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A woman's right to wear Hijab

In Denmark the debate about the Muslim hijab has reached a new high.

Especially due to a very brave politician by the name of Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, the discussion of hijabs in public office and in court houses is raging.

It seems to me that women in feminist circles are much divided on this issue, and so am I. On one hand I completely follow the argument that a woman's right to wear a head-scarf for religious reasons is untouchable. On the other hand, many a feminist would call the hijab a very powerful symbol of the suppression of women.

Since we cannot know for sure which women put on the hijab for what reasons, what solutions could there be to a conflict of this kind?

Asmaa Abdol-Hamid (Scanpix for Kristeligt Dagblad)

Thomas, I grew up (as a Muslim, Egyptian) thinking the hijab was the ultimate symbol of oppression. I watched increasing numbers of women in my country take to it, in what Elizabeth Fernea aptly described "Veiled Revolution". I resented it -- I felt it was symbolic of Arab regression. And perhaps it was.

And then 9/11 happened, and it shifted things for young Arab muslims. I know many many young women who chose to wear the vil now to assert an identity. A feminist one in fact. And others who choose it to assert a cultural heritage.
Increasingly the veil has become cultural. Just as many people fast in Ramadan even though they aren't devout, if at all practising, Muslims, women increasingly put on the veil in much the same spirit.

The Arab and Muslim world is changing in many ways, and I think young Muslims are increasingly trying to find an equilibrium for themselves -- a way to balance between the West (which they are exposed to and to some extent identify with and desire), and the East, which is by default a part of their psyche and being. Often a part of that strife to find a balance involves the tangible -- like the veil.

I think perhaps our greatest flaw as a human race is the tendency to generalise, to categorise, and at its extreme, to stereotype, and sadly I think our reaction to the veil is a prime example of that. The solution is not to find a solution to the "veil" per se, but to simply build role models in society for young girls. Role models in the form of strong women who act against the norm when needs be, who speak up when they believe it is right, and who also have the strength to let the current carry them when it is best. It is through women like that that our young girls can hopefully grow to develop voices and personalities and a connection with themselves. And in doing so, they can then choose what for themselves is right. And it may very well be the veil, and then who are we to judge.

Tony Bulley
Tony Bulley
New Zealand


You know the whole world has missed an important point , consumed by fear of the unknown on all sides , mistrust and individual groups using any means at their disposal to forward their personal beliefs.
Life is suppossed to be about love, caring , sharing , accepting a person for who they are , not what they are.
Many women beat a path to my door , i dont look at them and determine, or evaluate them cause what they wear, or how they look , what they wear is their individual choice, for whatever reason.
We can all find somethiong wrong , with anything if we really want to , it will not assit progression , only mutal acceptance and understanding of each others cultures and beliefs will help progression, personally i feel sad for people who cannot see beyound what a woman wears and why , or her looks , becuase the beauty of any woman lies in her inner spirit and soul , this is where the real gem and life of a woman is.
If we concentrated less on the outer shell , and had a modem of respect , encompassed with compassion and love , walking hand in hand everything else in life would fall into place , including equality , so for whatever reason a woman wears the hijab lets respect that , we cannot change the views of those forcing women to wear them by critisism , rathe by love and understanding we can share our views and bring allow change to take place for those who want it.
Tony New Zealand

Layali Eshqaidef
United States

The Hijab

Just like it is forbidden to force a woman into a marriage without her consent, I assume it is equally sinful to force women to wear hijab, and therefore I see forced veiling in certain countries contradictory to the spirit of Islam and the concepts of choice and freedom embedded in it.

Having said that, I am all for wearing the hijab out of choice, whether it is purely for the purpose of obeying Allah's commands, or for any other reason - identity, culture, heritage, modesty, activism, etc. - all of which valid and respected, or at least should be. I highly doubt the element of force is being used within Muslim families in Denmark or any other countries of the global North, simply due to the nature of society and the availability of legal protection for women. Therefore, I see forced un-veiling of Muslim women in public schools and universities in certain countries in Europe to be the ultimate opposite of freedom, democracy, and human rights. It's not like the Hijab is equivalent to the neck coils used to elongate women's necks in Thailand or mindless FGM practices in Africa.

sesame seed
sesame seed


Europeans are notorious for “unveiling” Arab women… or better yet, objectifying Arab women. Look back at the representations of Arab women in photography during the colonial era. In most cases, French and British photographers paid young naïve women and children to undress for their photographs (child pornography comes to mind!)… and prostitutes as well. The issue you’re discussing is one of modern-day Orientalism and pure racism! The oppression is not the veil; it is the unveiling that is oppressive!

United States


Objects that serve as symbols are very powerful. Do we not imbue a flag with symbolic power beyond the value of its cloth? And there are symbols that were born in eras of suppression that are now considered in very negative light. I personally consider this article of clothing to be such an object, and I do not hold my fellow women who insist on wearing it in public in high esteem. Religious expression with symbols can also be carried out in ways not associated with repression. But I do not have the right to force my standpoint in a free society.

