France’s ban on the veil looks far more sinister in historical context

France’s ban on the veil looks far more sinister in historical context

The French Senate recently voted to increase restrictions on Muslim women’s ability to wear the veil. Religious head coverings were outlawed in schools and government buildings in 2004, and full face coverings have been banned in public spaces since 2011. Now, the Senate has voted to ban women accompanying their children on school trips from wearing a veil. Swimming pools can also prohibit women from wearing “burkinis” (full-body swimwear favored by some Muslim women). Most controversially, the Senate also supported an amendment to make it illegal for girls under the age of 18 to “wear any clothing or dress that would imply the subordination of women to men” in public spaces. This, of course, means a veil: Revealing, rather than concealing, clothing for women apparently has nothing to do with patriarchy. …

These efforts to “liberate” Muslim women reiterate attitudes about women’s bodies and religious symbols that are rooted in the history of French imperialism. They echo French justifications for imperialism abroad, which was framed as a “civilizing mission” that masked widespread colonial violence. Such attitudes are rooted in centuries of beliefs of racial superiority and a need to “protect” Muslim women. By recognizing this historical tie, we can see how the overt violence inherent in imperialism is still influencing the daily lives of many Muslim women in France today. …

In this way, White French feminism was built on imperialism and beliefs of socioracial superiority. Of course, it rarely invited Muslim women to participate as equals in the discussion and did little to protect Muslim women from the violence and exploitation of European men. 

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