In August 2017, a burqa-clad woman stepped into the chambers of the Australian parliament and sat down. To the individuals behind the cameras, she was entirely unknown. But for the members of Parliament, it was all too obvious who she was and what she was trying to do. The black cloth came off to reveal Senator Pauline Hanson, a right-wing, staunchly anti-Muslim senator representing the One Nation party of Australia. This was not the first time Hanson had railed against the Muslim faith–far from it. A decade earlier in her “maiden speech” to Parliament, she denounced Islam and its members for over thirty minutes, stating that “Islam cannot have a significant presence in Australia if we are to live in an open, secular and cohesive society.” The majority of members of Parliament did not share Senator Hanson’s views on the Muslim faith that August day (as evidenced when the current Attorney General lambasted her after the burqa stunt and was met with raucous applause), but she is certainly not the first elected official to rail against the Muslim faith in general, and the Muslim hijab in particular.
Christian and Islamic states have engaged in mutual antagonisms from the expansion of the Umayyad caliphate (661–750 CE) into southern Spain to the Crusades (1096–1251) to the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922). As a result, their citizens developed particular assumptions and associations that, in the twenty-first century, have hardened into stereotypes and bigotry. For Muslim citizens who live in the “West,” women in hijab, a visible symbol of their practice of the Islamic faith, are most at risk of anti-Muslim bigotry, and they have been prime targets for persecution. In the Muslim faith, hijab means a variety of things, but it is usually used to describe a veil or headscarf, which derives from the Quran. There are many reasons women wear these head coverings. Some wear it for compulsory reasons, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Others wear it because they feel it is commanded by Allah, while still others wear it as a way of sharing their Muslim faith with the world.
Senator Hanson’s recent attack is part of what critics of this type of rhetoric, such as Manal Hamzeh and Lobna Mulla, term “Hijabophobia,” an innate fear or extreme disdain for the concept of hijab and its associations with Islam. This, however, is nothing new. In French-controlled colonial Algeria, for example, it was the norm.
During the Algerian War (1954–62), the colonizing French subjected Muslims, particularly Muslim women, to many forms of discrimination. This was, in part, due to the French imperial attitude of “assimilation.” Unlike other European empires, France saw each colony’s adoption of French culture as an integral part of their rule, even extending citizenship to colonial natives so long as they adopted French customs. This emphasis on French culture carried with it obligatory Christianity (standing in direct opposition with the concept of Laïcité, secularity, stated in Article 1 of the French Constitution). The long history of Muslim-Christian antagonisms repeated itself once again when France restricted one of the most visible symbols of a person’s belief in Islam: hijab.
In the typical fashion of empire, the French exploited Muslim women in a campaign to “liberate” them and thus keep control of Algeria. Their propaganda was focused mostly on the “veil,” claiming that the act of covering one’s head or face was “backward.” Officials perpetuated the myth that Muslim men forced the veil upon women (a myth still perpetuated in western countries to this day). Because of both these physical and metaphorical veils, Muslim women were behind the times. To further enforce these stereotypes, French leaders fabricated photographs of Algerian women unveiling, letting go of their “savagery” and “backwards ideology” for a life of French metropolitan bliss, all in the midst of a war tearing the nation apart.1 Women could not vote, and most were barred from even the most rudimentary formal education. Those that obtained an education were subject to multiple forms of racism, much like in other French colonies. The French actively sought to continue colonial women’s disenfranchisement, striking down bills introducing women’s voting rights until 1958.2 These actions are in stark contrast to the colonial government’s rhetoric of female liberation.
Anti-hijab sentiments were present in other former French colonies as well. In 1981, for example, Tunisia (a former French colony that gained independence in 1956) passed Circular 108, banning hijab in schools, offices, and government buildings. This law was expanded and more strictly enforced in 1987. In interviews with the International Center for Transitional Justice, many women shared stories of the harsh effects they experienced under the law. Some were interrogated by police and banned from places of education. Others still had trouble finding employment or were threatened with expulsion from their positions simply for wearing head coverings. One woman, Najat, was thrown into prison after the police forcibly removed her from university grounds and interrogated her. But she couldn’t leave her friends behind. As she remembers: “The next morning, I went back to them. [I didn’t want to leave my friends behind]. I thought I should go to my destiny whatever it was. So, they arrested me and claimed that I had been hiding pamphlets. In the evening, they took us to court. I told the judge, ‘They didn’t find my ID, how could they find pamphlets?’ He said, ‘You can appeal.’” She spent six months in a women’s prison, followed by three years on parole.
Unsurprisingly, France also has a long history with these types of laws within the country; in 2004, it passed a law banning religious iconography in schools. This law disproportionately affected Muslims due to the prevalence of hijab among French Muslims and was thought to be specifically targeted at their community. And these types of discriminatory laws were not limited to France and its colonies. There are examples in Albania and Belgium, and the United Kingdom and Australia have passed or are deliberating over similar laws.
France’s treatment of hijab in the first two decades of the twenty-first century has not changed substantially since its colonial days. A large subset of the populace has made it their mission to treat Muslim women differently. One woman, Fariba, referred to herself and other women who wear the veil as a gauge for the feelings of the general populace. “I function as a barometer of the popularity of Muslims,” she told an interviewer, referring to the way the non-Muslim French citizens treat her. She noticed a palpable shift after the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001. The populace marked Muslim women as “representatives of the suspicious, inherently violent, and forever foreign ‘terrorist other.’” The only true difference in French policy has been a change in its excuse from “Muslim liberation” to “the sanctity of secularism.”
Things don’t seem to be getting better. In recent years, France has passed anti-face covering laws (mentioning the niqab and burqa specifically as garments that would be banned in public spaces). In the US, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, or “Judge Jeanine,” made disparaging comments about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, stating that her wearing of a hijab shows an “adherence to Sharia Law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution.” While previous US presidents have attempted to tamp down their anti-Muslim rhetoric (such as President Bush’s “Islam is peace” sentiment during a speech in the wake of 9/11), President Trump has gone out of his way to increase anti-Muslim sentiment by sharing propaganda on Twitter and attempting to ban immigration from majority Muslim nations. While these anti-Muslim sentiments do not specifically mention hijab, any attack on the Muslim faith can be construed as an attack on its religious tenets, with hijab being one of the most visible. Attacks on hijab have not slowed in the last sixty years, and it does not seem as if they will anytime soon. If anything, these attacks have only grown more common in the recent wave of fear-mongering against immigrants and refugees that practice Islam.
- Elizabeth Perego, “The Veil or a Brother’s Life: French Manipulations of Muslim Women’s Images during the Algerian War, 1954–62,” Journal of North African Studies 20, no. 3 (2015): 357. Return to text.
- Perego, “The Veil or a Brother’s Life,” 351 Return to text.