Written by Rehab Patel
May 3, 2021
The criminalization of Muslim bodies has expanded beyond a political realm of regulation. Through an intersectional approach, the Muslim woman has become a site of control through religious, cultural and political identities. In this paper, the question of visibility will be contextualized and discussed by illustrating how religious symbols such as the hijab heighten the hypervisibility of Muslim women. Our sartorial practices are known to be expressions of our fashion identity, which is constructed through multiple intersections of social categories that influence our everyday choices. For visible Muslim women, their hijab intersects as a symbolic religious sartorial practice that is fluid in its visibility in a spatial context. This notion will be discussed in how certain public spaces act as sites of heightened vigilance for Muslim women. This has resulted in gendered Islamophobia that has transformed the public space through its intersection with the political (through secularism and regulation) in the criminalization of Muslim women’s bodies. However, with the rise of Islamophobic policies in countries like France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Muslim women are using their hijabs as tools of resistance. With the help of social media, the hashtag #Handsoffmyhijab demonstrates the intersectionality of “Muslim womanhood”. The concept of Muslim womanhood is often reduced to the physical materialization the hijab, hence focuses solely on religious identity. The digital world has become a space where Muslim women’s visible identities can be curated through their lived experiences as open sites of discussion.
Common stereotypes of the “veil” — which can be defined as a “curtain or barrier” but in the context of Muslim women refers to the hijab (Ali, 2) — have created a dichotomous misrepresentation of Islam and Muslim women. This dichotomous representation refers to stereotypes of exoticization and terrorizing, framing Muslim women as agents of “radicalized Islam”. In other words, the Muslim woman is either oppressed and sexualized or she has radicalized views that are against Western cultural norms (Tissot, 98). It is important to note that the veil is dynamic in its flexibility, which means it is malleable in its physical representation while its symbolism stays the same. For example, Muslim women today wear their hijab in different ways, however, regardless of the hijab’s style, its symbolism remains religious. It is a negative stereotype to assume that religiosity and radicalization are interchangeable. Guindi states that the veil is a physical maneuver that is able to “pull down to uncover or pull up to cover as an instant changing form” (Guindi, 98). This maneuvering allows the wearer to change their visible stance in public spaces. In these social spaces, individuals actively perform as Muslim women through the veil, hence re-enforcing a barrier between the self and the public gaze.
Muslim women are viewed as oppressed through some Western feminist theories that present Islam as a patriarchal ideology. As a result, the hijab is perceived as a direct symbol of gendered oppression. This narrative neglects an intersectional approach to how gender oppression of Muslim women represents an implication of Western ideology itself. For example, a common theme in Islamophobic speech is the “incompatibility” of Islam with “Western norms”. Western values are shaped by liberty, freedom and Judeo-Christianity, hence the assumption that Islam’s values are in direct conflict with the West (especially regarding the gendered oppression of women). Gendered oppression refers to when a certain group is disadvantaged or privileged because of their gender (Ali, 3). In this case, the notion of “saving visible Muslim women” has been fuelled. However, as stated by Brayson, this narrative of gender oppression is critiqued by postcolonial feminists as it embodies white saviourism – the intention of liberating Muslim women from their “barbaric” cultural practices (Brayson, 65). The idea that women actively choose to wear the headscarf because of personal belief, including as a symbolic way to defy the male gaze, is often neglected (Jonker and Ameiraux, 30). Similarly, as we advocate for liberty and freedom, we must acknowledge that the lived experiences of these women are uniquely perceived, and each is a singular representation of Muslim womanhood instead of a misrepresented collective identity.
Zine defines Islamophobia as “a fear or hatred of Islam and its adherents that translates into individual, ideological and systemic forms of oppression and discrimination” (239). The rise of Islamophobia can be attributed to settler colonialism and Western mainstream media that depicts the Muslim identity as the terrorizing other. The Muslim identity becomes demonizing in its existence through visible symbols of faith (figure 1). The misrepresentation of this othered identity has resulted in gendered Islamophobia towards the Muslim woman’s body through different forms of regulation. This body becomes a site at the intersection of gender, politics and religion which lacks agency in the public space.