I believe in freedom of religious expression, but there must be restrictions when such expression is contemplated in public service by a public official in a society that has as one of its basic tenets separation of church and state - as policewoman, teacher, judge, physician, soldier, etc. Religious symbols have their rightful place in the private sphere, and that includes public appearance as a private individual or civilian, but not as a member of an officiating body or team representing the society.

The hijab, like many other related symbols is a memento of women's suppression in Muslim societies that deny women equal rights and privileges, that in this capacity still continue to enslave much of their population. If a woman feels inclined to submit to this in a society which protects freedom of expression, then it is her right to do so. But I further believe that In the public sphere of a free society it represents an affront to that freedom and to societal principles.

Michaele Enghardt

rahina adamu
rahina adamu

my rights

i dont understand this war on the hijab or head scarf!the headscarf or hijab in islam is untouchable, there is no two way about it but it is also the rigths of the woman to chose to wear it or not as it is her right to chose what religion to practice. the depth of someone religion or her believes is between her and Allah.

i believe this is something that no one has the right to interfare with. if a woman chsess to wear a hijab or headscarf its her choice and if she choses not to its also her choice and no one but Allah has the right to judge her.

i can decide to wear one or ignor it but no one should tell me to or not to especailly as a muslim.
i think its high time we leave certail things alone and move on there are lots of issues in the society that needs our attention rather than disturbing women who wish to cover their hair!

Lalita Raman
Lalita Raman
Hong Kong

Veil or Unveil

Most of us live in a society with people who have too many expectations of each other. If each of us tried to live and let live without changing the other and accept each one as they are, the world would be a much better place, If a change is necessary, try to make that change but do not insist on it.

The same applies to wearing Hijab. If a woman wants to wear it and likes wearing it, so be it but she should not be compelled to wear it on religious grounds or to fulfill some social norms.

I read the following in an email that I received recently, "As far as nature or the moon is concerned, we do not feel a sense of ownership or possessiveness. But when it comes to people, this feeling becomes deep-seated & can be destructive".

What we need to give and have is love and freedom and space and this applies to each aspect of life.

Live and Let live and do not compel, let the Woman chose.

It's about empowering women's choice

Thank you Thomas for posing the question. As a white, American woman from a Christian upbringing, I'm pretty fatigued at debating the to veil or not to veil question. I think these arguments are always looking for unrealistic answers. People who argue about this often want it to be cut and dry, to fit into nicely defined boxes... for example: veil bad, no-veil good. Life just doesn't work this way.

The veil controversy is just a symptom of the more important issue of the power of choice. I think feminists should stop wasting their breath talking about the veil and start looking at the social conditions required to guarantee women's free and unhindered choice. Do they have the choice to work, go to school, be open about their sexuality, vote, be a mother, and wear a veil or not where a veil.

These are all just a spectrum of choices that I see on very equal footing with one another because they are not about the choice itself but instead about the exercise of choosing.

patrick o'heffernan
patrick o'heffernan
United States


I have to comment from an American point of view becuse tht is what I am. Law and social environemnt may be different in Denmark. That said, there are some basic principles here however.

As an Ameican, I believe anyone is free to wear anything as long as it does not endanger others. The point is not what you wear - it is who decides. A woman has an inherent right to wear a burka if she wants...or a long as she makes the choice. That choice must be free of pressure from others - her husband, her Imam, her brothers, etc. Which means that if she wants to wear a burka during the week and a bikini on the beach on weekends it is her business and no one elses.

There are some exceptions:
- she must show her face to get photographed for a drivers license. a license is a priviledge, not a right.
- her employer can forbid a hijab if it would endanger her or her co-workers (i.e., getting caught in machinery or obstructing side vision)
- the government can require that she remove it to obtain security clearance if a photo id is involved

Beyond that, it is her business.

Now to reality. Wearing a hijab in a secular country is a statement, and one that some people may not like. They will exercise their freedom of speech (but only that - no violence is ever justified) to criticize her. No one promised that being pious would be easy - that is the point. If she realy believes, she understands that she is making a sacrifice for her beliefs in attracting the criticism. That makes her stronger and makes her belief more meaningful.

patrick o'heffernan
patrick o'heffernan
United States


To continue: I think the best statement is the hijab during the week and a bikini on the weekend at the beach. That preserves her rights as a Muslim and as a free human being. The bottom line: it is her decision and no one else's

Freedom? Of course. Respect? Not necessarily.

When I first started the forum thread on “A woman’s right to wear hijab?” I was looking for solutions to this question. Yet once again, as I had foreseen, we were all presented with perhaps the two most incompatible oppositions of modern day gender issues (and perhaps of the modern world altogether) for which there seem to be no definitive solution. We have the striving for equality through reason alone on one side and the freedom of religious practice on the other. Somehow, we cannot in any way deny the symbolic value the hijab holds to (some of) us westerners; nor can we deny the value of choice and religious practice that it holds to (some of) the women who wear it.

