I see a lot of people running their damn ass mouths again about hijabis, niqabis, and women who wear burqas. I hear a lot of talk about clothing bans in the name of feminism and other such bullshit. So, here’s a long and still unedited thing I wrote that will hopefully convince you that all that talk of assimilation is simply nationalistic bullshit dressed up as “freedom” and secular liberal democracy and why some Muslim women don’t want your damn hand-me-down ideology.
On March 24, 2010, Madame Kathleen Weil, Minister of Justice for Quebec, introduced Bill 94 to the National Assembly. Called ‘An Act to Establish Guidelines Governing Accommodation Requests Within the Administration and Certain Institutions’ it called for the requirement that all people seeking public services, as well as those providing them, be required to show their faces at all times. Public services are defined as schools, social services, healthcare services, and childcare, among others. Non-compliance could result in denial of such services.
Though the bill makes no mention of any particular target, in section four of Bill 94 its authors specifically cite the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms’ guarantees of gender equality and state religious neutrality while objecting to face veils. Therefore, it is easy to see that what the authors intend to do is unveil niqabi Muslim women seeking government services and ostracize those who refuse to do so. The bill garnered popular support in the province but has been alternatively enacted and overturned from 2011 until 2018. As of the time of this writing, Bill 94’s future is unclear.
Bill 94, however, is just one of many proposed or enacted bills aimed at limiting the public expression of religion that disproportionately affects Muslim women. France has had a ban on all forms of religious apparel and symbols in the school system since 2004, and since 2011 has instituted a full public ban on the niqab and burqas. These bans also relied on claims of state religious neutrality and gender equality. Given the close association between Quebec and France, it shouldn’t surprise us that they hold similar values and that their bans were proposed in the same year (with the exception of France’s 2004 ban on religious symbols and clothing specifically in the public school system).
What interests me at the present time is examining what the bans in Quebec and France tell us about national identity and the role women play in its construction. Specifically, I am interested in how narratives of the religious oppression of women are used to justify state paternalism and also aid in nationalistic identity formation. I will attempt to show that these bans are not religiously neutral at all but instead serve as a window into how western societies demarcate cultural and religious boundaries and highlight the tensions around visible cultural difference in societies preoccupied with integration into existing religious and cultural norms, even when they are unaware of the religious overtones of their own culture. I will also show that there exists a certain amount of reactionary emphasis on veiling in Muslim communities as a response to the encroachment of western secularism. I argue that, in any society, religious or secular, in which women are seen as a visible symbol of morality or national identity, their bodies will always be dressed or undressed by others to reveal national attitudes, anxieties, and preoccupations. However, there is also a vital and complex discussion to be had about the role of female agency and how Muslim women living in western secular nations might conceptualize and express their will by living out their agency in ways that are difficult for westerners to understand, especially when so often western ideas of agency are associated with secular progressive politics.
I will begin my analysis with a quick discussion of the roots of the secular liberal state and the myths that perpetuate it and then move into a more in-depth look at both Bill 94 in Quebec and the 2004 and 2011 religious symbol/clothing bans in France. I’ll follow this up with a deeper look at western interpretations of agency and freedom where I will argue that the secular liberal state has based its concept of gender equality on a limited understanding of agency and freedom before finally concluding that the modern western secular state is no more secular than any other and that its preoccupation with gender equality is, at best, a smokescreen for pursuing its true interest – controlling (particularly female) identity formation in the service of the state.
A Brief History of State Formation in the West
One of the enduring myths of western history concerns the development of the modern state. This myth says that the state of individual freedom prior to the reformations was very poor. People largely existed under the rule of either pope or monarch and religious conformity went without question. During the reformations chaos ensued and there was a general crisis of authority. People began to interpret scripture in various and competing ways and monarch and pope persecuted non-conformity. Then came the wars of religion in western Europe, principally the Netherlands, France, and Germany. As a result of the horrors of war, it was decided that a secular state was the best option for avoiding further bloodshed and the modern nation state was born.
