The international campaign to get college students and non-Muslim women to wear Islamic veils as a demonstration of solidarity hit trouble at elite Paris university Sciences-Po when fewer than a dozen donned head and neck coverings on a “Hijab Day” that attracted more polemics than participants.
Liberal feminists and secularism defenders, alarmed at what they saw as another attempt to impose a highly conservative interpretation of Islam on secular educational institutions, condemned the protest as an “insult” to women who are forced to wear hijabs in Iran and parts of the Arab-Muslim world. The extreme right National Front, meanwhile, tried to exploit the divisions to inflame racism.
Organizer Lily, who would only give her first name to French journalists said “Hijab Day” was a “collective movement of we’ve had it up to here! We support women who wear the veil and we are in solidarity with them.”
Another veil-wearer said: “We are against Islamophobia and for women. We support women’s rights and women’s freedom.”
The call to put on veils in sympathy with Muslims, whom organizers said were suffering discrimination for wearing veils, left most students at the university — that has educated French presidents and prime ministers for generations — either strongly critical or indifferent.
It took place amid a fraught political context after a series of deadly terrorist attacks in France and Belgium by jihadists whose ISIS masters fetishize niqabs (full face and body-covering veils that leave only a slit for the eyes), and burkas, and punish women who refuse them. The U.S. has criticized France for a rise in racism in the form of anti-Muslim attacks, yet Air France’s female stewards also recently found themselves fighting management insistence they wear veils and Islamic dress on recently reinstated flights to Tehran.
Hijab Day was promoted by Sciences-Po campus society Salaam, an Islam “reflection” group that has been questioned for inviting conservative and radical Muslim identities to speak. Salaam guests have included Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is frequently decried in France for his refusal to condemn stoning of women, and his celebrations of Sharia law. Another guest has been the publisher of a Salafist, or extremist Saudi Wahaabist Islam news site called Al-Kanz.
The hijab protest comes after French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called for a ban on the veil in French universities, following the 2011 law criminalizing the niqab and burka in public, and the 2004 law against visible religious symbols in schools, that outlawed the headscarf among other religious head coverings. However, Valls’ condemnation of “oppressive” hijabs in colleges appears to have been scotched by his ministerial colleagues who said it was unconstitutional.
The French context is particularly tense given the ongoing state of emergency, and the elevated terror threat from groups proclaiming themselves as the purest form of Islam and requiring all women to be extremely veiled, and defining them as inferior and even slaves to men. Since the French revolution threw out established religion in 1789, the country has had a strong anti-clerical tradition, and since 1905 a strict law separating church and state.
The pro-hijab event at Sciences-Po was praised by the French Committee Against Islamophobia, while opponents noted its eerie similarity with the latest novel by French writer Michel Houllebecq. Submission — a dystopian work that was published on the eve of a 2015 terror massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine and at a Kosher supermarket — depicts a violent France after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate as president, and the imposition of “modest” Islamic veils and clothing on all women at universities like Sciences-Po.
Sonia Mabrouk, a French-Tunisian broadcast journalist tweeted a widely-shared remark: “When I think of all the women’s daily fight for freedom and choice in countries like Tunisia, this Hijab Day is an insult”.
Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher asked whether there would next be a “Sharia day, or stoning or slavery day?”
Investigative journalist and author Caroline Fourest shared a video of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser from1956, when he mocked the Muslim Brotherhood’s pressuring him to oblige women to wear hijabs “just to refresh the memory of those who think that Muslims have always been veiled, or that it is a traditional or even “natural” emblem, rather than … being to do with the rise of (Muslim) Brothers in Egypt, or fascination with the Iranian revolution of 1979.”
“Yes we can willingly give in to a trend that assigns women the duty of ‘decency.’ We can willingly show solidarity with a conservative revolution. But don’t come and say to us that it is a trend that is anodine or modernist,” Fourest, a specialist on far right Catholic fundamentalists and Islamist extremists wrote.
Hijab Days and “solidarity shows” are becoming common in U.S. universities too. Muslim reformers and journalists Asra Nomani, who has contributed to Women in the World, and Hala Arafa have implored women to stop sporting the hijab as a sign of religious solidarity. They say conservative Islamists and regimes like Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan, Iran and Islamic State are trying to impose the veil as a “sixth pillar of Islam” when there is no Koranic requirement it be worn, and when the word “hijab” doesn’t even mean headscarf in Arabic but curtain, hiding, obstructing or isolating.