Muslim Women’s Veil, Between the Colonial Ideology and Traditionalist Islamic Ideology: a Decolonized Vision


The issue of Muslim women’s veil is clearly tackled today in feminist debates and all other debates on modernity, liberty and the place of religion in our contemporary societies.

I believe that the excessive focus on this topic reflects the binary approach disseminated by both the hegemonic neo-orientalist vision and identity-related rhetorical vision in the Islamic discourse.

In fact, this question seems to be locked between the neo-orientalist vision of the dominating ideology and the vision of an Islamic traditionalist discourse that seems to stand against any reformist vision. 

While veiling is kept out of modernity standards in the modernist ideology, it means in the Islamic vision to be deeply rooted in the Islamic identity and “resist” westernization. To “unveil” means for some people to “be modernized” and “emancipated”, while for others it is to be “unfaithful” to one’s roots and to reject one’s religious identity.

Muslim women’s body seems today to embody the tensions between modernity and anti-modernity.

The veil debate began in Egypt over the controversial book of Qasim Amin[1] at the colonization time in Egypt and the Arab world in the 1900’s. Women’s issue was one of the main questions within the balance of power between Islam and colonization on the one hand, and the long-lasting dilemma between modernity and tradition of the Arab-Muslim societies, on the other.

It is noteworthy that the colonizer also widely used the story of Muslim women’s veil to serve its purposes.

In fact, the orientalist stories about the inferiority of societies to be colonized – and, therefore, to be civilized- focused on the issue of women considered to be oppressed creatures by their religion.

These stories were very useful for the European colonizer and could support its colonization endeavor meant to accomplish a civilizing mission… Not only has the European white man to bring civilization to these societies, but also to “save” women from oppression and seclusion imposed by indigenous people[2].

Lord Cromer, consul-general of Great Britain in Egypt[3], was one of the most important persons to develop this colonizing policy. Known for being fiercely opposed to the feminist movement and women’s vote in his home country, Great Britain, Cromer was “allegedly” defending women’s rights in Egypt and strongly refuting their veiling and seclusion. He was repeatedly denouncing Muslim women’s status assuming that: “Women’s status in Egypt as well as in all the Mohammadian countries hinders their development and advancement to be amongst the civilized nations[4].

In Algeria, the same scenarios were repeated in the 1950’s. The officials in the French administration in Algeria were intensely devoted to the veiling issue that symbolized for them the Algerian woman’s status. The colonizing administration also funded this struggle to be credited by women so that it would have a real power over men and, therefore, dismantle the Algerian culture[5].

The ceremonies of Algerian women’s unveiling were numerous. Since May 18th, 1958, huge demonstrations were organized in the cities by the army and directed by the generals’ spouses such as Mrs. Massu who was completely involved in the struggle against the veil. In many Algerian cities, similar theatrical scenarios took place: groups of veiled women paraded up the places dedicated to these official ceremonies and unveiled in public[6].

In this vein, a notice issued by the 5th psychological action office of the French army (1957-1960) announced: “Are not you pretty? Take the veil off! »

These theatrical scenes of public “unveiling” were not limited to the past of the North African “colony”.  Yet, a neo-colonialist scene of the same type (remake) took place in New York on February 10th, 2001 at Victory Day ceremonies in Madison Square Garden. A young Afghan lady (spokeswoman of Rawa movement) was in the spotlight at a ceremony of unveiling covered by the media. Wearing a burqua, the young Afghan woman was hosted on the stage by the influential talk show host Oprah Winfrey who was lifting her dress up slowly!

This young woman is thus freed and saved by the North American feminist icon who took her up –in a strongly symbolic gesture- from a shady and veiled space to the world of modernity, unveiling and light.

The image of Muslim women who are unveiled and have recourse to the colonizer’s discourse remains strongly in the Islamic imagination. The latter still associates the colonizer’s tutorship with the act of unveiling and any other concept of liberation or emancipation deemed to be strange to Islam since they are claimed by the colonizer.

It is time today to overcome the binary vision that has always been in line with the veil issue. This headscarf should not be used anymore as a standard for assessing Muslim women. Rather, women should be given freedom of expression, the right to restore the freedom of choice as a crucial right and not to reduce Muslim women’s spirituality to their dress.

It is worth mentioning that Muslim women have to make a choice without feeling compelled to accept the simplistic discourses spread by the supporters of neo-orientalism or those of radical Islamic ideology.

It is legitimate for Muslim women today to question some concepts such as modernity and emancipation, and their use by a hegemonic ideological discourse called “universal” to serve specific purposes. It is also legitimate for these women to question the unique, consensual and patriarchal interpretation of sacred texts by male theologians.

Muslim women can also rebel against their own misogynist traditions without being detached from the just causes of their community of faith, nor supporting the Eurocentric myths of emancipation, humanism and feminism.

A Muslim feminist critical thinking should be developed on the “edges” of the world where subordinate Muslim women talk, live and struggle. Our specificity as Muslim women should not be marginalized by what Stuart Hall calls “the old universalism”. We cannot accept anymore to be forced to submit to cultural discriminations in the name of the same specificities.

We do not want any more to be anthropological victims of international feminist studies and geopolitical strategies institutes; we would like to be free in our choices. This can only be achieved if the values of liberty and emancipation are restored through new paradigms derived from our own reference and the human diversity. It is the only way to overcome this eternal opposing logic of modernity versus tradition within the debate over Muslim women.


[1] « Tahrir el mar’a » , Qasim Amin, Dar el Maarif, Soussa, Tunisia, Editions 1990.

[2] This is what Spivack Gayatri Chakravorty summarized by saying: “white men are saving the brown women from brown men) in “Can the subaltern speak?”.

[3] See the article: “Lord Cromer: le colonialiste par excellence » :

[4] Felix Boggio Ewanié Epée and Stella Magliani Belkacem in  “ Les féministes blanches et l’empire” Editions La Fabrique, Paris, 2011.

[5] According to Frantz Fanon’s book: « l’Algérie se dévoile » in les féministe blanches et l’empire, la fabrique , Félix Boggio Ewanjé Epée and Stella Magliani Belkacem.

[6] Idem

 Asma Lamrabet

À propos de l'auteur


Native de Rabat (Maroc), Asma Lamrabet, exerce actuellement en tant que médecin biologiste à l’Hôpital Avicennes de Rabat. Elle a exercé durant plusieurs années (de 1995 à 2003) comme médecin bénévole dans des hôpitaux publics d'Espagne et d’Amérique latine, notamment à Santiago du Chili et à Mexico.

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