But there are several issues with this narrative, most obvious is that none of these states actually was secular. Though each made some provision for non-conformists, each nation still had its preferred national religion which determined its political and social outlook. As Jose Casanova said, the wars of religion didn’t create the secular state but rather the confessional and territorial one. Religion still played an important part in the culture and politics of each nation.
And this is still true today. While we may now be hundreds of years after the wars of religion, we have brought with us many of the same assumptions of our ancestors. In the west we still largely believe that religion and government shouldn’t mix and that religion is in some way unhelpful or even damaging to democracy. Despite almost every secular European country having an established church, there exists an idea that religion is somehow intolerant or incompatible with progressive politics while secularism guarantees relief from intolerance and bloodshed. What is even more remarkable is that such a view seems irreconcilable with the horrors of the twentieth century, filled as it was with secular war and atrocity. There must be another explanation then for the persistence of this narrative. Cassanova and others have posited that such a narrative, while demonstrably false, serves the purpose of differentiating enlightened, secular, and sophisticated Europeans from a barbaric, religious, and ethnically non-European Muslim population. To help make this function, the privatization of religion as a feature of democracy is taken for granted and the constitutions of such states often rename Christian values as secular enlightenment values. In other words, what a given European state has inherited from its Christian past is rebranded as secular so as to serve the purpose of providing a supposed neutral list of values to which a newcomer is to conform. What seems to matter most in these cases is only an outward conformity, not necessarily an inward conversion. Visual symbols, such as religious or cultural dress, are seemingly more important to “othering” than actual philosophical or moral differences when it comes to creating and solidifying national identity.
A particularly prominent feature of secular liberal democracy is the division of life into two spheres – the public and the private. This is what allows for the privatization of religion. People are encouraged to live their religious lives strictly in the private sphere of home, family, and religion, and not to bring it into the public sphere of politics and communal life. Some argue that even in a secular liberal democracy which claims to champion gender equality that women, by virtue of persistent gender roles, are often relegated to the private sphere where the violation of their rights goes unquestioned, meaning that secular liberal states are not as concerned with the rights of women as they intersect with family and religious life. Critics say that racial oppression, for instance, is given more attention than oppression of women, and doubly so when that oppression is religiously-based. This is the reasoning used by many who support niqab or headscarf bans. Is it equality or tolerance that is the main feature of liberalism, they ask? Can we tolerate a practice that is oppressive to women simply because it is religious and therefore exists in the private sphere?
Criminalizing Muslim Women’s Visibility in Quebec and France
As stated in the introduction, Bill 94 (‘An Act to Establish Guidelines Governing Accommodation Requests Within the Administration and Certain Institutions’) was introduced to the National Assembly in Quebec in 2010. Though the bill does not specifically mention Muslims, its origins seem to be in the public debate that ensued when an Egyptian immigrant named Naema Ahmed refused to remove her niqab and was subsequently asked to leave her French language class in Montreal.
The central arguments for Bill 94 are said to be about security and the protection of Quebec’s values, specifically those of gender equality and secularism. Though the bill’s language doesn’t specify a target religion and proponents claim it in fact applies to people of all religions, it does seem to disproportionately affect Muslim niqabis and would make it difficult for them to perform basic activities such as picking up a child from a state-sponsored daycare center or even going to a public service building to pay a utility bill.
Proponents claim that Bill 94 merely sets “reasonable” limits on accommodation practices, arguing that this isn’t a complete ban but simply one that applies to public service and promotes greater security. And indeed, provincial feminist groups were divided with some supporting Bill 94, some dissenting, and others offering qualified support. For example, the Simon de Beauvoir Institute opposed it on the grounds of bodily autonomy for Muslim women while La Fédération de femmes de Quebec gave qualified support saying that it struck a balance between gender equity and reasonable accommodation. The most interesting and telling reason given for support of Bill 94 was from le Mouvement laïque Québécois who said that no reasonable accommodation could ever be made because religion is inherently irrational. I’ll speak more about the assumption of state rationality and religious irrationality in a moment.
Introduction of the bill was followed by a public comment period in which religious groups, academics, and others expressed criticism while the general public seemed to favor the bill. Tellingly, almost no veiled women were heard or consulted.
