The Weaponization of the Hijab to Serve the Western Colonial Enterprise

When we hear of the West purporting that Islam is an inherently sexist religion and female Muslims are inherently oppressed, we have to understand this in light of Western Orientalism, by which the imperialist powers sought to conquer Muslim lands and needed a pretext.

When we hear of the West purporting that Islam is an inherently sexist religion and female Muslims are inherently oppressed, we have to understand this in light of Western Orientalism, by which the imperialist powers sought to conquer Muslim lands and needed a pretext.

Up until the 16th century, Europe was a marginal player relative to other great powers and rose to prominence namely due to the advantages conferred by the rise of capitalism. This first led to European domination over world trade and then naturally to colonialism.

Western colonisation and imperialism of the East represent a manifestation of Western hegemony, prestige, and control over areas of strategic importance and interests in order to remain the superpowers that dictate the World Order.

Orientalism was born out of the violent and innately intolerable nature of the colonial enterprise, that necessitates justification to be brought forth by the colonizers; hence they began gathering mass information about the indigenous people of the East, through which they can come to the best conclusion of how they can be colonised. 

When we hear of the West purporting that Islam is an inherently sexist religion and female Muslims are inherently oppressed, we have to understand this in light of Western Orientalism, by which the imperialist powers sought to conquer Muslim lands and needed a pretext.

Commenting on Europe’s nineteenth-century obsession with Muslim women, Norman Daniel writes in his book ‘Islam, Europe and Empire’: “there is no subject connected with Islam which Europeans have thought more important than the condition of Muslim women.” [1] 

Without access to the indigenous Muslim women, fictitious stories emerged that presented them as subjugated and oppressed, in order to support Europe’s colonization endeavour – framed as a ‘civilizing mission’. Not only was it the ‘burden’ of the West to civilize, modernize, and democratize the East, but in this process crucially “liberating” Muslim women from ‘religious’ oppression and seclusion, ‘imposed’ on them by the society.

An example of a Western man who rode off to the East, in the mission to ‘rescue’ these women was Evelyn Baring, first Earl of Cromer. When Britain invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882, Cromer was entrusted to oversee the occupation and was one of the most important individuals who developed the colonizing policy.

Known for being fiercely opposed to the feminist movement and who was president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, aimed at denying British women the right to vote, Cromer was “allegedly” defending women’s rights in Egypt, through strongly refuting their ‘veiling’ and supposed ‘seclusion’.

He was repeatedly denouncing Muslim women’s status, having quoted: “Women’s status in Egypt as well as in all the Mohammadian countries hinders their development and advancement to be amongst the civilized nations” [2]. It is clear that as a colonial overlord, he was not putting forward a statement of principle, but rather deploying arguments useful to the colonial mission, and to label Islam as inherently misogynistic fits right into that. 

The concept of veiling and hijab was framed as stemming from excessive jealousy and selfishness within men, to dominate over women who were subordinate, hence to ‘modernize’ and ‘emancipate’ women meant to ‘unveil’ them from the shackles of ‘religious patriarchy’. 

When one pays close attention to the concept of the hijab in Islam, it should come as no surprise that colonial agents sought to destroy it, since the social environment that lacks the concept of hijab is one that naturally erodes the position of the family.

Indeed, a society where a woman has been distanced from her family, brought out of the house with empty promises, left defenseless against the onslaught of society’s gazing eyes, and having her rights trampled upon, is a world wherein the woman will be weakened, hence the family unit itself is destroyed, and future generations are placed in grave danger.

The reality of Western culture, that encourages women to focus on cosmetics, vanity, and flaunting themselves in public, is a sign of the rule of men, who are in control and not a sign of female freedom, since the ruling class of men wants women for their satisfaction and profit-driven endeavours.

Similar to the British colonizers of Egypt, the officials in the French administration in Algeria were sensitive to the issue of the veil, whereby the colonizing administrations funded the struggle against it to be led by women, in order for it to have real power over men and, therefore, dismantle the Algerian culture.

The ceremonies of Algerian women’s unveiling, organized in cities by the army were numerous, and in this vein, a notice issued by the 5th psychological action office of the French army (between 1957-1960) announced: “Are not you pretty? Take the veil off! ” [3]

The reality is that the veil placed uncomfortable assertions on the colonizers, since the veil allowed the Algerian women to observe without being seen: this implicitly undermines the colonial process of naming, identifying, and controlling. Behind the veil the identity and ideas of the women were unknowable: she could be observing the colonial administration with hate, or even plotting for its downfall rather than accepting its rule. 

The colonial obsession with ensuring the visibility of the dominated tells us much about the aggressive nature of imperialism, and the profound hypocrisy of justifying occupation, under the name of ‘enlightenment and ‘liberation’ of the natives from the burden of their own natural resources, which is made clear in the reaction of the colonizers to the veil. 

A more contemporary example of Western hegemony, deploying the argument of ‘liberating’ women from the shackles imposed on them through the existing system of governance is the US invasion of Afghanistan at the turn of the 21st century.

Documented evidence proves America’s motive behind the ‘War on Terror’, in which Afghanistan’s invasion was a part of, was to establish a ‘New Middle East’ project – that is a region completely subservient to American hegemony. 

This was most certainly predicted to exacerbate conflict, specifically the conditions of the more vulnerable groups such as women, whose conditions only deteriorated after the US invasion. However, Bush masqueraded as the rescuer of Afghan women, stating “we obviously have serious problems with the Taliban government … They’re incredibly repressive toward women”. [4] 

His wife, Laura Bush, made similar statements to justify the War on Afghanistan, stating: “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” [5]

This is whilst the daily violence, which Afghan women live under, by virtue of the continued American occupation is unheard of, with the technology of war presented to the world as an instrument of progress rather than brutal instruments of destruction.

The false notion of ‘female Muslim subordination’ and ‘exploitation at the hands of their men’, who need ‘liberation’ by every means has been employed again and again by imperial states, who wish to assert their domination, and most certainly against the will of its occupied subject. This notion has managed to penetrate the psyche of the masses in the West, to the extent that the majority of French people are in favour of a law forbidding the hijab in schools, and this is in no doubt a product of the liberal framework that governs Western society. 

Whilst liberalism purports to upholds ‘freedom’ of the individual, the condition in this context that is championed by feminists, in particular, is the argument that the practice of hijab has come as a result of social pressure, i.e. if a law does not forbid the practice of wearing the hijab, social pressure may render it obligatory, and therefore it has no place in a secular society.

Even if the argument of male subjugation was not made, this condition will still apply, since the essence of modern-day liberalism is ‘freeing’ the individual from all that restricts them, even if that is God himself, He must be set aside.

1. Quoted in Lockman, contending visions, 69.

2. Felix Boggio Ewanié Epée and Stella Magliani Belkacem in “ Les féministes blanches et l’empire” Editions La Fabrique, Paris, 2011.

3. According to Frantz Fanon’s book: « l’Algérie se dévoile » in les féministe blanches et l’empire, la fabrique , Félix Boggio Ewanjé Epée and Stella Magliani Belkacem.

4. Quoted in Bill Sammon, “Bush Urges Afghans to Help Oust Taliban,” Washington Times, September 26, 2001, accessed October 26, 2009.

5. Laura Bush, quoted in Sharon Smith, “Using Women’s Rights to Sell Washington’sWar,” International Socialist Review 21, January–February 2002, available at http://www.isreview.org/issues/21/afghan_women.shtml, accessed April 10, 2012.