#HijabisFightBack (fr/eng): Pourquoi les femmes musulmanes belges et françaises contre-attaquent / Why Belgium and France’s Muslim Women are Striking Back

Cover Photo: Juan Sánchez, 2020

English version

1st-year Student in the Middle East-Mediterranean Campus of MENTON

Originally Published in Dune Magazine, a North Africa-centred publication with the aim of creating a space to celebrate and discuss arts, culture and opinions for North Africa and its diaspora.

Article translated by the author, Sania Mahyou

First, there was the decision. The one of the Belgian Constitutional Court on June 4th, which ruled in favor of a higher education school in Brussels prohibiting the wearing of convictional signs within its establishment. A controversial decision, which comes on top of the many forms of discrimination already experienced by women wearing headscarves in Europe: discrimination in hiring, assaults, infantilization and deprivation of the right to education. Faced with the threat that hangs over their fundamental rights, women have decided to fight back. From colonization to the historic protest Hijabis Fight Back, let’s decipher the fights led by diasporic Muslim women in Belgium and France.

The unveiling, a colonial history

In recent years, France has been the scene of many heated debates on the question of the compatibility of the wearing of the headscarf with the values of its Republic : the case of the schoolgirls of Creil of 1989, the law of March 2004, or more recently, the controversy on the marketing of the Decathlon sports hijab or the wearing of the burkini. In addition to the problematic non-representation of Muslim women on television sets, the French colonial heritage is almost always overshadowed by polemicists. This curiosity or rather manic obsession is not so bizarre when we realize that only a few decades ago, the French administration was forcing Algerian women to take off their hijabs during unveiling ceremonies.

“Aren’t you beautiful? Unveil yourself !”
Propaganda poster produced by the 5th Psychological Action Bureau of the French army and distributed during the Algerian War of Independence

Coincidentally or not, the Hijabis Fight Back protest took place on the 58th anniversary of Algeria’s proclamation of independence. From 1830 to 1962, Algeria was “French”, or in other words, colonized by France. As early as 1865, Muslim Algerians were submitted to the Code of Indigénat, which made them second-class citizens, subject to special laws and deprived of the right to vote. This discriminatory system gradually spread to all the colonies and remained in place for nearly a century. In 1954, the Algerian revolution began. The people wanted to end the Western occupation of their lands and thus, started a war of decolonization and independence. It was in this context that in 1958, public unveiling ceremonies took place in the streets of Algiers. Ceremonies were organized by high-ranking French putschist generals and their wives.

Converting women, winning them over to foreign values, tearing them away from their status, means both gaining real power over men and possessing the practical, effective means to destroy Algerian culture.”

— FRANTZ FANON, Published in May 1957 in Résistance Algérienne (Algerian Resistance)

The complicity of French bourgeois women living in Algeria in these extremely violent events, and more generally their adherence to the ideal of the “civilizing” and “liberating” mission led by France, raises questions. These coercive unveilings clearly intended to erase all visible traces of the country’s national identity, by attacking its dress and religious customs. Therefore, many Algerian women decided to (re)wear the hijab, as a sign of insubordination. Nowadays, we have the leisure of listening to the positions of certain white upper class feminists on the question of the wearing of the hijab. Laurence Rossignol for example, who is the former French minister of Women’s rights, compared it to a voluntary submission to slavery. If anything, we can’t help but wonder if today’s white feminists, those who merely focus their struggle on the rights of white women, are not the modern-day versions of the settlers’ wives of yesteryear.

