Marine Le Pen: religion, feminism, and politics

By Eloise Carey

France’s far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen caused a row this week by refusing to wear a headscarf on her tour of Lebanon. She was to meet with the country’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, but walked away after refusing to comply, despite having been pre-warned of the requirement.

Many observers, including Lebanon-based reporter Natasha Ghoneim, have commented that this was planned on her part to appeal to far-right voters back in France. Le Pen has frequently been accused during her campaign of whipping up fear of Islam into aggression, calling for a Trump-style ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

Recently, the hijab has taken on a political edge. While in the West it is often tainted with associations of gender oppression and violent fundamentalism, many Islamic women believe it is a defence of religious liberty, a defining feature of themselves and their right to respect their history and culture.

Assumptions that a headscarf is an automatic mark of sexism and a culture of poor treatment of women is no longer an acceptable standpoint. Politicians, commentators and reporters alike will appreciate the nuance and various connotations of this piece of cloth. Le Pen, however, does not seem to pick up on this subtlety.

Her refusal to wear the hijab is not feminism, it’s not even taking a political standpoint. Her behaviour is disrespectful to another country and no more than a media-baiting exercise to draw in voters. France, since banning facial coverings in 2011, including the niqab, have staunchly enforced their right to impose secularism upon their nationals. Yet, Le Pen does not accord the same respect to the sovereignty of other states such as Lebanon. This is a thinly veiled double standard with no justification.

Whether or not Le Pen agrees with the religious significance of the headscarf is quite irrelevant. This is a time in which more than ever it is vital for cultures and religions to respect one another’s autonomy. No one can force Marine Le Pen to wear a headscarf, but she has undermined her own credibility as a diplomat and as a female politician through her disregard for a long-standing tradition. It is narrow-minded in the extreme that she refused.

Image by Global Panorama via flickr.

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