In the beginning of April 2021, the French Senate passed a measure that severely limited Muslim women’s freedoms to visibly practice their religion. The most controversial of the measures prevents anyone under the age of 18 to wear a veil in public. In addition, mothers who wear a hijab will not be allowed to accompany kids on field trips. Further, burqinis, the swimsuit of choice for many Muslim women, will not be allowed in public pools or beaches.
The intention behind these bills, according to conservative French lawmakers, is to reinforce republican principles and to give officials the means to combat Islamic radicalism. The law, although it does not directly mention Islam or hijabs particularly, denotes the “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify an interiorization of women over men.” Although not yet in effect, and likely to never make it past the lower house of Parliament, the bills have led to a flurry of social media posts renouncing the bill and pointing out the bill’s warped logic of liberating women from being forced to wear a hijab by forcing women, many who willingly choose to wear it, to take it off.
France is not alone in its targeting of Muslim women under the auspices of women’s rights or national security; Switzerland recently banned burqas from being worn in public.
In 2013, Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor at Columbia University, wrote a book with the name Do Muslim Women Need Saving?. If you read the book, the answer to the question was a resounding no and the name of the book is seemingly a rhetorical question. However, the events in France and the rest of Europe all feed into the idea that Muslim women are indeed in need of saving. This is not the first time that Western countries have used this justification for foreign intervention, including military invasion. The illusion that Muslim women are indeed in need of saving from the clenches of Islam is misinformed to say the least and often takes away the Muslim women’s own agency, reducing them to a “stereotyped singularity”.
The U.K. and the U.S. welcomed the use of women’s rights rhetoric to gain support their involvement in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Now France is using this same rhetoric in the name of saving women from the hands of Islamic radicalisation within their borders.
Despite all of the focus on ‘saving’ Muslim women, their voices are often left unheard or overlooked by our Western ideals. While many see the hijab as a sign of submission to men, historically many Muslim women noted that it was a “liberating invention”. France’s so-called protection of women, in reality, is a form of Islamophobia and a breach of their rights. It is taking away a woman’s ability to freely and conspicuously practice her religion. Focusing on Muslim women draws attention away from the injustices and inequalities within our society that support the policies and actions which, in turn, create harsh conditions for often minority communities to live in.
To answer the question: no, Muslim women do not need saving. However, Islamophobia and other racist policies that perpetuate societal inequalities do need to be addressed. In the U.K., Islamophobia has been precipitously rising. An Arab News poll in 2017 found that “the majority of British people were in favour of racial profiling against Arabs”. In 2019, a significant proportion of British people had an unfavourable view of Islam compared to any other religion.
JAN Trust speaks out against all forms of racism and strongly believes in religious freedom. Our mission aims to help Muslim communities and to empower women within those communities. We work to combat Islamophobia and give Muslim communities peace of mind by providing them with safe spaces to reintegrate into British society. To learn more about our work please visit our website: https://jantrust.org/