Law of 2004, broken vocations

In 2004, France adopted a law on religious signs in the school system. This law prohibited the wearing of headscarves in public high schools, middle schools and primary schools, while still allowing it in universities. In 2019, the Washington Post published a study conducted by two researchers from Stanford University in the United States. They investigated the economic and social consequences of this law on the lives of French Muslim women. By taking into account various factors such as the success rate in school or participation in the labor market, the study showed the harmful effects of the law on the fate of young Muslim women who attended the education system after it was implemented. Indeed, not only did the post-law schoolgirls of 2004 tend to perform worse at school, drop out more quickly and become more dependent on their families, they also faced more racist discriminations. Upon entering the labor market, the gap in labor force between them and their non-Muslim fellow citizens has widened, increasing by half since 2004. They have thus seen the law hamper their economic and social integration into French society. To explain these unanimously negative results, the two researchers put forward various conclusions. One such conclusion is that the 2004 law espouses the idea that personal religion and national identity are incompatible, which makes hijabis guilty of violating the principle of French secularism. Subjected to a differentiated treatment, rejected by state institutions and an increasingly Islamophobic society, hijabis face permanent psychological pressure and stress related to their studies. Among these Muslim French women, one can imagine that the number of unfulfilled dreams is staggering, as they are confronted with a terrible dilemma: giving up their studies or a part of their identity.

#HijabisFightBack, the fifth wave of the feminist movement 

“My studies, my future!”
All photos by Juan Sánchez, 2020

Even if the Belgian and French laws differ in many aspects (conception of neutrality or federal system), they are nonetheless two of the most restrictive countries in Europe concerning the wearing of the hijab. For instance, they were the first states of the Union to prohibit the wearing of the full veil in public spaces. In Belgium, a decision recently sparked off the anger of Muslim women from all walks of life and prompted them to take to the streets. The Belgian Constitutional Court had delivered its verdict in a case between a higher education school in Brussels and a young Muslim woman who was refused access to the establishment. The Court ruled in favor of the school. On the sidelines of the Hijabis Fight Back protest, I was able to speak to the passionate women who were taking part in this historic event.

Balsam, 24, chose to leave France to continue her pharmacy studies in Belgium. She explains why she joined the #HijabisFightBack movement :

“I have often faced discrimination linked to my headscarf. From the humiliations I suffered, I built my strength. I decided that it was precisely because I was Muslim and veiled that it was my duty to succeed. When we take stock today, we see very clearly that under the guise of neutrality and secularism, we are trying to make hijabis invisible at all costs. It is important that those who decide on the jurisdictions legislating the prohibition of religious symbols realize that asking a woman to take off her headscarf is just as violent as asking her to wear it. The time has come to understand that Muslim women are able to say no, no to those who want to force them to adopt a certain dress code.”

“For a decolonial feminism!” This slogan screamed at the top of the voices of some 4,000 demonstrators, resounding through the famous square of the Mont des Arts (English: Hill/Mount of Arts) in Brussels. Salma, one of the organizers of the demonstration which took place on July 5th, explains why she believes it is necessary to start a new wave within the feminist movements:

The fight for an anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist and anti-racist feminism is at the heart of our demands. Feminism has been and remains a Western, white and universalist movement: it erases our differences, our multiple identities, and as a consequence it simply rejects us because it cannot conceive of the difference we represent as non-white people. Therefore, it is important for us to reclaim this struggle and to mold it according to our identities and our needs. With the collective ‘La cinquième vague’ [The Fifth Wave] that I co-created, we decided to initiate a new wave of feminism that includes the diversity of our identities and the needs we have as both Muslim and racialized women.”

In recent years, more and more European countries have started to legislate against the wearing of the headscarf by using gender equality, state neutrality or the fight against political Islam as pretexts. The false idea that women wearing the hijab are forced to do so by their families or communities is becoming more and more widespread. As thus, the narrative goes that it is the state, “guarantor of individual freedoms”, which is taking on the role of savior, by denying access to studies, the job market, the public space and sometimes even swimming areas to hijabis as they are supposedly oppressed by their relatives. But Muslim women have decided to stop remaining silent in front of the discriminations they are facing. A new generation of non-white feminists is emerging in Europe, and the wind of renewal they have unleashed could lead to the birth of a fifth egalitarian wave, a wave that could sweep away an entire colonial legacy in its wake. ▣

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