Figure 1: BBC World, “The Islamic Veil Across Europe,” May 31, 2018. Image is of a public sign in Varallo, Italy that reads “Burqa, Niqab and Burkini are not allowed by communal decision”.
The contradiction inherent in policing Muslim women because of their visible religious identity involves the materialization of the hijab as a direct representation of their level of religiosity. The hijab is reduced to a material symbol of Islamic faith, where Muslims are viewed as “retrogressive and immune to change” (Brayson, 68). However, policies that focus on the sartorial practices of women ironically enact gendered oppression themselves, a system which then re-enforces gendered Islamophobia. Similarly, the public space includes people with different characteristics that require socialization with one another, but when we negatively police different intersections of the Muslim body, that same public space now becomes political (Jonker and Ameiraux, 17). The intersection between public spaces and religious identity progresses into the notion of spatial visibility. While we discuss how visibility is based on the symbolic representation of Islam through the veil, the continued criminalization of the hijab alienates Muslim women, specifically, as an othered identity in specific spaces (figure 1). For example, Quebec’s Bill 21 includes the prohibition of religious symbols at work (Montpetit, 1). For Muslim women, their hijab is now under regulation by the government, beyond their personal beliefs. So in context, spaces like the workplace become sites of hypervisibility for Muslim women. The consequences are not solely within the political realm but affect the everyday lives of these women by putting them at risk for hate crimes and isolation. Moreover, when these policies of regulation are put into place, voices of Muslim women are often unheard, undermining their authentic experiences.
In recent years, social media has become a digital space for all identities to interact and share parts of themselves with a mass audience. This has allowed knowledge to become highly accessible and attainable for the average person globally. These exchanges are also achieved through the use of hashtags that easily collect particular ideas. In 2010, France was the first Western country to ban full-face veils in public. In 2016, after a terror attack in the city of Nice, a bill was proposed that banned the burkini (Brayson, 58). The burkini is swimwear that completely covers the body and hair. Interestingly, the burkini resembles a diving suit because they both cover the body from head to toe, yet the burkini is banned and considered foreign while the diving suit is not. The burkini has a religious association – it acts as a symbolic representation of the Islamic State terror attacks. Following the attack, a Muslim woman at a beach in Nice was approached and instructed to remove her burkini (figure 2). Through social media, this incident was documented by bystanders and caught global attention. The context of this beach incident is appalling. For a state that preaches liberty and freedom to publicly instruct a woman to remove a garment should be unacceptable, regardless of faith. This incident was reflective of how Muslim women’s bodies are sites of politics, identity and secularism (Brayson, 68).
Figure 2: The Guardian headline article “French Police make woman remove clothing on Nice beach following Burkini ban”. Photo captured by bystander at the beach. Article dated August 24 2016.
In March 2021, the French Senate voted in favour of banning children from wearing the hijab as well as preventing mothers who wear the hijab to accompany their children (Beardsley, 1). The amendment raised a movement, #Handsoffmyhijab, to take control of the Islamophobic narrative and transform it into resistance (figure 3). The hashtag speaks volumes on the regulations that Muslim women suffer. They have become tools in political engagement, as Islamophobia, in countries like France, is enacted through state-sanctioned policies of secularism. It is important to note that in a North American context, Islamophobia is not unheard of. Bill 21 in Quebec, Canada, is a prime example of Islamophobic lawmaking. The government passed Bill 21, which prohibits “some civil servants, including teachers, police officers and government lawyers from wearing religious symbols at work” (Montpetit and Shingler, 2). The importance of #Handsoffmyhijab reflects how normalized the regulation of Muslim women’s sartorial practices has become. The hijab is merely a part of their intersectional identity, and to police these choices restricts their lived experiences.
