By Hajar El Jahidi
26 September 2018
On 4 September, Sara Iftekhar, a student from Huddersfield, made it to the final round of the Miss England beauty pageant. Not a particularly newsworthy event, except for the fact that Iftekhar became the first Miss England finalist to wear a hijab.
Many would call it a minor news item and, judging by the lack of reaction in the United Kingdom, they’d probably be right. The country's most notorious tabloid newspaper, The Sun, which is known for its often divisive approach to non-white Britons, ran a straightforward news story free of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Though Iftekhar's participation in the final rounds of the competition was widely covered elsewhere in the media, viewers in England didn't seem overly concerned. "It just proves Miss England represents the way England is today," the competition spokeswoman was quoted as saying. Not quite case closed, but case accepted.
A Veiled Miss France?
Without wanting to paint the UK as a haven of Muslim-friendly multiculturalism, it's hard not to imagine how different the reaction would be in France. Every time a French woman wearing a hijab gets public airtime, a reaction close to collective hysteria - and fanned by certain media and political circles - ensues.
The difference between the routine media coverage given to Iftekhar and the media stir and public outrage sparked by the appearance of Mennel Ibtissem on the French reality TV competition, "The Voice", is a case in point. As is that of Maryam Pougetoux, the president of one of the Paris branches of the UNEF student union, who was so bold as to answer questions on French TV wearing a veil - sending shockwaves through even the highest political spheres.
While on the other side of the Channel, Muslim women wearing the hijab are present in all reaches of society - witness Fatima Manji who, as a newsreader and television journalist, is in a highly visible position - in France the mere television appearance of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab sparks a national debate.
Another more anecdotal example of this was the recent uproar over the brief appearance of a young veiled woman on the popular TV programme, "Touche pas à mon poste". The host of the show was even accused of "trivializing the Islamisation of France".
This doesn’t mean that the UK isn’t faced with its own problems of racism, discrimination, and Islamophobia. British Muslim women, and particularly those who choose to wear headscarves, are confronted with diverse forms of Islamophobia and hate crimes, in particular, are on the rise in the UK.
But the situation in France is more dramatic: veiled Muslim women are being systematically and deliberately excluded from the public arena. Why, in a country that prides itself on being assimilationist, does the political and intellectual elite condemn communitarianism but get all worked up the minute a Muslim woman in a hijab dares go about her normal activities beyond the framework they would like to impose on her?
Surely the English are no more tolerant or open-minded than the French. France, for that matter, is traditionally more progressive than the United Kingdom when it comes to social matters. So, why do the two countries take such different views on a woman's right to wear the hijab?
A National Identity Matter
For one thing, in the United Kingdom, contrary to France, the political elite does not see the veil as a pivotal issue in matters of national identity. Apart from a few far-right parties and a certain element of the Conservative Party - including, recently, former foreign minister Boris Johnson - most politicians in the UK tend to avoid interfering in the clothing and religious choices of their fellow citizens.
The mainstream politicians, who do get involved in the debate, do so only reluctantly and are frequently met with strong criticism by their peers. Johnson’s remarks on the burqa were largely condemned by all sides, even within the ranks of his own party.
In France, sexist and stigmatising remarks about veiled Muslim women are endemic to political parties of all stripes, having become a profitable staple fare for politicians who leap at the slightest opportunity to inform Muslim women of their rights to religious and wardrobe freedom.
It is interesting to note that one of the most regrettably significant episodes of the whole hijab-wearing business was when a former minister of women’s rights compared Muslim women who choose to wear the veil to "Negroes" who favour of slavery. The statement stirred up quite a bit of controversy but not for the reasons one would have expected: it was the choice of the word "Negro" that was found so offensive and not the substance of her simplistic statement stigmatising and infantilising women in headscarves.
The different approach taken by French and British politicians to issues like these explains in part why women in headscarves are more socially integrated on one side of the Channel than the other. Political sentiment is reflected on the street level, and the stigmatising rhetoric of French politicians has ultimately led to a shift in public opinion: the French are uncomfortable with Muslim women in hijabs making public appearances.
A "Civilising Mission" Or a Pragmatic Approach
Another possible explanation regarding differences of attitude in France and the UK could lie in their postcolonial history.
France, within the context of its "civilizing mission", sought to impose the French assimilationist model, though it failed to guarantee the underlying principles of freedom, equality and fraternity to all. How can this intention to "emancipate" Algerian women by "de-veiling” them be seen in a positive light when Muslim women weren’t given access to the same rights, services and treatments that were given to the Pied Noirs, a slang name for French settlers in Algeria?
The French campaign for de-veiling in the colonial era may of course have had many other implications, but it stands in contrast to the more pragmatic British colonial model, which put the economic interests of the empire above any idea of a civilising mission - though this was, still, part of the agenda.
This difference of approach persisted even during the process of decolonisation. Anticipating the inevitable independence of its colonies, the United Kingdom strove to maintain favourable economic relations with them. France, on the other hand, became embroiled in bitter wars in both Indochina and Algeria that eventually led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic.
This persistence today - as it was in the colonial era- is detrimental to France. The refusal to accept veiled women in the public arena violates principles of freedom and equality and undermines social cohesiveness and cohabitation.
The persistent rigidity of French society is seen today in its obsession with the hijab, at a time when newspapers around the world and international public opinion are scoffing at France's obsession with the headscarf. France, led by certain mediatised political and intellectual figures, refuses to accept Muslim women who choose to wear the veil and insists on trying to impose a single model of integration.
This persistence today - as it was in the colonial era - is detrimental to France. Not only does the refusal to accept veiled women in the public arena violate principles of freedom and equality - and in some cases even international civil and political rights conventions - it also undermines social cohesiveness and cohabitation. Recurrent controversies over the veil exacerbate tensions among populations and fuel a sense of exclusion among Muslim women.
They are no doubt a huge economic loss for France, as well. There is a brain drain in France today, but more and more veiled French Muslim women, unable to achieve full social and professional emancipation in France, are trying their luck abroad.
Many of them go to the UK, where their degrees and the fact they can speak several languages allow them to pursue careers in numerous fields without having to worry about their headscarves.
Today, it is more or less normal in Britain for women wearing hijabs to participate in TV baking competitions, read the news and come close to becoming Miss England. The same seems a remote prospect in France.