The Council of Europe’s Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Division recently tweeted out posters containing images of women whose faces were partially veiled by a hijab. The tweets were presumably meant to encourage respect for Muslim women in the west who wear the hijab—as a way of countering discrimination against Muslims.
Of course, no one should be treated with disrespect for wearing a hijab or discriminated against on the basis of her religious beliefs. Western societies have laws prohibiting harmful acts that are motivated by hate or bigotry.
However, the council’s message was poorly thought out. They were celebrating Muslim women’s acquiescence in a cultural practice that is used to subjugate women across the Muslim world. It is deeply disappointing and ironic that the Council misunderstood this practice as some kind of expression of Muslim women’s freedom and joy.
Rules about Muslim women’s clothing are a contentious issue within Muslim communities, even in western countries. Some Muslims argue that Muslim women should be free to reject any religious and cultural practice; they see the advocacy of such practices as modesty dress as Islamist propaganda that aims to repress women. On the other hand, some Muslim women mistakenly credit Islam for the freedoms they enjoy in western countries. They assert that Islam empowers women, but they cannot support that vague assertion with any evidence that holds water.
The reality is that the hijab is not a benign item of clothing in Muslim societies. It symbolizes a social structure where any demand that women be treated equally to men, in any respect, is seen as a rebellion against divine law—and such demands are often met with harsh repercussions. Wearing the hijab has always been presented as a religious imperative, a symbol of modesty, and one of the indications of a woman’s pious character, along with unconditional submissiveness to men, and complete compliance with cultural norms that treat women as second-class citizens. Women who refuse to comply are stigmatized, ostracised and tortured.
Wherever Islam is the state religion, it disempowers women: it imposes a narrow dress code on them; enjoins them not to speak their minds, and deprives them of their basic human rights. It turns their lives into an experience of claustrophobic mutism.
Take just one Islamist-dominated country: Afghanistan. Under the Taliban’s brutal regime, Afghan women and girls are forced to wear hijabs, and many are also forced to wear burkas—black, grim, dementor-like garbs—purportedly in the service of a modest lifestyle. In August 2021, the Taliban executed a woman for not wearing a burka.
Other brutal forms of gender-based discrimination are also the norm. The Taliban have confined millions of Afghan girls and women to their homes and deprived them of an education. Girls as young as nine years old are being sold into marriages to older men, apparently because their families can’t otherwise afford to eat—and this practice is perfectly legal: child marriage is sanctioned by certain Islamic teachings and treated as a religious ritual under the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.
When the European Council’s posters appeared, many westerners were appalled that they presented attire that is used to oppress Muslim women as if it were a symbol of freedom or joy—and as part of an effort to uphold human rights in free democratic western societies. Criticism of the posters was swift, furious and widespread. Online critics rejected them as virtue signalling, the French government took a firmly disapproving stance against them, and many French politicians criticized them. For example, France’s youth minister, Sarah El Haïry, said that their message jarred with the secular values of France.
In response, the Council’s Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Division withdrew the images and cancelled its hijab-celebrating campaign—and the Council of Europe tried to distance itself from the effort: its spokesperson said that the posters merely feature statements made by individuals who participated in one of their project’s workshops.
However, that statement was itself appalling. It is irresponsible to design a wide-reaching campaign for women’s rights on the basis of a few individuals’ personal opinions about wearing the hijab—and to present those opinions as if they represent the experience of Muslim women in general.
To add insult to injury, many mainstream western media outlets painted the criticism of the council’s hijab-celebration either as an attack on Islam and Muslims or as mere political posturing in the run-up to next year’s election—while saying nothing about the legitimate concern that hijab culture violates women’s rights. This kind of reportage deflects attention from the real issue.
It is unfortunate that people claiming to uphold human rights seem oblivious to the plight of women who are struggling to free themselves from the control of fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Indonesia and other Muslim-majority countries. Promoting hijab as a matter of choice for women runs the risk of completely shutting down discussions in western countries about the abuses of women’s rights in Muslim societies.
If the European Council’s goal in running this campaign was to promote diversity in western societies, its members should recognise that this can hardly be achieved by normalising misogynistic attire, enforced through mental and physical coercion and used to relegate women to the shadows. No one should forget that the desire to be free from coercion and discrimination is not a western concept. It is a universal human instinct. Women of Muslim heritage do not need to be pressed to adhere to any particular religion, culture or attire to validate their existence. Nor do they need a western would-be-saviour organization to redefine for them what it means to be a free woman.