Figure 3: Instagram post from @rawdis on April 4, 2021. Rawdah shares a deep and personal message in the caption regarding the regulation and criminalization of Muslim women especially in France following their decision to ban the hijab for girls under the age of 15.
Muslim women on social media have highlighted that the hijab is a symbol and, regardless of the criminalization of its material form, the hijab will continue to remain a symbol of devotion and defiance of the Western gaze. On the experiences of wearing the headscarf in criminalized spatial contexts, Muslim women expressed “a wish for an invisible headscarf, meaning one not noticed by others and not producing a distinction” (Jonker and Ameiraux, 36).
“He was aggressive and angry, bystanders just looked. I was traumatized because I felt helpless in just existing as a visible Muslim woman”
As a visible Muslim-Canadian woman myself, these incidents have deeply affected my vigilance in public spaces. However, to challenge Islamophobia, my sartorial practices embody my intersectional identity. As a Ryerson undergrad, I attended university in the core of Toronto. A particular memory stands out as an example of everyday Islamophobia. I was yelled at, by a man in the middle of the crossing intersection, to take off my hijab. He was aggressive and angry, bystanders just looked. I was traumatized because I felt helpless in just existing as a visible Muslim woman. There are days where I wear a beanie hat to become “invisible” in public spaces because my hijab is now my beanie. As mentioned previously, the symbolism remains regardless of the physical material. Similarly, I have used my skills as a makeup artist to reflect the metaphoric representation of becoming visible and invisible, yet as the motto says, #Handsoffmyhijab (figure 4).
Figure 4: Reclaiming pink: photograph showcasing the metaphoric invisibility and visibility of the hijab. Makeup done and photographed by Rehab Patel.
Muslim women’s bodies become sites where gender, politics and religion intersect. However, these intersections uniquely create their lived experiences. Their hijab is materialized into a symbol of religiosity and terror instead of freedom and liberty. It is crucial to resist gendered Islamophobia in all elements, to allow full agency for visible Muslim women. Instead they are reduced to merely political beings that are regulated to fit Western norms instead of highlighting their uniquely lived experiences as both Muslims and women. As knowledge has become accessible because of social media, it has actively allowed Muslim women to combat Islamophobia by transforming the narrative into an intersectional perspective of Muslim womanhood.
Ali, Kecia. “Rethinking Women’s Issues in Muslim Communities.” In Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith, edited by Michael Wolfe Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale, 2002.
Beardsley, Eleanor. “French Senate Voted To Ban The Hijab For Minors In A Plea By The Conservative Right.” NPR, 8 Apr. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/04/08/985475584/french-senate-voted-to-ban-the-hijab-for-minors-in-a-plea-by-the-conservative-ri.
Brayson, Kimberley. “Of Bodies and Burkinis: Institutional Islamophobia, Islamic Dress, and the Colonial Condition.” Journal of Law and Society, vol. 46, no. 1, 2019, pp. 55–82. doi:10.1111/jols.12142.
Guindi, Fadwa El. “Veiling and Feminism.” Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford: Berg, 1999, 177-186. Dress, Body, Culture. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 23 April. 2021
Jonker, Gerdien, and Amiraux Valérie. Politics of Visibility: Young Muslims in European Public Spaces. Transcript, 2006.
Montpetit, Jonathan and Shingler. “Quebec Superior Court Upholds Most of Religious Symbols Ban, but English-Language Schools Exempt | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 20 Apr. 2021, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/bill-21-religious-symbols-ban-quebec-court-ruling-1.5993431.
Tissot, S. “Excluding Muslim Women: From Hijab to Niqab, from School to Public Space.” Public Culture, vol. 23, no. 1, 2011, pp. 39–46. doi:10.1215/08992363-2010-014.
Zine, Jasmin. “Unveiled Sentiments: Gendered Islamophobia and Experiences of Veiling among Muslim Girls in a Canadian Islamic School.” Equity & Excellence in Education, vol. 39, no. 3, 2006, pp. 239–252. doi:10.1080/10665680600788503.