is time to ask if French Muslim women need liberation at all. Perhaps the French mentality of liberation ought to be adapted, especially given the complex relationship between gender and different religions. Liberation must be given a broader meaning. The veil is not a symbol of oppression to many who choose to wear it in Western societies like France, just as secularism is not the solution to gender inequality.