The most recent wave of antagonising Muslims in Europe has reached Belgium this summer. A constitutional decision on June 4th has enabled a hijab ban in universities. Consistent with the era of online activism, the ban was met with the hashtag #hijabisfightback. Through this online movement, images of women fighting to dress how they wish and attend university started gaining prominence. The implications of this ban are endless and frightening. Many feminist organisations have spoken up to express their concerns on it.
In a world deeply influenced by white feminism, necessary conversations about forced hijab and modesty culture are often overtaken by conversations filled with Islamophobic sentiment. Most prominently, conversations about forced hijab have become tinged with Orientalism. The idea that Muslim men are more misogynistic than non-Muslim, specifically white men, has become prevalent. Islamophobia is now a gendered struggle.
WHY THE HIJAB BAN SHOULD WORRY ALL WOMEN
Criticism of Muslim women is still widespread in the workplace nowadays. Muslim women need white women’s support, in order to feel safer at work. The entitlement of the state over how Muslim women dress should cause alarm for all women, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Women must not be under state-imposed regulations on their clothes and bodies.
Select universities have said they are committed to upholding freedom of expressing religious beliefs. However, Belgian higher education institutions, as a whole, have not fully committed to rebelling just yet. These universities have chosen to fulfil a legislation disrespecting female Muslim students. Despite protests in Brussels attended by thousands, and a widespread pour of rage from the global community, the Belgian government has shown no intention to overturn this decision.
REASONS BEHIND THE HIJAB BAN
The hijab ban would cause greater reluctance from Muslim women to attend university or drop out in higher numbers and, further down the line, education gaps between Muslim women and the rest of society. This would then translate into unemployment, wealth gaps, and it would hold back an entire generation.
Arguably, “for nearly twenty years now, the hair of women of Muslim faith has become a major political issue”, and its unveiling is now a pressing priority, says Pierre Tevanian. Muslim women are being simultaneously seen as a threat to public safety and a group of “traditionally submissive” women, as described by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. The hijab has changed from simply being a spiritual and religious practice to a hypothesis for violence and oppression. One piece of fabric has become the central idea around which gendered Islamophobia has materialised.
‘WHITE SALVATION’ AND ITS IMPACT ON MUSLIM WOMEN
Many arguments supporting the ban revolve around the idea that it can save Muslim women from the oppression of forced hijab. The colonial era created the foundation of a white saviour complex for Muslim women. One of Franz Fanon’s most controversial essays, “Algeria Unveiled”, details the ways in which French colonial rule aimed to civilise and ‘save’ Algerian Muslim women from the veil.
This concept has become an integral part of western society’s relationship with Muslim women. It was prevalent throughout the height of the US-Iran tension. The idea that war from the west is salvation for Muslim women is rooted in imperialism. This is not to say that Muslim women face no oppression. It is how the rest of the world has positioned themselves as their salvation, which is deeply insulting and, in the case of the Belgian hijab ban, turns into oppression. The unspoken social systems created by colonialism masquerade themselves as concern for Muslim women.
SECULARISM: A CONCERNING SYSTEM
Another running argument in support of the ban is that wearing a hijab in public spaces threatens secularism and secular society. The separation of the Church and State is the foundation of secularism. Universities, hospitals and other institutions are treated as an extension of the state and, therefore, the bans on religious wear, in this case hijabs, are justified.
Secularism as a wider system intends to protect all religious beliefs and hold them with equal legal protection. Secularism does not imply the end of public displays of worship. In instances like the ban on hijabs at universities, the argument of secularism divulges from its intents and origins and becomes religious suppression.
Comments from British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, such as describing women who wear burqas as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” has made Muslim women feel threatened in the safety of their religious prerogative. It is important that the global community stands strong and in solidarity with Muslim women in Belgium and the rest of the world.
Continental Europe has slowly introduced more and more restrictions on them, from the Burkini ban to restricting Muslim women from wearing a hijab in places of work or burkas in public spaces. The creeping increase of restrictions on Muslim women’s wear should be a concern for every woman.