The deafening feminist silence on the French abaya ban 

This is the third in a series of five op-eds by Nani Jansen Reventlow published by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in October 2023. Read the original Dutch version here.

In the past month, the French Council Against Islamophobia in Europe has received countless complaints of young girls being denied their right to education for trying to “cover their bodies”. Yes, you read that right. What is commonly referred to as the abaya ban is a recent measure introduced in France that extends attire amounting to “religious symbolism” to any long sleeved, loose-fitting clothing, and bans students from wearing it in state schools. The ban is applicable to all, including boys, but disproportionately impacts young Muslim girls.  

As always, racism and Islamophobia are the perfect band aids for failing state services. With a national education crisis,  nearly 2000 homeless students, a deficit of over 3000 teachers, and teachers’ salaries well below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, France’s Minister of Education thought its priority should be telling young racialised women what to wear.  

The deafening silence from (white) feminist movements concerning the French government’s ban on the abaya stands in stark contrast to the outcry of international support for public protests in Iran just a year ago, following the death of Mahsa Amini in custody of the Iranian morality police. At the time, women politicians, high-profile feminist activists and celebrities made statements and took to social media, posting videos chopping off their hair and burning headscarves. 

Women – anyone identifying as a woman – should be free to make decisions over their own bodies, was the message Yet once again, it is apparent that mainstream feminist organisations are only willing to back a woman’s right to choose when the choice aligns with their worldview.  

Measures like the abaya ban concern the same issue as the protests in Iran: state operated misogyny and control over how a woman dresses. Yet, all we can hear in response to the French decree is tumbleweeds. The law follows a long list of measures that banned headscarves in schools, restricted the possibility for accompanying mothers to wear headscarves on school trips and school premises, prohibited full-face veils in public spaces, and banned swimwear like the burkini in public pools and beaches. The Netherlands, as well as Belgium, have been on a similar Islamophobic course, banning women from wearing head coverings in public functions. While clearly discriminatory in effect, these alleged “neutral” regulations against religious symbols disproportionately affect Muslim women. You would think that this would have activists who care about gender discrimination up in arms. But when it comes to Muslim women choosing to wear covering dress, feminists apparently do not feel they should have a right to make their own decisions. 

Much of this lack of solidarity can be attributed to the common trope that wanting to cover one’s body is a symptom of misogyny and oppression, while uncovering it equals liberation. This way, Muslim women are stripped of agency by both the states that try to control them and the feminist movements that believe they know what’s better for them. It is a combination of racism and Islamophobia, and white feminists seem all too happy to support it. Mona Elthahawy has repeatedly written about how white women are “the foot soldiers of the white supremacist patriarchy”. Happy to pick up the scraps the patriarchy leaves them, they fail to see the bigger picture and forget the truth the Combahee River Collective set out so well in their 1977 statement, which is often summarised as “none of us are free until all of us are free”. 

Because none of these measures stand alone. The abaya ban in France, like the morality police in Iran, the curtailing of abortion rights in the United States, and the proposed mandatory registration of sex workers in the Netherlands are all part of a worldwide effort to dictate and control women. What they do, what they wear, and how they use their own bodies. As things stand, white women’s proximity to the white patriarchy is shielding them from feeling the impact of these efforts as deeply as racialised and marginalised women do, but this is only a matter of time.  

And this is what it comes down to: if your feminism is activated only when you see women resisting in a way you agree with – removing hijabs – but not when you disagree with their choice to, for example, cover their hair, you really cannot call yourself a feminist at all. That is using feminism as a moral fig leaf to uphold a system of oppression you happen to be benefiting from at this point in time. Women everywhere deserve better than that.