By Hajar El Jahidi
26 September 2018
On 4 September, Sara Iftekhar, a student
from Huddersfield, made it to the final round of the Miss England beauty
pageant. Not a particularly newsworthy event, except for the fact that Iftekhar
became the first Miss England finalist to wear a hijab.
Many would call it a minor news item and,
judging by the lack of reaction in the United Kingdom, they’d probably be
right. The country's most notorious tabloid newspaper, The Sun, which is known
for its often divisive approach to non-white Britons, ran a straightforward
news story free of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Though Iftekhar's participation in the
final rounds of the competition was widely covered elsewhere in the media,
viewers in England didn't seem overly concerned. "It just proves Miss
England represents the way England is today," the competition spokeswoman
was quoted as saying. Not quite case closed, but case accepted.
A Veiled Miss France?
Without wanting to paint the UK as a haven
of Muslim-friendly multiculturalism, it's hard not to imagine how different the
reaction would be in France. Every time a French woman wearing a hijab gets
public airtime, a reaction close to collective hysteria - and fanned by certain
media and political circles - ensues.
The difference between the routine media
coverage given to Iftekhar and the media stir and public outrage sparked by the
appearance of Mennel Ibtissem on the French reality TV competition, "The
Voice", is a case in point. As is that of Maryam Pougetoux, the president
of one of the Paris branches of the UNEF student union, who was so bold as to
answer questions on French TV wearing a veil - sending shockwaves through even
the highest political spheres.
While on the other side of the Channel,
Muslim women wearing the hijab are present in all reaches of society - witness
Fatima Manji who, as a newsreader and television journalist, is in a highly
visible position - in France the mere television appearance of a Muslim woman
wearing a hijab sparks a national debate.
Another more anecdotal example of this was
the recent uproar over the brief appearance of a young veiled woman on the
popular TV programme, "Touche pas à mon poste". The host of the show
was even accused of "trivializing the Islamisation of France".
This doesn’t mean that the UK isn’t faced
with its own problems of racism, discrimination, and Islamophobia. British
Muslim women, and particularly those who choose to wear headscarves, are
confronted with diverse forms of Islamophobia and hate crimes, in particular,
are on the rise in the UK.
But the situation in France is more
dramatic: veiled Muslim women are being systematically and deliberately
excluded from the public arena. Why, in a country that prides itself on being
assimilationist, does the political and intellectual elite condemn
communitarianism but get all worked up the minute a Muslim woman in a hijab
dares go about her normal activities beyond the framework they would like to
impose on her?
Surely the English are no more tolerant or
open-minded than the French. France, for that matter, is traditionally more
progressive than the United Kingdom when it comes to social matters. So, why do
the two countries take such different views on a woman's right to wear the
A National Identity Matter
For one thing, in the United Kingdom,
contrary to France, the political elite does not see the veil as a pivotal
issue in matters of national identity. Apart from a few far-right parties and a
certain element of the Conservative Party - including, recently, former foreign
minister Boris Johnson - most politicians in the UK tend to avoid interfering
in the clothing and religious choices of their fellow citizens.
The mainstream politicians, who do get
involved in the debate, do so only reluctantly and are frequently met with strong
criticism by their peers. Johnson’s remarks on the burqa were largely condemned
by all sides, even within the ranks of his own party.
In France, sexist and stigmatising remarks
about veiled Muslim women are endemic to political parties of all stripes,
having become a profitable staple fare for politicians who leap at the
slightest opportunity to inform Muslim women of their rights to religious and
It is interesting to note that one of the
most regrettably significant episodes of the whole hijab-wearing business was
when a former minister of women’s rights compared Muslim women who choose to
wear the veil to "Negroes" who favour of slavery. The statement
stirred up quite a bit of controversy but not for the reasons one would have
expected: it was the choice of the word "Negro" that was found so
offensive and not the substance of her simplistic statement stigmatising and
infantilising women in headscarves.
The different approach taken by French and
British politicians to issues like these explains in part why women in
headscarves are more socially integrated on one side of the Channel than the
other. Political sentiment is reflected on the street level, and the
stigmatising rhetoric of French politicians has ultimately led to a shift in public
opinion: the French are uncomfortable with Muslim women in hijabs making public
A "Civilising Mission" Or a
Another possible explanation regarding
differences of attitude in France and the UK could lie in their postcolonial
France, within the context of its
"civilizing mission", sought to impose the French assimilationist
model, though it failed to guarantee the underlying principles of freedom,
equality and fraternity to all. How can this intention to "emancipate"
Algerian women by "de-veiling” them be seen in a positive light when
Muslim women weren’t given access to the same rights, services and treatments
that were given to the Pied Noirs, a slang name for French settlers in Algeria?
The French campaign for de-veiling in the
colonial era may of course have had many other implications, but it stands in
contrast to the more pragmatic British colonial model, which put the economic
interests of the empire above any idea of a civilising mission - though this
was, still, part of the agenda.
This difference of approach persisted even
during the process of decolonisation. Anticipating the inevitable independence
of its colonies, the United Kingdom strove to maintain favourable economic
relations with them. France, on the other hand, became embroiled in bitter wars
in both Indochina and Algeria that eventually led to the collapse of the Fourth
This persistence today - as it was in the
colonial era- is detrimental to France. The refusal to accept veiled women in
the public arena violates principles of freedom and equality and undermines
social cohesiveness and cohabitation.
The persistent rigidity of French society
is seen today in its obsession with the hijab, at a time when newspapers around
the world and international public opinion are scoffing at France's obsession
with the headscarf. France, led by certain mediatised political and
intellectual figures, refuses to accept Muslim women who choose to wear the
veil and insists on trying to impose a single model of integration.
This persistence today - as it was in the
colonial era - is detrimental to France. Not only does the refusal to accept
veiled women in the public arena violate principles of freedom and equality -
and in some cases even international civil and political rights conventions -
it also undermines social cohesiveness and cohabitation. Recurrent
controversies over the veil exacerbate tensions among populations and fuel a
sense of exclusion among Muslim women.
They are no doubt a huge economic loss for
France, as well. There is a brain drain in France today, but more and more
veiled French Muslim women, unable to achieve full social and professional
emancipation in France, are trying their luck abroad.
Many of them go to the UK, where their
degrees and the fact they can speak several languages allow them to pursue
careers in numerous fields without having to worry about their headscarves.
Today, it is more or less normal in Britain
for women wearing hijabs to participate in TV baking competitions, read the
news and come close to becoming Miss England. The same seems a remote prospect