By Alia Al-Saji
4 February 2019
Quebec's provincial government is preparing
a new law to prevent public servants in positions of authority from wearing
religious symbols. This includes judges, crown prosecutors, prison guards,
police officers, and teachers from primary to high school.
Quebec is not alone in passing its
“secularism law.” France, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and some
parts of Germany have all passed different laws, with different reasoning,
aimed at controlling how Muslim women dress in public. Indeed, Quebec already
has a law that bans covering one’s face when using public services and
While some of these laws ban face covering
in public in the name of “transparency” and “security”, others restrict
conspicuous religious signs for the sake of “religious neutrality”. The
trouble, of course, is that what counts as “conspicuous” always ends up
designating the forms of dress of other religions: kippa, turban, hijab, and
For Muslim women, these bans represent a
confusion regarding what they wear, and a homogenisation of the diverse
experiences and reasons Muslim women have for adopting a particular form of
Unveiling is often presented as a simple,
rational choice. But this overlooks the ways that unveiling might be more akin
to feeling undressed in public for some Muslim women. Veiling is not only about
piety or political identity, but about a bodily sense of self. And to present
unveiling as the removal of just any arbitrary piece of clothing – say a hat or
scarf – is to hide the violence that forced unveiling involves.
In addition to this active disregard for
the experience of hijabi Muslim women, the recent wave of laws banning
religious symbols in Quebec, France, Denmark, and elsewhere produces a sense of
emergency that focuses our attention on the present—as if veiling were a new
“problem” facing the west and not part of a longstanding western mission to
unveil Muslim women in colonial outposts around the world.
In Quebec, for instance, most discussions
trace the new laws banning religious symbols back to debates over the
“reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities that took place as part of
the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in 2007-2008. This commission responded to
frenetic media attention over what were presented as “unreasonable”
accommodations related to food and dress that Muslims and Jews had requested.
When a longer timeline is considered,
Quebec’s history of domination by the Catholic church is usually discussed and
taken to explain the visceral reactions to other religious groups in the
present. However, I think a longer and more complex duration is at stake: one
that draws on our colonial heritage.
Viewed through this colonial lens, Muslims
are understood to be trapped in the past. Women wearing the hijab are thought
to be a visible symbol of a lack of progress. This perception is not just a
result of the old colonialist’s idea that Muslims are more traditional or
“backward”; it is also founded on the notion that Muslim ways of life are
incompatible with western modernity.
Such a perception ignores the various
practices of dress that Muslims adopt. No one seems to notice, for example,
that the hijab, as a headscarf, can be combined with many other sartorial
practices, with “western” forms of dress, and can be worn fashionably, piously,
playfully, and creatively. This failure to recognise modern adaptations of
Muslim dress means the hijab is stubbornly misperceived in western debates
surrounding it, debates where hijabi Muslim women are rarely heard. And if they
are, it is often with suspicion.
What is particularly overlooked is the
sense of hijab as an adaptation to secularized public spaces, as a modern form
of dress that conjugates religious practice with public life and makes everyday
socialising and mixing possible.
Take the Burkini, for example. It
allows Muslim women to enjoy swimming in public pools and open water. It also
enables Muslim and non-Muslim women alike to refract a gaze that might
otherwise seek of objectify, sexualise, and categorise their bodies.
As a form of protection that allows one
access to public spaces without being assimilated to a sexualised ideal, the Burkini
is the inverse of the gender oppression it is often represented to be. Instead
of seeing the hijab or Burkini as obfuscations of agency or the
oppressive hiding of subjectivity, they can be read as bodily forms of
expression that respond to the social contexts in which we live.
These mis-readings of Muslim dress are more
than misperceptions, since rational argument, counter examples and historic
analyses fail to correct them. One grows weary of how often the debates around
Muslim women’s “veiling” recommence, with a recalcitrance that repeatedly
disregards previous arguments against banning the practice.
Philosophers of racism would call this
recalcitrance an active ignorance, a disregard that creates or constitutes the
racialised perceptions of “others.” What is more, the reinvention and
rephrasing of bans on veiling are part of how anti-Muslim racism endures,
taking on a different guise and hiding under the mantel of seemingly consensual
social norms in a given society.
Whether it be secularism, transparency,
integration, security, or ideals of freedom, justice, and gender equality,
these normative frameworks are instrumentalised to justify the exclusion of
Muslim women, and the differential treatment and domination of Muslims more
Ironically, on the second anniversary of the
shooting at the Quebec City mosque that took the lives of six Muslim men, it is
the policing of Muslim women’s bodies that preoccupies public discourse in
places like Quebec. This not only distracts from the gaping need for action to
reduce anti-Muslim racism, and even from the ability to name this racism, it
also effaces social and political responsibility for Islamophobia by placing
its burden on the heads of Muslim women.
In this racism, Muslim women are projected
as “other,” as of another time, in a representation that intertwines exoticism
(and the colonial desire to unveil women) with hostility and suspicion. Even
when they are no longer taken to be the pawns of Muslim men, and even when a
Muslim woman’s agency is recognized, this racialising construction survives.
Indeed, her agency is used against her, so that hijabi Muslim women are seen as
actively obfuscating and deceiving. And seen in this way, Muslims become
objects of suspicion that are incommensurable with positions of authority.
This incommensurability also draws on an
emotive dimension. The suspicious perception of Muslims is woven through with
discomfort. The unease of an imagined (white, said to be “de souche”)
petitioner, citizen or pupil, in the face of a Muslim “authority” figure becomes
a justification for that figure’s exclusion.
To reduce this racist reaction by removing
its target inverts the logic of racism and constructs Muslims as an intolerable
part of the social body. The seeming immediacy of repulsion or discomfort
naturalises the perception of the hijab as an untrustworthy, oppressive,
uncomfortable anomaly in the social fabric – one that needs to be excised.
In the case of Quebec, it is worth
remembering that the social fabric from which Muslims are now being excluded
was constructed via the excision, assimilation, and decimation of indigenous
peoples and by suppressing the history of indigenous and Black slavery. Muslim
Quebecers need to take a longer view of the Quebec in which they reside. We
should not simply question the current exclusion of Muslims, but also consider
Quebec’s long-standing treatment of First Nations and Inuit peoples, and its
In French and European contexts, the
purified history of secular progress towards liberty and equality renders
invisible France’s reliance on colonisation and slavery to build the wealth of
its imperial republic, and elides the ways it relegated its colonised (often
Muslim) “others” to sub-human status, blocking their access to that mythical
In this longue durée, we should recognise
the continuation of these policies that attempt to whiten, dominate and exclude
today. Doing this puts the continued focus on Muslims in a different frame:
banning religious symbols is not about “transparency” and “security”, but an
attempt to whitewash Muslims, by assimilating those who are “moderate,”
head-uncovered, and “secular,” while excluding those Hijabi women who are cast
as unruly and unassimilable.
We should refuse this pathological focus on
Muslim women’s bodies and see these policies, instead, as mirrors of the
colonial and racialising undercurrents that structure the societies in which we
Alia Al-Saji is associate professor of Philosophy at McGill University.
She is currently completing a book on Hesitation: Critical Phenomenology,
Colonial Duration, and the Affective Weight of the Past.