At almost the same moment in France in 2011, Prime Minister François Fillon officially decreed that women were to be banned from wearing the niqab and burqa in public spaces and that offenders would be fined and forced to take a citizenship course. One of the primary reasons given in support for the decree was that “living together supposes acceptance of the gaze of the other,” a rather tenuous assertion in that many niqabi women may just as well retire from public life and thus fail to integrate rather than unveil.
The ban is also absurd for an even simpler reason – the fact that so few women, an almost negligible amount, veil at all. In most European countries, burqa and niqab wearing women number in the hundreds at most. In Germany, where face veils are prohibited to civil servants, not a single one wore or attempted to wear a veil. The truth is that face veils are extremely rare and that legislation against them is thus a symbolic way of asserting French beauty standards, sexual norms, and a nationalistic demarcation of “us” v. “them”. To put it in a more historical context, “Just as, during the Algerian war, women’s bodies were perceived as territories to conquer, to liberate and to occupy, in France today, the bodies of Muslim women symbolize those ‘lost territories of the republic’ which must be reclaimed from the grip of Arab males demonized as uncivilized and aggressive chauvinists.”
The ban on burqas and niqabs in public spaces followed an older 2004 law that banned all religious symbols and clothing, including hijabs, in French schools. The reasoning behind the school ban is couched in laïcist thought, a fundamental aspect of French culture and society that claims France as a secular nation with a rigid separation of church and state. In the eyes of the proponents of the 2004 ban, French schools are meant to be places of free inquiry and that such inquiry is hampered when students openly display religious affiliation. Schools, they say, are to be places of potential emancipation and wearing the hijab “symbolizes at best, a profoundly ambivalent attitude towards the benefits of secular free enquiry and, at worst, an obscurantist and oppressive assertion of the primacy of communal tradition or divinely ordained command over individual reason. It denies young girls the very benefits that republican education had promised them, namely, the possibility to emancipate themselves from their condition through the critical re-examination of beliefs inculcated by their families or communities.”
It is important that we interrogate the assumption that French schools are the ideal place for teaching autonomy. Proponents of a rigid secularity in schools fail to take into account that students cannot be scraped clean of influence but that youth culture, family traditions, and community expectations all impact on students. The same is true of teachers and administrators who oversee secular schools. Indeed, the idea of secular neutrality itself is a chimera that dissolves upon closer examination.
A Deconstruction of the Myth of Secular Neutrality
The idea of a separation between church and state is really only possible in a state that has a predominantly Christian heritage. In many countries we haphazardly designate as “Eastern”, the privatization of religion is an alien concept. For instance, to designate the veil as “cultural” rather than religious may allow the western state the advantage of preventing a woman from invoking her right to religious freedom, but such an idea is absurd to many Muslims who do not see a separation between culture and religion. As a result, some Muslims see westernization and secularism as synonymous and sometimes double down in their efforts to promote hijabs, niqabs, or burqas as a way of preventing the loss of their cultural identity. Indeed, secular countries’ own assertion of neutrality is suspect. For example, the Dutch have high rates of church affiliation but low rates of attendance and one could almost make the claim that this is evidence of a shared Christian culture that inevitably informs their perception of Islam as the “other”.
