The Veil Debate

Un dialogue de Sourds

Alaa Badr


The debate on the veil is neither political nor cultural. It is not religious; it’s psychological. It is a manifestation of a “liberalism of fear” and “a retour du Nationalisme Identitaire.” The arguments against SciencesPo Hijab Day are internally coherent, however they are based on inaccurate assumptions, and this is why the current debate is a “dialogue of the deaf” where people are talking past each other with no real conclusions to offer.


Political theorist and philosopher Judith Shklar, who suffered greatly during WWII from religious persecution, wrote about the importance of fear as a motivating factor for building liberal institutions. The European Union is a perfect example; in fear of having a third world war take place, European countries got together and created a liberal[1] institution, to prevent this from happening. While fear of a total war is very legitimate, basing one’s institutions on fear is a very slippery slope. The first reason is that fear is a volatile emotion; it puts one in a fight or flight mode, an “on edge” state of mind where decisions are never particularly rational.Remember George W. Bush’s War on Terror? During his speech to the congress on September 21, 2001, Bush started with “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger” and ended with “We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage.”[2] “Danger” and “courage [facing danger]” are conditions of fear.

The second reason for this is that fear is not a sustainable emotion, people either stop fearing and seek rational, long term solutions to prevent a similar catastrophe, or they become completely obsessed with fear until it turns into hysteria. People become afraid of everything and anything, and that’s when a liberalism of fear (of the wrong ideas) comes to life. Today, in France, banning the veil is caused by a deep-seated fear of the veil making the only solution to get over this fear, like Shklar theorized, is to build a liberal institution around it, to block it out so to speak.


However, before dismissing this with a shaking of the head, we all have a duty to take this fear seriously and understand the rationale behind it.


A Legitimate Fear?

Here comes the main problem of the debate; it is a dialogue of the deaf. It’s not that they can’t hear each other because they do, it’s because each camp builds their argument on an assumption different from the other camp’s. The tricky bit is that given the assumptions, regardless of their veracity, each argument is valid in its own right, in the sense that it is internally coherent. However, since each argument is expressed in a different vocabulary, one that is specific to it, the dialogue doesn’t add up and it seems that everyone is speaking past each other. Each camp is playing by the rules of their own language game, hiding within it, protected by it, and perhaps, most dangerously, isn’t aware of the limits of their language game and its inaccessibility to the other.

The fundamental experience of French history is extremely important totake into account in order to understand the source of this fear. Two factors are at play here, one, a long history of religious wars, conflict which officially ended in December 9, 1905 with the law on the Separation of the Churches and State.The divorce between church and state has been bitter to say the least, and has dragged its bastard children (Muslim immigrants) all over the place. Two, with a long colonial history, immigration as well as integration policies for immigrants gone sour[3], the French identity feels threatened: on n’est plus chez nous.  Furthermore, the statistical correlation between Muslim immigrants, low income, delinquency and, well, sometimes Daesh, associating the veil with all this is only a natural consequence. Even if we go far back enough in history, i.e. 1830 with the French invasion of Algeria, we notice that the blame suddenly shifts focus, the facts are still telling and the status quo prevails. Moreover, the “new generation”, the one who didn’t decide to invade Algeria for example, are not held and should not be held responsible. Even if collective responsibility of past events is a sign of mature liberal thought, it is not always so evident or fair to hold collectives accountable. Therefore, associating the veil with delinquency, the Islamization of France and, more recently, Daesh, is a chain of interlinked analogies that escalated quickly, no doubt about it, but is internally coherent nonetheless.


As mentioned above, the debate isn’t religious, political or cultural. These are mere ready-made vocabularies which the speakers adopt because there is no language game for fear. Fear is insidious and rarely recognizable. That’s why the debate has been expressed in a mix of all of these vocabularies, because in fact it is none of them.


Another distinction that is also very important to make is not whether the veil is truly Islamic or not, whether God really wants it or not. This is a debate between Muslims and a very important one that needs to take place soon. What’s missing is a consideration for the meaning it holds for Muslim women themselves. Pressing questions must be asked, such as: how they perceive it? Why they chose to wear it? What does it mean to them? Emphasis is of course on the agency of women who wear the veil and on their ability and right to speak for themselves.



