This week, the Council of Europe was forced to pull an advertising campaign promoting the hijab following a backlash from the French. As part of a campaign to promote respect for Muslim women, the European body released a number of campaign posters, one of which read ‘Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab’.
Shortly afterwards there was an outcry from French politicians, who called for the campaign to be dropped. Sarah El Haïry, France’s youth minister who is of Moroccan descent, said she was vocally ‘shocked’ by the campaign. The posters were also condemned by many Muslim heritage women and secular activists around the world.
Some of the campaign’s messages, such as ‘my headscarf my choice’, are pretty uncontroversial. But the Council’s proclamations such as ‘respect the hijab’ and ‘freedom is in hijab’ suggested that the campaign was more interested in promoting sexist modesty codes than upholding human rights or opposing anti-Muslim bigotry. Perhaps the Council of Europe should have taken a few pointers from its own seminar on ‘combating sexist advertising’ last week.
While the campaign would have been in poor taste at any point in time – given that the hijab continues to be enforced upon millions of Muslim women around the world – for it to have come out as the Taliban’s gory gender segregation is endangering Afghan women’s lives is truly repugnant. The hijab is not ‘freedom’ for the women in Afghanistan being killed and threatened for defying Islamic mandates. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are tearing off clothes and even targeting women who do not wear the ‘right’ kind of hijab.
The Council of Europe’s hijab campaign was organised by Femyso, a forum claiming to represent young Muslims around the world. This group clearly didn’t consider the subjugation of Muslim women, whether in Afghanistan or Iran, where many risk imprisonment to defy the hijab’s imposition. It is little surprise that Iranian feminists, such as the Belgian Member of Parliament Darya Safai found the Council of Europe’s campaign, and its misrepresentation of hijab as a symbol of feminism, especially repulsive.
The hijab continues to be enforced on women across the Muslim world, even when it isn’t codified in law. A transgender woman had to flee from Malaysia last month after being accused of blasphemy for wearing the hijab. Women are lashed in the officially secular Indonesia for having sex outside of marriage.
The reason Islamist sexism prevails across the Muslim world is not because there is a collective, and identical, misinterpretation of Islamic scriptures, but because the prevalent codes are derived directly from these texts. The Quran clearly defines contrasting modesty values and dresses for men and women, putting the onus on the latter to cover up so as to not face harassment. The combination of these commandments, and the ensuing Islamist stranglehold over Muslim states and communities, gives rise to the lollipop fallacy that objectifies women who don’t wear the hijab as ‘sweets’ that invite ‘flies’, pushing even underage girls into donning Islamic headgear.
These are seventh-century values, which are today unabashedly reciprocated by Islamists like Imran Khan. Countless Muslim women narrate how Islamic scriptures continue to be used to shame them into moulding their lifestyle choices and to maintain gender segregation.
But many self-avowed progressives and feminists in the West are blinded into supporting blatantly sexist messages, ostensibly to counter ‘Islamophobia’. The much celebrated ‘World Hijab Day’, for instance, loudly proclaims that wearing the hijab means living a ‘life of modesty’ – quite clearly shaming the women who refuse to wear it.
As a result of this liberal surrender, values shunned as regressive in the West decades ago are touted as epitomes of progress for the Muslim world. This is especially damaging for Muslim women and dissenters, with anyone challenging Islamist inertia — proliferated by Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Sunni and Shia spheres over the past four decades —instinctively deemed ‘Islamophobic’.
Sections of the left in Muslim countries often mimic western liberal movements allowing dissidents to be accused of being ‘Islamophobic’ even in Muslim-majority countries that sanction death for criticising Islam. And now blasphemy codes are being upheld by the European human rights courts.
Fighting bigotry against Muslims is no excuse to endorse the hijab, derailing the everyday struggle of millions of women pushing back against religions hegemony in the Muslim world. Those designing the next Council of Europe ad campaign would be best advised to acknowledge that any religious mandated code for women, embraced by autocratic regimes, does not signify freedom. And that the liberty to wear the hijab can be unflinchingly defended without insulting its victims.