Unveil Them to Save Them: France and the Ongoing Colonization of Muslim Women’s Bodies

By: Jyhene Kebsi

May 13, 2021

Islam, Secularism, and the Culture Wars in France

In October 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced what he saw as the “crisis of Islam.” Macron emphasized the threat of “Islamist separatism,” which aimed to create a “counter-society” that rejected secularism, equality between the sexes, and other parts of French law. French senators debated Macron’s “anti-separatism” bill, and on March 30, they approved an amendment to the bill that called for “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men.” A second amendment would ban parents who dress in religious clothing from participating in the school activities and trips of their children. In order for both amendments to take place, France’s National Assembly will need to sign off on the change. Since the French Constitution prohibits religious discrimination, the law does not use the term “Muslims” explicitly. However, it is very clear that it singles out France’s Muslim minority population.

Here, it is important to remember that French authorities’ attempts to police Muslim women’s bodies have their roots in the history of colonization, especially in the Maghreb. The French determination to “save” Muslim women from their veils can be traced to an era during which Maghrebi land, resources, and labor were exploited in the name of “protecting” les indigènes and “enlightening” them. Unveiling was one strategy in this “enlightenment project,” which associated the veil with backwardness. During the colonial period, French colonizers wanted Algerian women to remove their veils and embrace the French lifestyle. Today, French political culture wants Muslim women to do the same thing. 

During the colonial period, French colonizers wanted Algerian women to remove their veils and embrace the French lifestyle. Today, French political culture wants Muslim women to do the same thing.

In the Algerian context, French military officers equated the domination of women with the domination of the entire country, and the colonial administrators viewed the control of Algerian women as indispensable to their “civilizing mission.” Maurice Viollette, who served twice as governor general of Algeria, is well known for his statement: “One cannot envisage the question of relations between Europeans and natives without devoting a special chapter to the native woman.” Viollette’s stance finds its parallel in the position of the current French president, who thinks that “reforming” Islam necessitates a “reform” of Muslim women’s lifestyles, including clothing.

Frantz Fanon’s classic essay “Algeria Unveiled” shows us the centrality of Algerian women to the colonial project. In the colonialist fantasy, to possess Algeria’s women is to possess Algeria. For French colonizers, the veil signified Muslim culture and tradition. So, colonial administrators insisted that it had to be abandoned. This significance was due to the role colonized women could play in assimilating colonized families and societies. The same scenario is seen today, as assimilating veiled women into the non-veiled population is considered a way to prevent their “radicalization” and that of their families.

Assimilating veiled women into the non-veiled population is considered a way to prevent their “radicalization” and that of their families. 

As a historical example, in 1958 the wives of French army officers presided over the public unveiling of Algerian women. These French wives made a number of Algerian women “emancipate” themselves by making a public spectacle of their unveiling. Under French colonization, Muslim Maghrebi women were persuaded, paid, or forced to remove their veils and to adopt the slogan, “Let’s be like the French woman.” Today, Muslim French women are told they are not French enough if they cover their hair. Today, they too are asked to shed their veils in order to be “like the French woman,” even though France is their home and place of birth.

The French colonial administration thought assimilation would facilitate the ruling of natives. In the eyes of French politicians, past and present, the safety and power of the French nation depend on a piece of cloth. Macron’s “anti-separatism” proposal repeats history, presenting the “assimilation” of the veiled woman into the non-veiled population as key to empowering a France that has been weakened by terrorism. His words replicate the colonial discourse that considered the “uplifting” of colonized Muslim women to be an essential prerequisite for French empowerment. 

In 2021, “uplifting” the veiled to the status of the unveiled continues to be seen by the French president and Senate as a condition for ensuring the security and power of France. The approval of Macron’s bill reflects the continuity of the colonial logic of controlling women’s bodies in order to police the entire Muslim population. Colonial administrators congratulated themselves on “saving” Maghrebi women from Maghrebi men by unveiling them. Similar to the French colonizers who forgot that forced unveiling was the real incarnation of sexist inferiority, the masculine French state of today ignores that policing women’s bodies is undeniable proof of misogyny and oppression. 

When will French authorities understand that forcing women to unveil is as oppressive and as misogynist as forcing them to wear the veil?

Just like during the Algerian war of independence in the twentieth century, many Muslim women are responding to this policing with various attitudes of refusal. Under colonization, wearing the veil was an important form of refusal. Today, Muslim women respond to Macron’s forced unveiling by highlighting that many of them wear the veil by choice. The hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab, which has circulated widely on social media, proves their pride in wearing their headscarves. Many Muslim women have pointed out the anti-Muslim bias of the legislation by tweeting that in France the age of consent to have sex is 15 years old, whereas the newly imposed age of consent to wear hijab is 18 years old. 

As a non-veiled Muslim feminist whose country continues to suffer from the ongoing legacy of French colonialism, I would like to end this piece by asking the perpetual question: When will French authorities understand that forcing women to unveil is as oppressive and as misogynist as forcing them to wear the veil?

comments powered by Disqus