(URTime and time again, we stumble upon stories of so-called enlightened ‘Western’ feminists looking down on Muslim women in headscarves as subjugated victims of patriarchy. The issue has recently come to light again after Air France female staff members have expressed outrage over instructions to dress conservatively when flying to Iran.

After eight years of sanctions, Air France will be resuming its flights to Iran next week, and to abide by the country’s laws, the airline has requested female staff members to wear trousers, a “loose-fitting jacket and headscarf” on Iranian soil, as the Guardian recollected. Crew members have refused to do so and denounced this dress code as an attack on women, with some going as far as to call it “an insult to their dignity”.

As Air France told Le Monde, the dress code is in fact nothing new. Crew members have been required to dress modestly when flying to other Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, as well, as a sign of respect for local laws and culture. And they were asked to do the same before the airline’s flights to Iran were halted in 2008, making this new-found outrage over the dress code somewhat questionable — and perhaps indicative of the increasing islamophobic sentiment in the country.

Lately, every time I see a news article on France and freedom of expression, the word hypocrisy springs immediately to mind. Under its strict secular laws, France has had an active ban on headscarves in schools and colleges as well as in all civil service posts. The wearing of the face veil has also been illegal in all public spaces without exception since 2011. Women who have continued to defy these laws have been forced to pay fines of up to €150 (nearly $171) or have been suspended from school grounds, with some choosing to be homeschooled as a result.

To make things worse, this new airline controversy has emerged only a few days after France’s Minister for Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, compared veiled women to “American negroes who supported slavery” on French TV, only to later call the use of the word “negroes” a mistake.

The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it presupposes donning a veil necessarily as a step backwards, despite whether it is a woman’s choice to wear one or not. That people should consider attempts by all Muslim women, even French Muslims, to practice their religion freely as a sign of self-perpetuating oppression is beyond patronising, and, in fact, insulting. Contrary to these views, I have often heard European Muslim women describe their choice to wear the headscarf as something liberating and even empowering.

True enough in Iran women do not have that choice, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has made hijab mandatory for all women in public spaces. However, if neoliberal feminists looked beyond their singular world views which increasingly define the veil as a mere symbol of contempt, they might even begin to see an image of modern Iranian women that is not so often encountered in the media. They would see their faulty imaginings of women’s mournful faces clad in black chadors shattered by colourful, loose-fitting headscarves, which are becoming more and more of a fashion symbol in today’s Iran.

That is not to say that it is okay to deprive women of their choice of clothing. But neither is it okay to look down on countries for enforcing laws that are, as Iranian-French writer and illustrator, Marjane Satrapi, expressed in the Guardian, ‘every bit as repressive’ as your own. And it is certainly not okay to look down on women for choosing to wear something that, in their own words, makes them feel empowered, just because it might not fit into your own reductionist view of feminism.


This article (What Feminists Get Wrong About Muslim Women) is an opinion editorial (OP-ED). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of Underground Reporter. This article is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Elika Ansari and UndergroundReporter.org. If you spot a typo, please email the error and the name of the article to undergroundreporter2016@gmail.com. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Adam Jones