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France’s Marine Le Pen refused to wear a headscarf to meet with Lebanese religious leaders

Le Pen refuses to wear headscarf to meet Lebanon's Grand Mufti (Video: Reuters)
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As her supporters might say: She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen walked away from a meeting with Lebanon's top Sunni Muslim leaders after she refused to wear a headscarf. The move sparked an outcry across the Arab world. “Observers, pundits and voters here say that they believe that this was planned on her part because it would play very well to her far-right base at home, and also because they say it might detract from a growing scandal she is facing,” Lebanon-based reporter Natasha Ghoneim told al Jazeera.

“This was a trap and a setup because she wanted to send a message to her own voters and supporters that she somehow refused to respect the local customs in a Muslim-majority country,” Yasser Louati, a Parisian-based activist, told the outlet.

Onlookers say Le Pen was offered a white shawl to cover her hair, which she refused. She then returned to her car and left. As she departed, she told journalists that she's refused to cover herself in the past, including with a meeting with the Grand Mufti of Egypt's Al Azhar. “I have no reason to,” she said, noting that she warned officials in advance that she wouldn't wear a scarf. “They did not cancel the meeting, so I thought they would accept that I will not wear the scarf. … They wanted to impose this on me, to present me with a fait accompli. Well, no one presents me with a fait accompli.”

The Grand Mufti offered a slightly different story. In a statement, his press office said it had informed Le Pen in advance that she'd need to cover her head in accordance with the rulings of Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon.

Le Pen's decision fits in well with her politics. She has run a staunchly populist campaign, one that has parlayed fear of Islam into aggressive opposition to all refugees and migrants. Her party has repeatedly opposed France's membership in the European Union and called for a Trump-style ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

But to veil or not has always been a political decision.

As Harvard Prof. Leila Ahmed explained in “A Quiet Revolution,” Muslim women began unveiling in the early 20th century. At the time, foreign forces had taken control of much of the Arab world, and occupiers sought to rescue Muslim women from what they saw as “the oppression of Islam.” At the same time, the forces of modernity encouraged many women to bare their heads. “Unveiling,” Ahmed explains, “would become ever more clearly the emblem of an era of new hopes and desires, and of aspirations for modernity: the possibility of education and the right to work for both women and men, and of equal opportunity and advancement based on effort and merit.”

That began to change in the 1970s. At that time, Arab leaders like the Muslim Brotherhood pushed to re-Islamize society. That included urging women to cover their heads. Scholars who interviewed women at the time reported that most women adjusted their dress willingly. “Islamic dress gave them new authority as strictly observant religious women, and in a society where men and women were expected to maintain a certain separateness, it gave them the freedom to attend school and go to work — in offices, for example, shared with men — in ways that were socially acceptable,” Ahmed observed. “It certainly had some positive outcomes.”

As European countries took to banning Islamic dress for women, wearing a headscarf took on an extra political edge. It was a defense of religious liberty, of the right to practice one's faith as one wanted. But to Westerners, the hijab has become a symbol of something else — it's been tinged by associations with violent strains of fundamentalist Islam. These assumptions, Ahmed says, “were quite mistaken.”

Foreigners, in turn, have chosen whether to cover their heads based on local politics. Michelle Obama did not wear a headscarf when visiting Saudi Arabia (though citizens must cover up, the country's law does not require foreign women to do so). Nor did then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Obama did, however, cover her head on a visit to a mosque in Jakarta. As first lady, Hillary Clinton covered her head in Eritrea, the West Bank and Pakistan. She did not in Saudi Arabia. Clinton, Obama and Bush often wore a veil while visiting a mosque, but not when meeting with officials in Muslim countries. State Department protocol requests that female diplomats cover up in meetings with religious leaders.

Michelle Obama wore a lacy black veil in a meeting with the pope in Vatican City. So did Nancy Reagan.

A willingness to understand the hijab in its context is important. “The veil today has no universal meaning,” Ahmed said. “Its meanings are always local.”