THE Council of Europe, a human rights body, was only trying to help. They recently launched a campaign to criticise the headscarf bans in Europe. The campaign, which appears to be a largely online initiative, involved slogans like #LetHerChoose. At least one of the graphics showed a Muslim woman as a paper doll wearing a headscarf; around her are various other outfits to choose from. Another hashtag used by the tweets called for celebrating diversity and respecting the hijab. Yet another shows a European woman of African heritage and the slogan #MyHijabMyChoice.
According to the Council of Europe, the slogan came from several online workshops of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations. According to the latter, “Everyone should be free to wear whatever they want. Muslim women are restricted from wearing the hijab and excluded from the workplace and education.”
This is definitely true of France. Ever since France’s initial ban on headscarves in 2004, the country has been obsessed with the garment, with a zeal equal only to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The latter state wants to force women to wear the veil; France wants to force them out of the veil. The current moment is not any different. In the run-up to the Council of Europe’s Twitter campaign, French politicians have made the veil almost the centrepiece of their politics.
Éric Zemmour, a far-right television anchor and a great favourite to challenge Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election, is one example. A few weeks ago, Zemmour visited an area around Paris that has a large Muslim population. There he got into an argument with a Muslim woman and asked her to “prove” that she was “really free” by removing the scarf in front of him. The woman did what he asked, but of course Muslim women in France can never prove that they are choosing to wear the headscarf. Zemmour got what he wanted: a viral provocative news clip that ensured that the news cycle in France was devoted entirely to him for the next week.
French politicians have made the veil almost the centrepiece of their politics.
It is not surprising, then, that even a small Twitter campaign pointing out the stupidity and racism represented by the ban would make a number of French politicians upset. A few days after the campaign began, some of them also took to Twitter. Eric Zemmour, the man who did “the headscarf stunt”, denounced the Muslim faith and called the campaign “the enemy of the truth”.
Marine Le Pen, the original right-wing prima donna of the French political establishment, was not far behind. She called the campaign “scandalous” and “inappropriate”, given that the French state has been fighting for the right to denounce it. The French left, whose only point of agreement with the French far-right is a collective hatred of Muslims, also denounced the campaign. As the French criticism of the campaign gathered steam and ignited controversy, a Belgian member of the European Parliament chimed in, saying he was “shocked” and that he “would always oppose” the initiative, which used European freedoms to subjugate women.
For their part, the Council of Europe tried to stay strong. Some opposition would likely have been expected; after all, France’s obsession with the headscarf and its increasingly draconian measures is not news to anyone. However, when the French youth minister, Saira El Haïry, got into the conversation, arguing that one of the posters, which showed a split image of a woman without a headscarf and the other part wearing it, seemed to encourage Muslim to wear the headscarf, the Council of Europe admitted defeat and simply withdrew the campaign. They promised to have a better thought-out campaign next time.
It is not just about headscarves. Let’s not forget that earlier this year, the French government had declared that they may investigate scholars and professor who teach texts on critical race theory. Critical race theory is the study of history, society, etc. through the lens of race. Born out of America’s civil rights movement, and recently energised by the murder of George Floyd, its project is to study race as a social construct and point out how economic and legal policies are influenced by the views of the dominant social group —which would be white people.
The French minister for higher education flew off the handle when she came across a particular concept connecting Islamists and leftists, and announced that all researchers and scholars who were teaching concepts like this would be investigated by her ministry.
Since then, thousands of academics have signed a petition denouncing this decision by the minister, pointing out that it goes against the very French principle of ‘la liberté’. It is unclear whether or not these investigations of scholars that the education minister has threatened are underway. It is clear, however, that many French politicians are extremely nervous about ideas of critical race theory influencing the development of Muslim identity that sees itself as part of a racialised othering instigated by white people. Such a restatement would position Muslims in France as the oppressed within the French context and the state itself as the instrument of oppression with a racist agenda.
It is a deplorable matter. There was a time not that long ago when the French were pioneers, home to avant-garde ideas and art and philosophy. All of this seems to be over now as many among both the French left and right consider bans and investigations as a means of maintaining white supremacy. As many Muslim countries have learned, bans never work. The situation in France will likely get worse before it gets better, but the writing is on the wall; the #myhijabmychoice was an idea proposed by young Muslims in student organisations all over Europe. They are ready for change; bans can pause the forward momentum, but can never stop it.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2021