European Court’s Ruling on the Veil (1): A Colonialist Crusade


Part 1: European Court’s Ruling on the Veil (1): A Colonialist Crusade

“This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the coloniser” ~ Frantz Fanon

Born from the discourse of extremism are notions of cohesion and integration, both aspects which are questioned whenever an alleged act of terrorism is perpetrated by a Muslim (but not by a “white”, Christianist terrorists). Subjective interpretations of these words are then imposed on the Muslim minority without due considerations to the very values forced down the throats of Muslims. A selective application of liberalism, democracy, pluralism and tolerance results in inconsistencies in which the Muslim minority, out of political expediency, suffers the most.

This problem came to an extreme in the case of S.A.S v France,[1] in which a practising Muslim Frenchwoman who wore the veil raised violations of rights under the European Convention of Human Rights against France’s ban of the face veil.

Against the Backdrop of Bigotry

The background to the French legislation was a far-right-driven issue of Muslim women, and the imposed, ethnocentrically biased notion that the veil constituted an “enslavement and debasement of women”. How idiotic the French must have felt in realising the irony of a woman wearing a symbol of “enslavement” dragging the State through the courts.

The court recognised that the discourse leading up to the enactment of the law banning the veil was in fact Islamophobic.[2] It stemmed from an increasingly disconcerting rise of right-wing rhetoric which became congruent with the French left too, as the French assembly voted 366 to one in favour of legislation prohibiting anything covering the face. The completely inaccurate and misplaced notion behind the veil were further elaborated upon in a French report drafted on “the wearing of the full-face veil on national territory”[3]:

“According to the report, the wearing of this clothing existed before the advent of Islam and did not have the nature of a religious precept, but stemmed from a radical affirmation of individuals in search of identity in society and from the action of extremist fundamentalist movements.”

Thus not only is the veil a sign of enslavement, it is linked to extremism too. The position of the French then was rooted in blatant anti-Muslim bigotry, which upon closer analysis, extends further into deeply-rooted, French colonialist attitudes.

The Veil: Power Structure against Colonialism

Thinking themselves at the apex of civilisation, the European colonialists arrived at the doors of the Middle East and Africa with fantasy expectations of saving the damsel’s in distress from uncouth and “uncivilised” non-Europeans. The veil conflicted with this power structure in that, the woman could see the man and yet the white man could not. This frustration provides for one of the roots of the crusade against the veil. In the off chance the European was able to see, contrary to their expectation, their fantasies were washed away:

“If only I could have represented her as young and lovely, escaped from the harem of some cruel and elderly Moor, and with large tearful eye imploring the sympathy of the Christian… but the truth compels me to say that there was nothing in this lady’s expression or appearance to warrant any pleasant theory of this kind.”[4]

The veil has historically has been viewed by French colonialists as a barrier to the exacting of power over a people using women, much like today’s PREVENT agenda in the UK which is targeting women to inhibit “extremism” and “Islamism”. As the Afro-French psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon noted, to destroy the Algerian societal structure, “we must go behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight”.[5] The French saw themselves as the liberators of the “humiliated and sequestered” woman whose Islamic manifestations were seen back then as “barbaric” and medieval”:

“The colonialist administration invested great sums in this combat. After it had posited that the woman constituted the pivot of Algerian society, all efforts were made to obtain control over her.”[6]

Obtaining power of her meant, “achieving real power over the man and attaining practical, effective means of destructuring Algerian culture.”[7]

With various colonialist theoreticians trying to “free the woman”, Fanon noted that the narratives in the French National Assembly, similar to the contemporary discussions of the veil in the Assembly focussed on the Muslim woman “problem” and a need to improve her status. The improvement, according to the Assembly was the “only means of disarming the rebellion”.

Focus on women to re-engineer the social sphere to the benefit of the white Europeans was a general colonialist strategy. One of the aims was the penetration of Christian missionaries into the heart of the Muslim home. Missionary-school teachers tried to persuade daughters to defy their parents and to not wear the veil with aim to leave “a trail of gunpowder… into the heart of Islam”.[8] French colonial women would pay Algerian students to ensure the attendance at their school.[9]

It can be argued that much of this desire to unveil the Muslim women today, be it in Belgium, France and elsewhere has similar roots. The post human rights era was supposed to do away with the colonialist endeavours and its associated supremacism. However time and again, it seems the European Court of Human Rights has not been able to adequately deal with this latent form of colonialist bigotry and has perpetrated it itself. The precedents of the Court, including the recent judgement of the French ban is a testimony to this.

This judgement will be examined in the next part.

Part 2: European Court’s Ruling on the Veil (2): A Subjective Judgement



[1] [2014] ECHR 695

[2] Ibid. para.149

[3] Ibid.para.16

[4] Omsby, Autumn Rambles in North Africa [1864], quoted in Katherine Bullock, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, 2007, p.9

[5] Fanon, Frantz., A Dying Colonialism, New York, Gove Press, 1965, pp.37-38

[6] Ibid, p.38

[7] Ibid. pp.38-39

[8] Ahmed, Liela. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press, 1992, p.154

[9] Lazreg, Marnia. ‘Feminism and Difference: The Perils of Writing as a Woman on Women in Algeria’, Feminist Studies, 14, I, (1988), pp.81-107

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