Aside from the idea of a perfect separation between culture and religion or state and religion, one of the most enduring myths of secularism is that a secular state has to be a democracy and a democracy can only be a secular state. And yet we easily find examples that frustrate this argument. Turkey, as Cassanova argues, becomes less secular the more democratic it becomes and countries such as Poland, though ostensibly democratic, have what might be seen as enormous amounts of church-state involvement. And yet, it is Turkey, as a majority Muslim country, and not Poland that causes unease for many Europeans. This narrative also contains within it the assumption that secular (and therefore democratic) states are superior in that they are inevitably technologically, scientifically, and politically progressive. Gender equality is one area in particular that many secular democracies pride themselves on and it is the cornerstone of many of the arguments used in support of the bans in both Quebec and France. The general argument is that the state is the only entity that can protect women from the discrimination inherent in religion because the state is itself intrinsically liberal and benevolent while religion is fundamentally conservative and oppressive. The irony is, of course, that the state, in attempting to secure gender equality through banning face veils comes to reconstruct itself as if it were a religious force by imposing a secular dress code in place of a religious one. By positioning itself as the surest example of rationality and neutrality, the western state automatically declares religion to be irrational and undemocratic and therefore its adherents as a semi-barbaric, an unmodern “other”. And because the state is fundamentally rational and neutral, it makes sense that we view it as the ultimate arbiter of identity so as to avoid conflict between groups. As Ernest Renan argued, the state must be that which gives us our identity because to rely on religion or race as identifiers is to risk irrational war and bloodshed. Understanding this argument about the primacy of the state in identity formation is crucial to understanding the French insistence on rigid secularity in its public school system. It is here, argue laïcists, that French secular republican values can be inculcated without undue influence from religion or culture, and where students from religious backgrounds can practice autonomy and self-consciousness. In French laïcist culture, constructive and meaningful lives are autonomous lives because only an enlightened and secular people can form educated public opinions and scrupulously influence policy for the common good. In particular, laïcists (and others around the western world) assume that women’s rights and liberation can only occur in a secular democracy and that therefore the state has a duty to help women to liberate themselves.
The Myth of Progressive Female Agency
There is a general assumption in the western world that religious women have fewer rights within their communities than do non-religious women, and that secular liberal democracy is the key to the empowerment of all women, even if it is sometimes against a woman’s will. Gail Stopler, for instance, disagrees with what she calls the “rhetoric of choice” and says that we must understand that not all choices are made freely. She further argues that many minority women find themselves caught between loyalty to gender and loyalty to their own community and that thus women need help recognizing their oppression, help that presumably comes from the secular state. My quarrel with Stopler is twofold. First, the assumption that women need help recognizing their oppression is, I believe, a dangerous one. It is the same argument that is used, for instance, in the United States to force women into having medically unnecessary ultrasounds or receive religious counseling prior to accessing abortion care in the belief that she is incapable of understanding her situation until explained to her by a supposedly neutral source with an interest in her well-being. And this leads to my second objection, namely that such an argument is a denial of agency and, ironically, autonomy.
Within this belief lies an even more interesting one, in my opinion. This is the myth that women are intrinsically incompatible with what the west may call anti-feminist movements, cultures, or behavior, and that any such seemingly contrary behavior by women is the result of oppression or a lack of agency. Liberal westerners tend to romanticize agency by positioning it as not simply the ability and will to act but as the desire to challenge social norms. We perform this romanticization by ascribing modern rebellious motives to women in history, for instance. A good example might be Queen Elizabeth I who is sometimes romanticized as a proto-feminist for her refusal to marry, rather than as an astute politician juggling constantly shifting alliances. But is it possible for women to use their agency to pursue what looks to us in the west like their own subordination? For instance, can a fully informed woman decide to veil? Can a woman who knows what her rights are in her adopted western nation still wholeheartedly embrace modest religious dress? Or is she subconsciously (or even forcefully) coerced into acceding to the demands of her family and community with no way out except by force of the state?
In order to refute the kinds of ideas that Stopler and others promote, that women need help understanding their situation and oppression so as to realize a positive freedom and transcend that oppression, it is worthwhile to look at what Judith Butler said about freedom and social norms. Ultimately, I believe it is important to begin by understanding that none of us is neutral. Whether secular or religious, from a democracy or a monarchy or some other form of government, all of us are shaped by our cultures and therefore, all of us act from within those contexts. Butler, leaning on Michael Foucault’s own analysis, would say that there is no self that exists outside of the cultural norms within which we are raised and that it is, in fact, in the midst of these that we come to self-consciousness. Therefore, secularity is no more neutral than is the French Muslim schoolgirl living between laicism and her family’s religious and cultural traditions and, furthermore, both the secularist and the schoolgirl have, in a sense, come to being through these contexts. Any assertion of agency is therefore understood to be not simply in reaction to but born out of, the social norms and power structures that surround an individual. It’s in this way that we can develop a more nuanced understanding of agency. Rather than it referring only to acts of will that align with progressive values, it can be understood to be an act of will that is highly contextualized and culturally specific. It can even look to an outsider like collusion with oppression. Saba Mahmood puts this most succinctly when she says that, “if the ability to effect change in the world and in oneself is historically and culturally specific… then the meaning and sense of agency cannot be fixed in advance, but must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility, and effectivity… In this sense, agentival capacity is entailed not only in those acts that resist norms but also in the multiple ways in which one inhabits norms.” Norms and power structures are inevitably self-referential, even in their destruction. And as Butler says (borrowing from Foucault), there is no possibility of undoing social norms that is independent of doing social norms. We can never escape our contexts.
