An article in Le Vif calls the face veil “an ideological uniform” and claims that the “promoters of women’s face veil obviously have a political agenda” incompatible with democracy and human rights.
Muslim Women’s Rights are Human Rights
On the 2nd of August 2018, the Centrist francophone daily La Libre Belgique published an appeal by a collective of 100 European Muslim women titled ‘Muslim Women’s Rights are Human Rights’.
This collective consists of women [and some men] of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, alongside human rights, women rights and Islamic NGOs, including GTTO’s partner in Belgium The European Forum of Muslim Women.
Following the historic inclusion of Muslim women’s rights in the agenda of European Parliament’s Gender Equality Committee, this collective appealed “for the creation of a European model of real inclusion and pluralism.”
Citing the Restrictions on Muslim Women’s Dress in the 28 EU Member States report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the signatories of the appeal argued that Muslim women in EU faced wide-ranging structural inequalities.
In around one third of all EU states, there are legal restrictions on wearing the face veil in public. In over one half, state and private enterprises prevent their employees from wearing ostensibly religious clothing. Although these regulations are legally ‘neutral’, studies have shown that they disproportionally affect Muslim women and are shaped by Islamophobic discourse.
So, the collective asked – “How can we seriously reconcile this with European principles of non-discrimination and gender equality?
Instead, they called on European society to embrace real pluralism. Specifically, they would like governments to monitor whether their laws disproportionally affect a particular group and encouraged private enterprise to champion inclusion by example.
Political Islam and Its Lieutenants
In reaction, another francophone Belgian newspaper Le Vif published 'The Citizen Response to European Muslim Women's Collective'.
Penned by the self-described “citizen of Brussels” Abdel Serghini, this article deliberately misreads the collective’s demands and ignores issues they raise.
Serghini uses tired Islamophobic clichés to accuse members of the collective of being “thinkers and leaders of political Islam” who want “to exercise real domination over women.” He claims that their appeal is part of a political project to force all Muslim women to wear the veil and implies that wearing the veil is never a choice, but “unavoidable consequence of politico-cultural pressure.”
Further, he asserts that it is wrong to claim that veiled women are discriminated based on their faith –
it should be underlined that if there is discrimination, it does not target Muslim women, but individuals who wear the veil that symbolises an abject inequality between men and women in the eyes of the democrats.
Member of the Collective Denounces “Such Monolithic Vision of Muslim Women”
Serghini’s piece is far from atypical. On social media, La Libre Belgique’s article was met with anti-Muslim hate. In France, left-leaning Marianne published Hadrien Mathoux’s sensationally-titled article, ‘An Op-ed in Favour of "Muslim Women’s Rights” Attacks Secularism’.
A member of the collective, Hajar el Jahidi of The European Forum of Muslim Women explained in an article in the Middle East Eye that these discriminatory responses recycle the same “fallacious, essentialist” arguments “dismissive of the real concerns and hard work of the signatories.”
She calls out the hypocrisy of men like Mathoux and Serghini who denounce Islam as a sexist religion, while simultaneously refusing to treat Muslim women as equal “citizens exercising their right to freedom of speech.”
By presenting Muslim women as either helpless victims of oppression or “militants pursuing a hidden political agenda,” media in Europe create “a vision that is, at best, ignorant of the plurality of these women and, at worst, is sexist and reductionist.”