The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s ban on the veil looks far more sinister in historical context

Framing restrictions as liberating long justified colonial violence

An activist holds a placard reading “Freedom guides all people” during a Feb. 14 rally in Paris against legislation challenging what the French government calls “Islamist separatism.” (Thibault Camus/AP)

The French Senate recently voted to increase restrictions on Muslim women’s ability to wear the veil. Religious head coverings were outlawed in schools and government buildings in 2004, and full face coverings have been banned in public spaces since 2011. Now, the Senate has voted to ban women accompanying their children on school trips from wearing a veil. Swimming pools can also prohibit women from wearing “burkinis” (full-body swimwear favored by some Muslim women). Most controversially, the Senate also supported an amendment to make it illegal for girls under the age of 18 to “wear any clothing or dress that would imply the subordination of women to men” in public spaces. This, of course, means a veil: Revealing, rather than concealing, clothing for women apparently has nothing to do with patriarchy.

France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe, estimated at 6 million. The latest extension of these rules on what French Muslim women can wear is part of a new bill challenging what the French government calls “Islamist separatism.” This is part of the culture war raging in France around “Islamo-leftism,” a French version of arguments about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” in the United States and Britain.

These efforts to “liberate” Muslim women reiterate attitudes about women’s bodies and religious symbols that are rooted in the history of French imperialism. They echo French justifications for imperialism abroad, which was framed as a “civilizing mission” that masked widespread colonial violence. Such attitudes are rooted in centuries of beliefs of racial superiority and a need to “protect” Muslim women. By recognizing this historical tie, we can see how the overt violence inherent in imperialism is still influencing the daily lives of many Muslim women in France today.

French armies first invaded Algeria in 1830, followed by a period of violent repression, land grabs and massacres. French troops also occupied Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1912, forcibly taking power over the majority-Muslim population (a mix of Arabs, Berbers and ethnically Jewish people). Large parts of Muslim West Africa also came under French imperial rule in the 19th century.

France, a historically Catholic country, cast the Muslim people under its power as racially inferior and socially undeveloped. French imperialists wielded local religious practices, including the veiling of Muslim women, child marriage and gender seclusion, to demonstrate to the French public the necessity of intervention in the region.

“Rescuing” Muslim woman became an integral claim of the French “mission civilisatrice(civilizing mission), the belief that a benevolent imperial presence could modernize and improve the lives of colonized peoples. This, of course, erased the constant violence of imperialism. France is estimated to have killed 825,000 Indigenous people during the 40-year “pacification” of Algeria, not to mention the decades of poverty, wealth extraction, massacres and the war crimes.

French imperialists used ideas about the treatment of Muslim women in North Africa as a kind of yardstick to measure “civilization” and the extent of French influence. Images of veiled women became a powerful political tool in French domestic politics that served both to support imperialism on the grounds of supposedly improving the treatment of Muslim women and as a way of casting Muslim people within the empire as belonging to a non-French, religiously distinct community.

French feminists campaigning for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, like Hubertine Auclert, used this symbol and presented North African women as little more than helpless children. Considering themselves agents of civilization, they embraced a language of universal sisterhood and maternity, and advocated for “protecting” Muslim women from Muslim men, who were cast as misogynistic tyrants. Arguing for the need to save Muslim women from oppression enabled these French feminists to take an active role in empire-building and increase their political influence and autonomy in their own patriarchal society.

In this way, White French feminism was built on imperialism and beliefs of socioracial superiority. Of course, it rarely invited Muslim women to participate as equals in the discussion and did little to protect Muslim women from the violence and exploitation of European men. Throughout the early 20th century, the rights and freedoms of French women grew, including the granting of the right to vote in 1944. Conversely, the situation of many Algerian women worsened after World War II. By 1954, 98 percent of Algerian women were illiterate, as the French government consistently failed to fund basic education services for Arabs or Berbers and placed them below Europeans in the two-tier education system it created — in addition to growing unemployment, socioeconomic instability and shantytowns.

The French obsession with veiled women reached its peak during the Algerian war of independence, between 1954 and 1962. In the midst of this anti-colonial struggle, on May 17, 1958, a group of young Algerian women gathered and made a show of removing their traditional haiks (the white wraps distinctive to North African women) and burning them before a crowd of Europeans. Rather than acting spontaneously, these women were most likely recruited for this performance from a typing pool or high school, to reinforce the notion of French colonial benevolence.

The next day, Algerian women marched through the streets, either removing their haiks themselves or having them taken off by European women. The crowd heard speeches by Muslim women about their desire for emancipation and modernity. Between May and June 1958, similar unveiling ceremonies were repeated throughout the country, many organized by the French army.

Yet these shows of unveiling were often coerced. As historian Neil MacMaster has shown, the French military recruited some of these women only after arresting and torturing their family members. By participating in an unveiling ceremony and making speeches about women’s emancipations, these young women could help secure the safety of their family. Algerian sources also claimed that the French press greatly inflated the numbers of Algerian women involved, and they argued that those who participated only “timidly half-opened their veils, while here and there one could see several cleaning ladies firmly flanked by their European employers.”

What the French portrayed as emancipation from the veil was forced upon Muslim women by both European women and French soldiers as part of psychological warfare, to undermine the anti-colonial struggle.

Even worse, while espousing the need to “emancipate” Muslim women, French soldiers massacred Algerian people and raped countless thousands of Algerian women during the war.

Today the two French female politicians pushing hardest to ban children from wearing a veil, Valérie Boyer and Aurore Bergé, have adopted this familiar language of maternal concern and female emancipation developed during the French occupation of North Africa. Boyer described children wearing a veil as “child abuse” and called the veil “a symbol of oppression and submission.” Similarly, Bergé tweeted that forbidding the veil is an effort to emancipate women and commented that “it’s our role as legislator to protect the most vulnerable … to put an end to an unbearable practice that is a clear attack on the basic rights of children.”

Both Boyer and Bergé employ language that French feminists developed during the French occupation of North Africa, with imagery of helpless girls and entreaties to protect Muslim women. They see unveiling Muslim girls to be a duty of forcible emancipation necessary for the sake of the nation, echoing the spectacles of coercive unveiling during the Algerian war.

It is no coincidence that Boyer and Bergé are the children of pieds-noirs, colonial settlers in North Africa. Infamous for their racism and their unwavering backing of French colonial rule during the Algerian war, most pieds-noirs left Algeria after its independence in 1962, including Boyer’s parents, and many today support far-right political parties. Bergé’s and Boyer’s calls to ban veils for girls under 18 are quite literally colonialism’s legacy.

Many popular attitudes about veiled Muslim women in France, particularly those of politicians like Boyer and Bergé, are rooted in the history of France’s occupation of North Africa. In a context of substantial immigration to France from former colonies, debates about the veil have become an increasingly potent part of the culture wars in France, bolstered by President Emmanuel Macron’s belief that race, gender and postcolonial theory are a national threat. Ironically, it is often the voices shouting loudest about the illegitimacy of “decolonizing” today’s society whose actions and attitudes demonstrate its urgency.

France has only recently begun to recognize its colonial history of systematic torture and violence against civilians, and there is another kind of violence in how it treats Muslim women. Macron may have stated that he hopes to “look this history in the face,” but addressing how France’s colonial history has shaped its attitudes toward Muslim women is a fundamental part of reckoning with its enduring colonial legacy. Until that happens, the symbols and attitudes of the colonial period will continue to shape the lives of Muslim women in France.

Correction: Aurore Bergé is a member of the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale), not the Senate.