So, what does this all mean for the politics of veiling in Quebec and France? In Europe, the continuing eastward expansion of the European Union has brought about something of an identity crisis, while in Quebec we have two groups (Quebecers and Muslim immigrants) who both experience a sense of being “other” to the dominant Anglo Canadian population. And indeed, identity is really what we are worried about when we talk of assimilation, immigration, and bans on religious clothing. The question seems to be, who is the final arbiter of identity?
Supporters of both bans would argue that they are merely interested in, among other things, providing a neutral space in which women can identify their oppression but the French ban on the niqab has, in just one instance, been used against the same woman a total of 33 times! The law is hardly proving to be a deterrent to some. It may also be argued that this woman is displaying a remarkably stubborn sense of agency. In fact, in France, publicly wearing a burqa or niqab may be the height of autonomy and non-conformity, that self-actualization that French education assumes can only be found in a secular context. It also suggests that the veil seems to mean something to the women who wear it that is different from the western reconstruction of Islam that westerners use to support such bans. Indeed, Ralf Michaels posits that the entire choice v. compulsion argument only makes sense in a western doctrinally-focused society. Arguments about whether the veil is religiously required or not are thus irrelevant. In Islam there is no “final say” emphasis to doctrine as there is in much western religion. A woman who is considering wearing a niqab or burqa often consults a variety of sources, including family wishes, to come to a conclusion that is religiously valid either way, at least in the sense that there is no universal final authority figure in Islam to make a ruling. In the end, the laïcist conception of the veil and what it means are western constructions. Veils and headscarves “have no intrinsic meaning and it is inappropriate for the state to impose a meaning on them.”
What is most deeply ironic about both the bans I’ve explored is that at the root of both is a conflicted and paradoxical understanding of agency. Muslim women who veil are seen as simultaneously having and not having agency. To assume a woman can take off her niqab to, for instance, receive public services in Quebec or to adamantly refuse to do so is assuming agency and autonomy. But the argument used, particularly in France, is that women need the state’s help to abandon the veil because they either lack agency or the conditions in which to exercise it. “Hence, women who wear the niqab are simultaneously seen as trapped by the limits of deep-set patriarchy and free agents who are failing to make the best choice for themselves and for society.” This is the strongest piece of evidence that these bans are not really about the liberation of women but really about policing identity formation.
I believe the two central questions we’re left with are firstly, what are we then to do with an influx of people who do not necessarily desire western interpretations of autonomy and freedom? And secondly, how can we reconceptualize agency so that it gains complexity and more accurately reflects a variety of experiences of power? In the case of the first question, we need to begin to understand the variety of experiences that Muslim women have. While it is common for westerners to view Muslim women as inherently submissive or as trapped and oppressed, deconstructing the stereotype and actually listening to Muslim women reveals a complex understanding of gender and religion. Some hijabis, for instance, see themselves as feminists whose use of the hijab is one of an assertion of identity and pride. Many of these women are visible in skilled professions, are activists, or are otherwise living lives of fulfilment and freedom on their own terms.
We also need to deconstruct western assumptions of agency. More specifically, we need to uncouple the idea of agency from western secular liberal progressive politics. Understanding that agency is contextual and its meaning dependent upon a variety of historical and cultural factors allows us to get a more nuanced look at power structures and the many ways in which women have navigated them throughout history and across the world.
