26 mars 2023

The Hijab, a Political Weapon and Form of Sexual Abuse, Should Be Outlawed

By N. Maruani *

The debate on the veil in France recently flared up again, after French Secretary of State for Urban Policies Fadela Amara said that the burqa and niqab should be banned in public places, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in parliament that the burqa was "not welcome in France." [1] In this debate, French media outlets have frequently cited the writings of Chahdortt Djavann.

An Iranian-born French writer, Djavann is the author of two influential books, Bas les Voiles (Veils Off) [2] and Que Pense Allah de l´Europe (What Does Allah Think of Europe?), [3] both of which deal with the meaning and implications of the veil as a political tool. [4] Veils Off in particular had a strong impact on the veil debate in France, including on the discussions that took place in the French parliament prior to the passing of the 2004 law banning "conspicuous religious signs in schools." [5] Djavann testified before the Stasi Commission, formed in 2003 by then-president Jacques Chirac to investigate the issue of preserving secularism in the French Republic and to prepare the ground for passing a law on the veil. [6] During the hearing, she clashed with French sociologist Alain Touraine, who claimed that Iranian women were happy with wearing the veil.

Prominent political figures wrote her to express support for her views, including former prime minister Laurent Fabius, as well as Chirac himself, who wrote that Veils Off would have a positive impact on the difficult debate over secularism.

The following is a review of Djavann´s writings on the issue of the veil, based on her books Bas les Voiles and Que Pense Allah de l´Europe?, and on several interviews with her.

The Veil as a Political Weapon

Que Pense Allah de l´Europe first presents the views of the proponents of the veil, such as Muslim women who say, "The veil represents my religion, my culture and my identity. It is a sign of modesty, of self-respect, of submission to God. It is a religious duty written in the Koran… [I wear it] out of my own free will…" Also presented are the opinions of European intellectuals who defend the veil on the basis of "the right to be different" and "religious freedom," and who ask, for example, "If body-piercing and displaying one´s navel is allowed, how can the veil be banned?"

In response to this argument, Djavann points out that no regime has ever forced women to go about with their navels showing, whereas the veil is imposed upon several hundred million women around the world. She writes that the veil cannot be presented as a personal choice, disregarding centuries of Islamic history. She adds that it is inappropriate to probe the motivations of every young girl wearing the veil when what is at stake is a political agenda.

Djavann explains further: "The veil has never been innocent or innocuous. It has always signified the submission of women to men and the denial of legal rights to women in Islamic countries." She stresses that the Islamists did not invent the veil, but have turned it into a weapon and made of it the symbol of their cause.

Addressing the growing phenomenon of veiled women in European Muslim communities, Djavann points out its centrality to the Islamist propaganda: "The political, ideological, and psychological impact of the veil goes far beyond its appearance… If this weren´t the case, why would the Islamists make it their main focus? [7]… It constitutes a constant call to order by Islamic law."

"The Spread of the Veil in Europe is a Very Clear Indicator of the Spread of Islamism": "Iran Has Imposed the Veil on All Women, Including Christian and Jewish Women"

The veil, Djavann argues, reflects a refusal to integrate, and its spread in Europe is a very clear indicator of the spread of Islamism. Therefore, intellectuals who defend it, in an attempt to be understanding and compassionate, are in fact promoting Islamism: "The French intellectuals who oppose the banning of the veil in secular schools must understand that they are supporting Islamic dictatorships," she writes.

Djavann stresses that Islam can exist without the veil, but the Islamist system cannot, because "the veil is the symbol, the flag and the keystone of the Islamic system." As an example, she presents Iran, which "has imposed the veil on all women, including Christian and Jewish women, and has deployed its paramilitary forces to enforce the wearing of the veil throughout Iran."

As for those young girls who insist on wearing the veil in France, she says that "they encourage oppression against all the women in Muslim countries who strive to escape the totalitarian hold of the hijab, and [even] risk their lives to do so."

