Feminism for Hijabis: A Critique of Laws that Prohibit Islamic Veiling in Western Countries

By:  Bria Burgamy

Feminism. Beyoncé sings about it. Gloria Steinem mobilizes for it. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about it. Women around the world are being called to step into their power, demand equality, and shatter glass ceilings – and rightfully so. As feminist movements gain momentum, however, some women are being left behind. Veiled Muslim women are one example of a group that is rarely invited to feminism’s table. Instead of being included in the discussion, Muslim women are merely a topic of conversation for other feminists. Are Muslim women oppressed and in need of rescue? Or are they pawns of terrorism and a threat to international security? These are the questions some feminists attempt to answer, rarely consulting with actual Muslim women. Feminist culture assumes the persona of a white, straight, socioeconomically privileged woman, and that woman claims to speak for all women.[i]

Critical race feminism attempts to deconstruct and rebuild this dominant feminist

discourse by indicating that “race and gender interact in a multiplicative fashion to influence both the identity of and discrimination against women of color.”[ii] This deconstruction shines a light on the dark side of ideals such as non-discrimination and equality, which often fail to encompass every woman’s experience. These ideals often perpetuate Westernized forms of non-discrimination and equality – such as the belief that Islamic veiling is oppressive. By encouraging one form of feminism with one vision of what equality looks like, hijabis fall through the cracks of feminism. 

On April 11, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) made a monumental

decision in a lawsuit between S.A.S., a 24-year old French Muslim woman, and the French Republic regarding Law 2010-1192 (“the Law”). The Law, which prohibits any person from concealing his or her face in public, became widely known as the first “burqa ban.”  S.A.S. brought the lawsuit, claiming the Law to be a violation of several articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”).

France essentially argued the Law pursues three legitimate aims: (1) security, (2) societal

integration and democracy, and (3) feminism. Despite disagreement from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the Court held the Law does not violate the Convention. Although the Court did not uphold the Law under the purported notions of security or feminism, it did give strong deference to the French principle of vivre ensemble, meaning “living together.” The Court’s decision set harrowing precedent for the proliferation of such laws in Western countries. As of 2019, partial or full bans are in effect in Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Latvia, Austria, Bulgaria, and Quebec, Canada.

According to a study by Open Society Justice Initiative in 2013, niqabis living in France

reported decreased socialization and mobility, deterioration of mental and physical health, fear of assault and arrest, and loss of employment. These negative effects have led to an extremely strained family life, which the women who participated in the study said was the most damaging consequence of all. Feminist movements strive for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes – but these negative effects prove that “burqa bans” are detrimental forces which inhibit the achievement of those goals. As one woman from the OSJI study so poignantly said, “The hardest thing to swallow is the hypocrisy of being told, ‘[Law 2010-1192] is for you, it’s so that women can be free’ while I’ve never felt so confined in my life.”

Muslim women’s behavior and identity are scrutinized and devalued through the

dominant feminist discourse, which ultimately fails to recognize the importance of autonomy. That discourse must be torn down, and each woman must be allowed and encouraged to rebuild feminism for herself, as she sees fit. “Burqa bans” are particularly powerful in robbing hijabis of the opportunity to make those empowering decisions. Mandatory veiling is still prevalent in parts of the world, and such mandatory veiling should indeed be condemned. However, this fact should not allow for the implication that all veiled women are forced or coerced to do so. The decision to veil should reside within each woman, and should never be placed in the hands of policymakers. In order to truly strive for social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, a woman’s right to make her own choices must be the pillar of feminism.

[i] Angela P. Harris, Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory, 42 Stan. L. Rev. 581, 588 (1990).

[ii] Leila Hilal, What Is Critical Race Feminism?, 4 Buff. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 367, 367 (1998).

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