The Veil in Colonial Algeria: the Politics of Unveiling Women

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On October 18, 2017, the Québec government passed a controversial legislation — Bill 62 — forbidding anyone whose face is covered from giving or receiving a public service. The declared purpose of Bill 62 was “to establish measures to foster adherence to state religious neutrality”. Québec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée has also declared that the face-veil ban was instituted in order to ensure proper communication, identification and security during the exchange of public services. And while Vallée affirmed that the law did not target any specific religious groups, it is clear that it was specifically aimed at the Muslim community in Québec. Not only are Muslim women in Québec the only ones who cover the face but public debates on “reasonable accommodation” that have taken place over the past decade in Québec have largely targeted the Muslim community in Québec and in particular Muslim women wearing the veil.

The controversial Bill 62 — the first one of its kind in North America — largely resonates with the 2004 French law that prohibits the “wearing of signs or clothing with conspicuously manifest students” religious affiliation’ in public schools, and with the 2010 French law that prohibits the covering of the face in public space. Just like with the Québec Bill 62, the 2004 French law did not target any specific religious groups (in fact, the 2004 law also applied to Jewish boys wearing a skullcap and to Sikh boys wearing the turbans), but it is largely believed to have principally targeted Muslim girls .

Over the past decades, few clothes items have stirred as much controversy in Europe and in North America as the Islamic veil. Indeed, supporters of laws such as Bill 62 in Europe and in North America have argued that the veil is a religious sign which is unwelcome in a secular or a religious neutral state and/or that it is more than a religious sign or part of a person’s right to practice her faith, but rather a sign of resistance to modernity (paradoxically, the use and the type of veil worn by most young women — the hijab — is a modern phenomenon), to assimilation and integration, a dangerous manifestation of a so-called “clash of civilization,” or a political action. But Europe, and more specifically, France’s fixation with the Muslim veil is not new. It did not start with a perceived fear of a growing Muslim population “invading” the public space in France — even though only a minority of Muslim women wear the veil in France — or with the fear of the rise of political Islam in France. France’s fixation with the Muslim veil goes back to a colonial period during which French colonial officials in Algeria developed a long standing obsession with Algerian women and the veil.