Islamists Reject French Law – Yet Strive to Impose Their Own Laws on Public Life

Islamists claim that the veil is being rejected due to racism, and they call for respect for freedom of worship. However, Djavann points out, when Islamists threatened France because of the ban on the veil in public schools, what was at stake was not the girls´ hair, or religion – but political power. While denying the State the right to interfere in what they term religious affairs, the Islamists are striving to impose their laws on schools, including physical education classes, and on higher education and public services. As in Iran, "in order to enforce Islamic regulations, [Iranian leaders] tried to implement mosque laws in public areas: separate entrances for men and women, separate dining rooms, separate libraries and workrooms, separate swimming pools…" [8]

Djavann argues that Islamists take advantage of the difficulties encountered by many Muslims in integrating into French society – difficulties intensified by the veil. He says: "The veil is not the attractive symbol of identity, but the expression of estrangement and isolation… "

Islamists seek to enroll the children of immigrants into the Islamist system in order to gain political power, Djavann says: To those who feel excluded, preachers offer the homeland of Islam. Islam prevails over all nationalities and over cultural and linguistic differences. "The preachers claim that there must be a return to the lost Islamic identity. This identity is presented as a remedy to Western ills." Djavann terms this strategy in which the veil is a central component "Islamic colonialism."

Muslim Women Are Told They Can Swim at Specific Hours – But If They Swim During Mixed Hours, They Are Called Whores

Djavann believes that there must be no compromise with Islamism in state-managed institutions, since any compromise will lead to more oppression. She gives the example of the Islamists´ demand for separate hours for men and women for swimming pools: "This is a case of indirect repression. Muslim women are told they can swim at specific hours, but if they choose to go swimming in mixed hours, they will be called whores… It is in the name of democracy that Islamists demand separate hours for women. And then they manage to impose those separate hours on all Muslim women in their areas." [9]

Regarding the situation in schools, she writes: "Those intellectuals who oppose expelling students from school because they are veiled, on the premise that this exclusion will only worsen their situation whereas school will teach them freedom, [are mistaken]. Allowing veil-wearing in schools will only encourage it in France. Allowing girls to wear the veil at school places those teens living in [immigrant] suburbs under the yoke of Islamic dogma, and makes it even more difficult for them to attain emancipation. Some of them have already been called whores because they refused to wear the veil."

Veiling Young Girls: Sexual Abuse That Should Be Outlawed

Djavann also analyzes the social and psychological damage caused by wearing the veil, saying that it denies women any normal social life, because it reduces their social life to that of sexual objects. Wearing the veil only "points to what the veil is hiding… It hides what no one might look at if it were not hidden… The veil calls the attention and energy of men" to what it conceals. As the Islamist system covers women´s heads, it only sees them as genitals, Djavann argues. Hence she calls the veil "pornographic on the symbolic level." [10]

Djavann especially condemns the veiling of little girls, calling it abuse because it makes them internalize at an early age that they should be ashamed: "Don´t we hide what we are ashamed of?… Since childhood, these veiled girls feel guilty… From childhood, little girls are aware that they are a threat to boys and men…" In addition, the girls are a "constant threat to Islamic morals: a girl could bring about a crime, be slaughtered by her father or brothers to cleanse their sullied honor. Indeed, the honor of men is cleansed with girls´ blood!"

The veil may mean several things, Djavann explains. It may mean that the woman has become the property of a man; it may also mean – in the case of young girls – that they are being marketed as sexual objects, ready to wed.

She goes on to write: "When you veil a child, you put her on the sex and marriage market, making her exist only for the interest of men, for [the purpose of] sex and marriage… Forcing the veil on a minor is abuse, because you do what you like to her body and turn her into a sex object designated for men… Several ethnologists once defended genital mutilation in the name of cultural differences… Let us not make the same mistake with the Islamic veil: It is not in the name of secularism that veil wearing should be banned… but in the name of human rights and the protection of minors."

