Dear France, Muslim Women Don't Need 'Saving' #HandsOffMyHijab
Updated: Apr 26
Maryam and Nivaal Rehman | Clarington, Canada
Paris is infamous for many things; the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, cafes lining its broad cobble-stone streets, and unfortunately, islamophobia. On our way to France during a vacation in 2017, all the amazing things about Paris were outweighed by the lack of French society’s acceptance of our religion, Islam. As activists growing up in Pakistan and Canada, the focus of our work has always been on how to give other women the opportunities they need to succeed. Girls’ education, girl empowerment and gender equality, were some of the many important causes that we dedicate hours to supporting. Our own identity never served as a barrier for the work we did, regardless of where we were doing it.
So why, for the first time in our lives, were we so acutely aware of the clothing we wore, and specifically, the backlash we would receive if we arrived wearing a hijab, in a country profoundly dedicated to its secular values?
At the time, we always heard people from France arguing that women who wear the hijab do not have a choice, and taking it off is a liberating experience for them (unfortunately, not much has changed, and these false narratives persist). We also saw the subsequent Islamophobia and hate crimes this incited towards women who wear the hijab in France. Thus, we decided that we would wear hats (still respecting our personal beliefs and covering our hair), and not wear the hijab so that we did not become targets of hate crimes. The fear of muslims, and the quest many politicians have in the country to “liberate” Muslim women, felt incredibly ironic as we tried to purchase appropriate hats before our trip to the country.
Never before had we felt so constrained, so oppressed by the fears, standards and rules that govern society, as we did in that moment, when we believed we did not have the choice to wear our hijab, which we always proudly wore on our heads.
Women being able to choose what they wear is a vital part of women’s rights. This includes our right to decide that we want to wear the hijab. This is why, while wearing hats in the beginning of our trip to France, we felt like complete imposters to ourselves. How were we, two activists dedicated to achieving women’s rights, and who championed women choosing how they wanted to lead their lives, letting society dictate what we wore - especially in a way that made us very uncomfortable?
After we reflected on our decision, we ultimately chose to ditch the hats and wear our hijabs for the rest of our trip. The fact that we made that decision for ourselves was incredibly empowering. We focused on the positive experiences, the kind people we met at restaurants, coffee stands, and cafes across the city. We thankfully did not experience the racism and islamophobic discrimination that many other women experience, both in France and other places around the world. However, we could not help but think about how so many women feel like how we initially felt. So many women are forced to conform and choose what society tells them to because of fear, instead of leading their lives the way they want to lead them.
We have been reflecting on all this for a long time, but are bringing it up now, because the French senate has recently voted to ban the hijab for Muslim women under the age of 18 in France. Reading about this left us deeply concerned for the many women who will be forced to give up a vital part of their identity, and have the government choose what they are allowed to wear. What left us even more overwhelmed by this news, was the fact that around the same time that the French senate was discussing this bill, President Macron was speaking about the need to fight for the rights of every woman in the world at the UN Women Generation Equality Forum. We were at the forum as part of our activism efforts, and found it awfully contradictory for the President to be saying such remarks while his government did the exact opposite. We look up to our world leaders and need them to be taking bold actions which support women, instead of actively working to oppress them. We also expect better from a President who has supported many initiatives to advance girls’ education, and raised his voice for gender equality on an international level. We cannot help but think about how his actions at home must reflect his speeches and actions abroad.
Most of all, we are afraid for the many girls in France who will now be forced to take off their hijabs as a result of these new laws, should they actually be implemented. The senate has currently voted to add the hijab ban for girls as part of the highly controversial Separation Bill (which also creates additional barriers for minorities like Muslims in France). We think of ourselves when we were sixteen, and what it would have felt like if we were forced to take off our hijab.
We could not even wear our hats for a few hours before we felt like we were completely betraying ourselves and our identities. How will the thousands of Muslim girls in France feel when they are forced to remove their hijabs?
The ways societies police women’s clothing throughout the world to this day is a testament to how far we still need to go in order to achieve gender equality. Among the many reasons that women choose to wear the hijab, one of them is to reject the male gaze and norms of objectifying women to cover up instead. This belief does not in any way aim to put down women who do not choose to wear the hijab, but in fact, it encourages them too to choose what they want to wear and hope that the same understanding and respect for choices can be extended to us. The constant debate and politicization of the hijab is so strange to us, because no one would say anything to a person choosing to wear a hoodie for example, or someone choosing to carry a purse with them. The connection Muslim women have with their hijab is incredibly deep, and the intersection of their identities as women and Muslims often leaves them on the receiving end of islamophobic and sexist policies globally.
Women’s choices in general are also constantly under the watchful eyes of society, and oppressive systems like patriarchy. It might be something as small as choosing our clothing, but it could also be something bigger, like our right to access an education and choice to pursue it.
We had a choice during our trip - but many women do not. And this new bill in France will ensure that Muslim women continue to be oppressed by reducing their choices.
We must do whatever we can, to create spaces in the future which ensure that women can choose for themselves how they want to identify and lead their lives. We urge all world leaders to create policies which increase women’s choices, instead of forcing their opinions of liberation and what is best. We must do this important work now, and combat the tensions between patriarchy, the policing of women’s choices in all aspects of their lives, and women’s own desires to be free to choose for themselves, in order to create a future which is more equal and equitable for everyone.