A week and a half ago, a pregnant Muslim woman wearing the niqaab, or facial veil, was attacked in a neighborhood outside of Paris. According to the victim's report to police, she was confronted by two "skinheads," who grabbed at her clothing, "ripped the veil" off of her head, and cut off her hair, while shouting anti-Islamic taunts throughout the attack. Additionally, she was kicked in the hip and stomach before fleeing, and, days later experienced a miscarriage and lost her baby.
Attacks like these, verbal and physical, have become a scary part of the average hijab-wearing woman's reality. The veil is one of the most conspicuous symbols of a practicing Muslim, and is often the flashpoint for anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric. After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims spiked by 1,600%, with Muslim women wearing hijab prone to greater risk than men. In France, since the passing of the 2010 law banning face veils in public, a category of crime has risen so much in frequency, it’s earned its own title: "veil attacks." Just a week after the attack in Woolwich, the UK experienced a 15-fold increase in the amount of anti-Muslim violence from the previous year’s average, 60% of which targeted women.
Anti-Muslim violence is a serious problem, but when the hijab becomes the central target for aggression and violence, it is no longer simply a "Muslim issue"; it’s an urgent women’s issue.
Many Westerners, largely seeing traditional headscarves as a symbol of oppression, have loudly rallied behind hijab and burqa bans across Europe, ignoring many Muslim women who view wearing them as part of their right to religious expression. Even some feminist groups contribute to rallies against Muslim women's dress, such as FEMEN in their Topless Jihad Day protests.
The point, however, is not to argue about hijab. The point is to highlight how hijab, and fixation on women's dress in general, can escalate into inflammatory rhetoric. As blogger and writer Sara Yasin notes, "Whether it’s a ban on niqaabs in France or miniskirts in Uganda, or warped legislation on reproductive rights in the United States, these efforts send a consistent signal: that our bodies are not our own." Enter violence targeting Muslim women. Oftentimes, what we see in the attacks targeting women wearing a traditional headscarf is a manifestation of male entitlement to control of women's bodies. It's of course very closely related to anti-Muslim sentiment in general, but crusades against the hijab, whether via legislative bans or vicious attempts to physically rip it off a woman’s head, speak to that same need to control. And especially in light of a recent World Health Organization report showing that one out of three women experience sexual or physical violence in some form, we need to be vigilant about the ways fixation on women's dress under the guise of "saving the oppressed Muslim woman" sparks violence against those very same women.
For what we see when a pregnant woman gets attacked outside of Paris, is that, in the war for control over women's bodies, women pay the ultimate price.