Referring to those French intellectuals who consider the veil in schools to be the expression of teenagers´ quest for identity, she says: "The veil does not result from an identity problem. It is an attack on the woman´s body… The act of burying the body of a woman under a piece of cloth is extremely serious, similar to genital mutilation. Veiling a minor is abuse… There is a need for legislation to ban the veil, at least in schools." [11]

Djavann notes that "even in Muslim countries, making minors wear the veil is considered extremist. In its previous history, France knew how to limit the influence of Catholic rules. Why shouldn´t it do the same with Islamic rules? [12]

The Veil Damages Self Image, Social Life – For Both Women and Men

Djavann adds: "If you are a woman [in Islamist societies], you dare not go out on your own or have a cup of coffee at a bar. Relations between men and women are reduced to… sexuality… In Iran, in universities, circulars forbid girls and boys from greeting each other… Can you imagine what humiliation this is?" [13]

Recalling the decade she spent wearing a veil in Iran, she says that much of the problem comes from the fact that the honor of Muslim men depends upon the female body: "I felt humiliation at being a woman… A girl is considered [a source of] shame and danger. Think about it: she may harm a man´s honor! I would like someone to tell me why a man feels defiled if a woman violates modesty regulations. Why does the honor of Muslim men depend on the bodies of Muslim women? They should be responsible for their own honor!" [14]

Men also bear the consequences of this dependency, Djavann asserts: "This kind of relationship is more damaging to men than to women… The man bases his existence on his relationship to the female sex… He is a man because he is able to guarantee the decency and the good behavior of the female body within his family; he is a man because he owns the female body – his mother´s, his sister´s, his wife´s, his daughters´…" In other words, "the more a woman is ashamed and modest, the more her father, brothers and husband are honored…"

Djavann also points out that the debate on the veil issue should not conceal other problems: economic inequality, lodging, education. Political leaders should not evade their responsibilities and abandon immigrants to their predicament, dooming them to ghettoes cut off from French society.

* N. Maruani is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Sarkozy declared in a parliamentary address on June 22, 2009, that the burqa, which covers women from head to toe, is "not welcome" in France, evoking strong criticism from French Muslim leaders.

[2] Bas les Voiles, Gallimard, 2003.

[3] Que Pense Allah de l´Europe?, Gallimard, 2004.

[4] In 2006, Djavann published "Comment Peut-On Etre Français?" ("How to Be French," Flammarion, 2006), a philosophical essay addressed to 18th century French author Montesquieu, who wrote the famous satirical work Persian Letters (Lettres persanes).

[5] This law bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French public primary and secondary schools.

[6] L´Express (France), October 30, 2003, http://www.lexpress.fr/info/societe/dossier/foulard/dossier.asp?ida=409994.

This 20-member committee, headed by then French ombudsman Bernard Stasi, dealt with the issue of preserving "the neutrality of public services" and promoting "cohesion and brotherhood among [French] citizens" while respecting "pluralism, religious freedom and freedom of speech, gender equality and women´s dignity." Modeled on the 1987 committee on the "code of nationality," it held consultations with political parties, religious authorities and representatives of civil society.

[7] "Dévoilez Chahdortt," an interview by Isabelle Robineau in the French literary monthly Topo,

[8] Tariq Ramadan advocated separate hours for men and women in swimming pools, saying: "Today swimming pools here… are not Islamic… You cannot go there because your eyes are set on things that you should not see…" See video on website of French intellectual, writer, and activist Caroline Fourest: http://carolinefourest.wordpress.com/2008/05/11/tariq-ramadan-contre-les-piscines-mixtes/ or on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAuLhit-BHA.

[9] "Devoilez Chahdortt," an interview by Isabelle Robineau in the French literary monthly Topo,

[10] See also "Une pudeur pornographique" ("A pornographic modesty"), published in the Communist daily l´Humanité, December 19, 2003, http://www.humanite.fr/popup_print.php3?id_article=384774.

[11] Interview by Victor Dixmier, www.leparisien.com, October 17, 2003.

[12] Interview with Chahdortt Djavann published by online French daily on Middle East affairs www.proche-orient.info, October 24, 2003.

[13] "Devoilez Chahdortt", an interview by Isabelle Robineau in the French literary monthly Topo,

[14] Interview by Ilana Moryoussef, in the online Middle East affairs daily www.proche-orient.info, October 24, 2003.

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