And finally, we would do well to question whether western secular values are inherently liberating. While we’ve seen that, for instance, French laïcist thought puts a strong emphasis on gender equality, we might also ask why French culture can, at times, seem unapologetically sexist in its rigid beauty standards and often toxic notions of masculinity. If gender equality is an important secular republican value, why do we ignore blatant violations against women while criminalizing the small number of women who choose to wear the niqab or the burqa? It would seem that the motivation to ban female religious dress goes much deeper than a desire to liberate women and instead has everything to do with enforcing nationalistic ideals of what it means to be a female citizen of a western nation.
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(2003): 154 – 221.
 Meena Sharify-Funk, “Governing the Face Veil: Quebec’s Bill 94 and the Transnational Politics of Women’s Identity,” International Journal of Canadian Studies 43, (2011): 137.
 José Casanova, “The Secular and Secularisms,” Social Research 76, no.4 (Winter 2009): 8-9.
 José Casanova, “The Problem of Religion and the Anxieties of European Secular Democracy,” in Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe, eds. G. Motzkin and Y. Fischer (London: Alliance Publishing Trust, 2008), 64-65.
 Casanova, “The Problem of Religion”, 66.
 Casanova, “The Problem of Religion”, 68,73.
 From Anthony Cohen’s The Symbolic Construction of Community as referenced by Meena Sharify-Funk in “Governing the Face Veil”, 137-38.
 Gila Stopler, “Countenancing the Oppression of Women: How Liberals Tolerate Religious and Cultural Practices That Discriminate Against Women,” Journal of Gender and Law 12, 1 (2003): 155,160,162.
 Sharify-Funk, “Governing the Face Veil,” 142.
 Sharify-Funk, “Governing the Face Veil,” 135; Pascale Fournier, “The ‘Naked Face’ of Secular Exclusion: Bill 94 and the Privatization of Belief,” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 30, no. 1, (2012): 67-68.
 Brenda O’Neill, Elisabeth Gidengil, Catherine Côté, and Lisa Young, “Freedom of Religion, Women’s Agency, and Banning the Face Veil: the Role of Feminist Beliefs in Shaping Women’s Opinion,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, no. 11 (2015): 1887.
 Fournier, “The ‘Naked Face’ of Secular Exclusion”, 69.
 Cécile Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 9, no. 3 (September 2006): 362.
 Assigning offenders to citizenship classes seems to be based on the assumption that being a good citizen of France is to not be a veiled Muslim. I might even go further and say that it assumes that a good female French citizen be open to the male gaze.
 Ralf Michaels, “Banning Burqas: The Perspective of Postsecular Comparative law,” Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law 28 (2018): 231.
 I also find this quote interesting in its thinly disguised attempt to enshrine in French law the right of the male gaze to determine the legitimacy of female citizenship.
 Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab”, 361-362; Michaels, “Banning Burqas,” 215, 224-225.
 Ibid, 362.
 Ibid,” 357.
 Michaels, “Banning Burqas,” 227-228.
 Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 4.
 Cassanova, “The Problem of Religion,” 66.
 Ibid, 71-72.
 Ibid, 64-65.
 Michaels, “Banning Burqas”, 243.
 Michaels, “Banning Burqas”, 236-237.
 Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab”, 352-353.
 Stopler, “Countenancing the Oppression of Women”, 158, 191-192
 The concept of positive freedom (being free from social oppression in order to act upon your own will) is central to the progressive understanding of agency. It is no wonder then that many progressive liberals would side with Stopler in her assertion of a need for space for women to analyze their own oppression. I by no means completely repudiate this idea but will rather contextualize it as I continue my analysis.
 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’” (New York: Routledge, 1993).
 Mahmood, Politics of Piety”, 14-15.
 Michaels, “Banning Burqas”, 225.
 Michaels, “Banning Burqas,” 228-229.
 Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab”, 361.
 Fournier, “The ‘Naked Face’ of Secular Exclusion, 73.
 Anna Mansson McGinty, “Faith Drives Me to Be an Activist”: Two American Muslim Women
on Faith, Outreach, and Gender,” The Muslim World 102, (April 2012).
 Recently more attention is being paid to this seeming contradiction. The #metoo movement has exposed not only some of the ugliest incidents of harassment and abuse of women in France but also the complacency with which it is greeted. (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-04/metoo-took-the-world-by-storm-then-it-met-french-resistance/10195830).