May 28, 2010 Special Dispatch No. 2985

Muslim French Intellectuals Criticize Obama's Statement on the Hijab

May 28, 2010
Special Dispatch No. 2985

In his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech, U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized that Muslim women in the U.S. are free to don the hijab. He said: "...Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."[1]

Obama's statements triggered strong criticism among Arab intellectuals in France, where for the past few years there has been an ongoing debate about the permissibility of wearing the veil in public.

Following are excerpts from some of their reactions:

Reformist writer Dr. Abdelwahab Meddeb, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Paris X in Nanterre and author of the books The Malady of Islam (New York: Basic Books, 2003) and Counter-Preaching (Contre-Prêches, Seuil, Paris, 2006)[2] wrote: "Obama's pertinent speech in Cairo was wrong in at least one respect. Let us say [for the sake of the argument] – though I find it difficult to do so – that women should be free to wear the veil. [Still, Obama] should have added that they must [also] be free to remove it."[3]

Leila Barbès, a professor of religion and sociology at the Catholic University of Lille, also referred to the hijab issue, though not in direct response to Obama's speech. She explained that, in the context of the veil, "free choice" was an illusion: "The moment [wearing] the veil is presented as a divine duty, the issue of free choice is no longer valid, [and] all Muslim women are exposed to [this religious] propaganda. How can we pretend they have a choice when they are told that [their] religion obligates [them to wear a veil]? The women [who wear] a full veil [i.e. a niqab, which covers everything but the eyes,] do so in order to comply with what is requested and expected of them by their husbands or their sect."[4]

Sihem Habchi, president of the feminist organization Ni Putes Ni Soumises ["Neither Whores nor Slaves"], said: "We seem to have forgotten the blood-soaked days in my country of origin, Algeria, when women were slaughtered for [choosing not to wear the veil]. And what about the Afghan women [under the Taliban], who were denied education and suffered from the [negative] effects of wearing that portable prison [the burqa]?

"To think that Mr. Obama reached out to fundamentalists in Cairo, trying to buy them with [his statement about] the veil! He did not say a word in Cairo about fundamental freedoms... or about all the women who are currently fighting around the world to launch a debate [about the veil] in their country! We must support these women... What are we afraid of?"[5]

Philosopher Abdennour Bidar, author of numerous articles on modern Islam, expressed sorrow that Obama had been more concerned with image than with other, more important considerations. In an interview about the issue of the niqab, he said: "[It's a pity that] politicians, and especially Obama, seem to sacrifice the truth for the sake of appearance, and [choose] a mode of communication that consecrates image [above anything else]..."[6]


[2] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 315, "Tunisian Reformist Abdelwahab Meddeb: It's Up to the Arab to Take the Courageous Step of Questioning His Faith," January 10, 2007,

[5] Mission d’information de l'Assemblée nationale sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national, September 9, 2009,

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