The French Freak-Out Over ‘Hijab Day’

Parisian college students are trying to de-stigmatize the hijab by encouraging everyone to wear one.

When students at a Parisian university announced a “Hijab Day,” their hope was to combat Islamophobia on campus. But the event, which invites non-Muslim students at the Sciences Po University to don the traditionally Muslim headscarf, has put the university at the forefront of a national debate on the religious garment.

A Facebook event for the school’s Hijab Day invites all students who “believe all women should have the right to dress however they want and be respected in their choices” to don a hijab during school hours.

In France, where women are legally prohibited from wearing face-covering religious garments like burqas, and Islamophobic sentiment is high, the hijab taken on new status as a political symbol.

In April, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the hijab a symbol of “enslavement of women.”

Laurence Rossignol, the country’s minister for women’s rights, took the sentiment further during a televised in March, railing against clothing companies like H&M and Dolce & Gabbana, which have recently begun catering to Muslim women with new, hijab-friendly clothing lines. When the interviewer pointed out that many Muslim women wear religious garments out of personal choice, Rossignol likened these women to American slaves.

“Of course there are women who choose it,” Rossignol said. “There were American negroes who were in favor of slavery.”Hijab Day organizers hit back at these political figures, describing themselves as “pretty disturbed by declarations of French ministers and public figures about some girls.”

More than 450 people have RSVPed for the Wednesday event on Facebook. But the movement has seen sharp criticism from right-wing students, and guarded responses from Sciences Po administrators.

Sciences Po’s student branch of the anti-immigrant National Front party described Hijab Day as “nauseating” in a post on their own Facebook wall, the Straits Times reports.

In a statement of its own, the Sciences Po administration distanced itself from the event, disavowing official university involvement.

“The issue of hijab, within higher education institutions and more broadly in France, is a topical debate which raises a variety of positions,” Sciences Po wrote in a statement in French. “The holding of this event in the walls of Sciences Po cannot be interpreted as any school support to this initiative.”

Sciences Po is not the first university to come under the microscope when non-Muslim women wear the hijab on campus. In December, a tenured professor at Wheaton College, an Illinois Christian school, was suspended for donning the hijab in her classroom. The professor said she chose to wear the headscarf as an act of solidarity with Muslim women, who face violence and discrimination as Islamophobic sentiment spikes in the United States.

But some hijabi women say these acts of so-called solidarity are missing the point; that non-Muslim women can wear the hijab with little threat of violence, while Muslim women risk attack for wearing the symbols of their religion.

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“It privileges the experience of non-Muslim women over and above the stories and narratives of actual Muslim women who wear hijab every day,” blogger Ms. Muslamic wrote in a post about World Hijab Day. “Solidarity through cultural appropriation is extremely problematic, because the consequences for non-Muslims wearing hijab are never as severe as they are for Muslims.”

But Sciences Po’s Hijab Day is organized in part by Muslim women, some of whom wear hijabs, the group wrote in its Facebook event.

“This wednesday, we—Muslim and non-Muslim women, hijabi (veiled) or non hijabi (and a few men as well ♥ )- invite you to a hijab-in-France-awareness-day.”

The group also offered to provide scarves and tutorials on their correct use.

“It would be nice to try decency, mutual respect and understanding, etc in our gloomy society,” the group wrote. “[In] short, if you are a humanist, a feminist, anti-racist, anti-paternalist, or whatever… COME JOIN UUUUUS.”