While many were ironically noting that the “Hijab Day” organised at the prestigious French school SciencesPo is a proof of the prophecy of Michel Houellebecq’s fiction work Submission – about France becoming an Islamic state – it has meant that some serious debates about the hijab have gathered momentum again.

On one side, some Muslims, feminists and those known as regressive leftists claim that the criticism of hijab, or any attempt to ban it, is racist and is an attack on the fundamental freedom of women. On the other side, another group of Muslims, feminists, libertarians and secularists attempt to address the question of hijab as contradictory to secular values and contradictory to women’s liberation, given its sexist significance. Extreme right wing xenophobes also attempt to participate in this debate with their ugly direct attacks on veiled women, which radically differentiates them from the secularists, of whom attack ideas, and ideas only.

The event, which was organised by a group of students, didn’t attract many participants – but what can be more relevant than debate in the country of Les Lumieres or of “Nuit Debout”? So despite my white skin and non-Muslim background, I hope to contribute to this debate, as I do not believe that one has to have a certain ethnicity or to belong to a certain community to be able to address a question of human rights; being human is enough for that.

The international campaign “Wear a hijab Day” that reached secular France is a part of a well organised and often largely financed effort of political Islam to claim its presence in the public life of Western societies. Adopting the language of human rights and feminism, while talking to western media, the advocates of political Islam posit that to wear hijab is a right and a basic freedom for any woman to own her body.

The same speakers attempt to promote the idea that “hijab” is an additional “sixth pillar” of Islam, after the traditional “five pillars” which are the proclamation of faith, pilgrimage, prayer, charity and fasting. This tactic is meant to oppose the fundamental values of secularism and to visibly distinguish a Muslim community within Western societies. As history proves, male ideologies such as religion always attempt to gain their power through women’s instrumentalisation.

While compulsory female covering is not even mentioned in the Quran (which doesn’t make it less sexist), the “hijab” – literally translated as “curtain” – was made the symbol of the belief that women are a sexual distraction to men, who thus cannot be tempted by the sight of female hair, considered as an intimate part in Islam. While this idea depicts men as sexual maniacs, women are portrayed as sexual objects, potential victims of sexual assaults who have to protect themselves by covering up.

It is also often connected to the idea “awrah”, or forbidden, to show parts of the body, which leads to limiting the presence of women in the public space. All these medieval ideas about women become the basis of the notion of compulsory hijab for fundamentalists such as the government of Iran, Saudi Arabia or the barbarians of the Islamic State.

Inna Shevchenko

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