SciencesPo Hijab Day Fun Fact:

There were more journalists than veiled girls, which only shows to what extent this topic is hyped. What was more interesting are the arguments for and against that resulted from this, and there were five that stood out:


1.     This is Clear and Blatant Proselytism

An event on Facebook appeared with the title “Hijab Day, Une Voile pour une Journée.” They had a stand in the main hall, with many scarves of different colors, textures and prints with a sign that read: “France’s got 99 problems and the veil ain’t one.” the purpose was twofold; to invite women to wear it for a day in order to be aware of “the experience of stigmatization that a lot of veiled women in France”[4], as well as to demystify the veil. Why? Because ultimately, it is a just a piece of cloth and its meaning is created by the women who wear it. A couple of hours after that event was created (and taken down, then created again), another event in clear opposition to it was created with the title “Bikini/jupe/robe/whatever day à Sciences po :venezcommevousvoulez[5]Its description explicitly said that it was created as a reaction to the proselytism of the hijab day event.


Perceiving Hijab Day as proselytism, even if it was completely absent from the organizer’s description, is based on two things, one, the fear mentioned earlier, since a SciencesPo student told me, with her hands in front of her as if refusing to hold something being handed to her, “they can’t make us wear something if we don’t understand what it is!” Two, a monolithic understanding of the veil as a purely religious symbol. Another student told me: “for us the veil is a religious symbol and wearing it without knowing the religious meaning behind is weird, and uncomfortable.”


The second statement is particularly interesting since it highlights one of the major misunderstandings in the today’s veil debate. The veil is complicated; it is both a religious sign and a cultural manifestation. The debate on the islamicity of the veil, the one that would be held among Muslims, will tell us whether the veil is cultural insofar as Islam is Arab, north African, south east Asian[6], etc., but for now, it is perceived as both, in the same way the exclamation “Jesus Christ” or the sign of crossing your fingers are cultural signals, as much as they are religious.


Therefore, a Hijab Day which allows trying the veil for a day is to experience the world as a girl who wears the veil rather than to be Muslim for a day. The difference is huge and very important. Now saying that it is mostly cultural could, for some, undermine the status of veil, since for example, how would it be for a European Muslim, or a convert? On the one hand, only the debate on what Islam says about the veil will answer this. On the other hand, if the organizers of Hijab Day claim that it is purely Islamic, in efforts to save face, then their discourse is contradictory. Therefore it can only be the case that the veil is both Islamic and cultural, and an invitation to wear it is the same as having “India Week”, where we get to try Samosas and wear the sari, but also see what its like to sit in the metro with it or go to the prefecture to get your residency card.



2. The Veil is Oppressive

Another important argument against it is based on the understanding of the veil as a tool invented by men to oppress women, not allowing them to wear what they want and isolating them from the world.  In some places, manifestly that is the case. In some neighborhoods, women have to cover up to avoid being harassed. In some families, fathers and brothers force girls to get veiled. However, like every other idea or social practice it can be abused and instrumentalized for the wrong ends. It is enough to ask most veiled women basic questions such as: was it your choice to wear it? Can you take it off if you want to? It is also enough to look at what veiled women can do and are doing and take their achievements as counterargument to the oppression thesis.


Beyond the empirical evidence which clearly shows that women who wear the hijab are not oppressed by default, there is a latent violence in the conviction that the hijab is oppressive. This violence is made clear by the desire to force women to be free. The truth is, if we ask women who wear the veil whether or not they are free, the answer will state that the veil is in fact a feminist act.[7] When the number one feminist demand is stop objectifying bodies, women who wear the veil are taking control of their sexuality and of their bodies. Furthermore,when we say covering up is being oppressed, we are at the same time saying, the more skin we show the more powerful we are. We equate sexuality in public with agency, which is, again, the last thing feminists want to do. In sum, denying one way of doing feminism is as oppressive as the patriarchy feminists are trying to bring down. We need to be careful of Freud’s “Repetition Compulsion”.


Freedom with regard to the veil is extremely interesting when comparing Iran and Tunisia, for example. In Iran, the veil is the official dress code, it is literally forced on everyone who lives there, whereas in Tunisia in the 80s, it was banned. So at that time, if we asked a Tunisian woman what is freedom? The answer could very well be, to wear it and go out in public with it whereas in Iran the answer would be the complete opposite. Freedom here becomes tangential, it is defined in terms of something else; the country’s code, a historical past, a religious dogma which in itself is antithetical to freedom.


It is clear that oppression and its counterpart freedom come in all shapes and sizes, and it is more logical, if not just plain human, to focus on lifting real obstacles to freedom such as lack of education, famine, civil wars, etc., then to twice oppress a people by telling them they’re not free then force them to be free against their will.


