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4 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:05pm

Why we should stop fixating on what Muslim women wear

Banning burqas is a reflection of the colonial undercurrents that structure society. 

By Alia Al-Saji

Quebec’s provincial government is preparing a new law to prevent public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. This includes judges, crown prosecutors, prison guards, police officers, and teachers from primary to high school.

Quebec is not alone in passing its “secularism law.” France, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and some parts of Germany have all passed different laws, with different reasonings, aimed at controlling how Muslim women dress in public. Indeed, Quebec already has a law that bans covering one’s face when using public services and transportation.

While some of these laws ban face covering in public in the name of “transparency” and “security”, others restrict conspicuous religious signs for the sake of “religious neutrality”. The trouble, of course, is that what counts as “conspicuous” always ends up designating the forms of dress of other religions: kippa, turban, hijab, and niqab.

For Muslim women, these bans represent a confusion regarding what they wear, and a homogenisation of the diverse experiences and reasons Muslim women have for adopting a particular form of dress.

Unveiling is often presented as a simple, rational choice. But this overlooks the ways that unveiling might be more akin to feeling undressed in public for some Muslim women. Veiling is not only about piety or political identity, but about a bodily sense of self. And to present unveiling as the removal of just any arbitrary piece of clothing – say a hat or scarf – is to hide the violence that forced unveiling involves.

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In addition to this active disregard for the experience of hijabi Muslim women, the recent wave of laws banning religious symbols in Quebec, France, Denmark, and elsewhere produces a sense of emergency that focuses our attention on the present—as if veiling were a new “problem” facing the west and not part of a longstanding western mission to unveil Muslim women in colonial outposts around the world.

In Quebec, for instance, most discussions trace the new laws banning religious symbols back to debates over the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities that took place as part of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in 2007-2008. This commission responded to frenetic media attention over what were presented as “unreasonable” accommodations related to food and dress that Muslims and Jews had requested.

When a longer timeline is considered, Quebec’s history of domination by the Catholic church is usually discussed and taken to explain the visceral reactions to other religious groups in the present. However, I think a longer and more complex duration is at stake: one that draws on our colonial heritage.

Viewed through this colonial lens, Muslims are understood to be trapped in the past. Women wearing the hijab are thought to be a visible symbol of a lack of progress. This perception is not just a result of the old colonialist’s idea that Muslims are more traditional or “backward”; it is also founded on the notion that Muslim ways of life are incompatible with western modernity.

Such a perception ignores the various practices of dress that Muslims adopt. No one seems to notice, for example, that the hijab, as a headscarf, can be combined with many other sartorial practices, with “western” forms of dress, and can be worn fashionably, piously, playfully, and creatively. This failure to recognise modern adaptations of Muslim dress means the hijab is stubbornly misperceived in western debates surrounding it, debates where hijabi Muslim women are rarely heard. And if they are, it is often with suspicion.

What is particularly overlooked is the sense of hijab as an adaptation to secularized public spaces, as a modern form of dress that conjugates religious practice with public life and makes everyday socialising and mixing possible.

Take the burkini, for example. It allows Muslim women to enjoy swimming in public pools and open water. It also enables Muslim and non-Muslim women alike to refract a gaze that might otherwise seek of objectify, sexualise, and categorise their bodies.

As a form of protection that allows one access to public spaces without being assimilated to a sexualised ideal, the burkini is the inverse of the gender oppression it is often represented to be. Instead of seeing the hijab or burkini as obfuscations of agency or the oppressive hiding of subjectivity, they can be read as bodily forms of expression that respond to the social contexts in which we live.

These misreadings of Muslim dress are more than misperceptions, since rational argument, counter examples and historic analyses fail to correct them. One grows weary of how often the debates around Muslim women’s “veiling” recommence, with a recalcitrance that repeatedly disregards previous arguments against banning the practice.

Philosophers of racism would call this recalcitrance an active ignorance, a disregard that creates or constitutes the racialised perceptions of “others.” What is more, the reinvention and rephrasing of bans on veiling are part of how anti-Muslim racism endures, taking on a different guise and hiding under the mantel of seemingly consensual social norms in a given society.

Whether it be secularism, transparency, integration, security, or ideals of freedom, justice, and gender equality, these normative frameworks are instrumentalised to justify the exclusion of Muslim women, and the differential treatment and domination of Muslims more generally.

Ironically, on the second anniversary of the shooting at the Quebec City mosque that took the lives of six Muslim men, it is the policing of Muslim women’s bodies that preoccupies public discourse in places like Quebec. This not only distracts from the gaping need for action to reduce anti-Muslim racism, and even from the ability to name this racism, it also effaces social and political responsibility for Islamophobia by placing its burden on the heads of Muslim women.

In this racism, Muslim women are projected as “other,” as of another time, in a representation that intertwines exoticism (and the colonial desire to unveil women) with hostility and suspicion. Even when they are no longer taken to be the pawns of Muslim men, and even when a Muslim woman’s agency is recognized, this racialising construction survives. Indeed, her agency is used against her, so that hijabi Muslim women are seen as actively obfuscating and deceiving. And seen in this way, Muslims become objects of suspicion that are incommensurable with positions of authority.

This incommensurability also draws on an emotive dimension. The suspicious perception of Muslims is woven through with discomfort. The unease of an imagined (white, said to be “de souche”) petitioner, citizen or pupil, in the face of a Muslim “authority” figure becomes a justification for that figure’s exclusion.

To reduce this racist reaction by removing its target inverts the logic of racism and constructs Muslims as an intolerable part of the social body. The seeming immediacy of repulsion or discomfort naturalises the perception of the hijab as an untrustworthy, oppressive, uncomfortable anomaly in the social fabric – one that needs to be excised.

In the case of Quebec, it is worth remembering that the social fabric from which Muslims are now being excluded was constructed via the excision, assimilation, and decimation of indigenous peoples and by supressing the history of indigenous and Black slavery. Muslim Quebecers need to take a longer view of the Quebec in which they reside. We should not simply question the current exclusion of Muslims, but also consider Quebec’s long-standing treatment of First Nations and Inuit peoples, and its Black population.

In French and European contexts, the purified history of secular progress towards liberty and equality renders invisible France’s reliance on colonisation and slavery to build the wealth of its imperial republic, and elides the ways it relegated its colonised (often Muslim) “others” to sub-human status, blocking their access to that mythical equality.

In this longue durée, we should recognise the continuation of these policies that attempt to whiten, dominate and exclude today. Doing this puts the continued focus on Muslims in a different frame: banning religious symbols is not about “transparency” and “security”, but an attempt to whitewash Muslims, by assimilating those who are “moderate,” head-uncovered, and “secular,” while excluding those hijabi women who are cast as unruly and unassimilable.

We should refuse this pathological focus on Muslim women’s bodies and see these policies, instead, as mirrors of the colonial and racialising undercurrents that structure the societies in which we live.

Alia Al-Saji is associate professor of Philosophy at McGill University. She is currently completing a book on Hesitation: Critical Phenomenology, Colonial Duration, and the Affective Weight of the Past.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is assistant professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Heidegger on Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @ajwendland.

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