3.     Saudi Arabia wouldn’t Agree to Having a Bikini Day

This is an incredibly interesting argument and it makes perfect sense in the French’s language game. The implicit accusation is that of hypocrisy and incoherence. However, it doesn’t acknowledge the assumption of the argument that Saudi Arabia is considered as the paragon of Islam and the “natural habitat” of veiled women. This is not only false, but is also another symptom of this dangerous misunderstanding since Saudi Arabia is not only home to a fraction of Muslims but is also a terrifying dictatorship with a long and unforgiveable history of human rights violations. So there is a clear asymmetry in the terms of the comparison. Lastly, and to add to the explanation of this argument, the idea the veil is one of consistency, wearing a bikini then going back to the veil defeats the purpose.



4. The Over-Enthusiasts (In good faith!)

One SciencesPo student said, laughing: “it’s kind of sad that we need a hijab day”, in the sense that it is misunderstood and that discrimination is so bad that we need someone to make us aware of it. The problem is that this is also reading too much into it. According to the organizers hijab day is simply an invitation to share a personal, fundamental experience, like when you invite your friend to watch a video that you liked earlier.




5.     The Veil is a Rejection of Everything France Stands for:

This is where identitarian nationalism, or NationlismeIidentitaire, makes an appearance. Saying that choosing to wear the veil is a “clear rejection of everything France stands for in terms of gender equality” is to say that veil incarnates the opposite values. This is in part answered in what was written above, however, such a statement is enunciated by someone who is deeply offended to have his values insulted and equally disturbed to see veils distorting his vision of France. A very clear and honest argument would be to say precisely that: “I don’t like it because it’s ruining my view,” the answers to this will differ greatly from saying “I don’t like it because it’s rejecting France.” While the first is honest and is on the offensive, the second is less honest but is self-defensive. Realigning the terms of the debate to allow for a constructive dialogue requires an effort of being aware of the underlying assumptions and unifying the starting point of arguments.


All five arguments are very symptomatic of the “dialogue of the deaf,” since the answers to these arguments challenged the assumptions rather than the internal coherence of the argument. In my view, and given the prevalence of fear, the only good argument against it is that it was too soon for France. Even though, this day was an opportunity for veiled women to speak for themselves and be visible as human beings with agency, in my view and given all that’s been written above, before inviting people to wear it, they should have talked about it, answered questions, calmed fears then invited to try it, in order to avoid such a strong backlash (or perhaps there would always be a backlash so they had to start somewhere?) Nevertheless, the truth is that there is a dire need for conversation, not debate, but conversation about this topic.


Argument for Hijab Day and by Hijab Day organizers

One of the main aims of Hijab Day according to the organizers is to demystify it.

 Now this is a little contradictory to some, it might be more accurate to say “dissipating the hype around the veil” since in itself, it is a piece of cloth. Meaning is use, so depending how each woman lives her veil, she attributes a specific personal meaning to it. The argument that there are as many veils as there are veiled women is a valid one, of course they are closer to each other on a spectrum of teloi, where a religious meaning prevails, but there are nuances if one looks closer.



Live and let live

The paradox of all this is that by making a big deal out of it, we’re making people protect it more, and that’s how identity politics works. The most reasonable way to handle this is to circumscribe our reaction to three options:

1. Oh that’s cool, I’ve always wanted to know how it feels like, now I can get to ask question, try it.

2. Jesus Christ, I think the veil is not so cool, I can’t find it in my heart to support this, (and walk away)

3. Meh, I don’t really like couscous anyway.


Now,we can scream freedom of expression and lack of racism as much as we want but until then we need to at least get the framework of the debate identified and unified so that we’re not taking past each other.


[1] With many caveats around the world “liberal.”

[2] The Guardian,This is the full text of George Bush's address to a joint jession of Congress and the American people, Acceded :April 25th, 2016.


[3] Notably the 60s which was characterized by an open invitation to North African labor. Similarly, Policies of naturalization to make things right for “French Algeria” and an open policy of naturalization for any immigrant who adopts the values of the republic which done is very good faith! And Sour because of the socio-economic status of many immigrants.

[4]Event’s description,, accessed April 25th, 2016.

[5] Event description,, accessed April 25rh, 2016.

[6]All the countries/cultures where Islam is their main religion.

[7] This is not only clear in the actions of veiled women across the world, the least of which is to study abroad, but also in countless testimonies by veiled women regarding the topic.