In the light of this month’s theme of Religion and Politics here on IMOW, I want to draw specific attention to the link between religion and the history of women. The Abrahamic religions especially, as we know, have probably been history’s main source and excuse for the suppression of women. Judaism told us that “anyone who touches [a woman before and immediately after her period] will be unclean” (Leviticus 15:19), Christianity stubbornly claims that “the head of the woman is man” (1 Corinthians 11:3), and in Islam it is taught that women must “guard their unseen parts [and as] for those from whom you fear disobedience, […] send them to beds apart and beat them” (Quran 4:34). I think it is safe to say that religion has not been and perhaps is not all that woman-friendly.

With this in mind, I am beginning to ask myself what I believe to be an important question: We all support the idea of being able to think and believe whatever we want (religion included), but which of the following two ways of life do we want to govern our daily lives and our societal structures – the respect for reason or the respect for religion??? There should be absolutely no doubt as to where I stand on this issue as a feminist. It is through reason and not through religion that women have obtained the rights they enjoy in the western world today. Therefore I believe that it is also through reason that women will acquire rights not yet obtained.

Thus, can anyone reasonably claim the right to decide what a Muslim woman wears on her head? Of course they cannot. We must respect the freedom of religion. But, and this is my point, it does not mean that we should respect religion itself if we do not. I believe that we should all be very well aware that the hijab and the burka, unlike almost any other religious symbols, do not symbolize to us the whole of Islam, but the part of Islam that is specifically targeted at keeping men superior to women. Thus, the question is not whether it should be forbidden, for we cannot interfere with that kind of individual freedom much in the same way that we cannot forbid a woman to wear a low cut t-shirt that says ‘F*** me, I’m a Porn Star’ however damaging we think it is to society’s perception of women. However, in the case of the t-shirt, we are most certainly allowed to raise people’s consciousness and to speak up about it if we so wish (in the same way that would speak up about anything), and so the question is rather whether we should all pretend that the hijab does not bother us if it does.

It bothers me. It bothers me a lot because of the sheer fact that a hijab or a burka not only symbolizes but promotes directly the Islamic submission of women, and so I want to able to spread consciousness about the fact that even though there are undoubtedly strong Muslim women out there who wear the hijab or the burka, these pieces of clothing are still used to cover up a woman’s being not because she desires to, but because of a religion that is still historically and contemporarily responsible for the suppression of women.

In short, I am not in a position to tell anyone what they can or cannot wear or what they can and cannot believe in, but I refuse to treat any religions or religious symbols with respect simply because they are related to faith – something which defines itself by lack of reason. If a hijab or a burka to me symbolizes the suppression of women (because it most certainly does not represent their liberation), I want to be able to raise people’s consciousness about it without being called racist or Islamophobic. Faith is something that we should tolerate – but as a feminist I cannot respect it.

Why a Feminist Turns Atheist (Thomas Brorsen Smidt)
Dee Shelby Knight
United States

I applaud you Thomas on a well reasoned, and well spoken viewpoint. I have similar problems, ironically enough, not with the Burkha, but the "prairie" clothing of the FLDS, Amish, Mennonite and (some) Jehovah's Witnesses. To me, these represent the same oppression you feel is forced on women with the Burkha. I do not know exactly why I do not have as many problems with the veil and the full Burkha, but the concept is the same, and is an issue for which we all have strong opinions.

I agree, we should not have to respect a religion for what it does to its members (male or female) just because its creeds justify it. I do not believe we should pretend to respect it, for that is in a spirit of negativity and falseness.

To that end, is there even a middle road on this issue? Just like gender equality in general, especially in the western world (should women be paid on equal terms for the same job as men? Etc.) or gay marriage. Will there ever be a place where we can collectively say "I respect your rights but not your religion."? Or be able to walk down the street without worrying about other people's appearance-0r opinions of your appearance? OR, as has been stated, is this oppression or liberation?

Both oppression and liberation are viewed differently in the minds of the beholder and the beheld, and it certainly seems like a losing battle to argue.

Masum Momaya, Curator
Masum Momaya, Curator
United States

Symbol of Liberation?

Wow! I admire the thoughtfulness of the comments posted in this forum.

I have a question to pose: For some, the hijab is indisputably a symbol of suppression, particularly of women's sexuality, but could it be a symbol of liberation as well?

Please listen to our July podcast conversation with Hadil El-Khouly for a thoughtful consideration of this.

A woman's right to wear the hijab

I think the issue of the' banning of wearing hijab in public'in Europe is a form of double standard for those that claim to uphold the 'freedom of choice'.No one tells the nun not to wear a habit.The hijab is a voluntary identity and not a symbol of oppression.I am proud to wear my hijab when I am in public.

Hijab as freedom

I am a young woman living in San Francisco in the U.S. My city is arguably the most progressive and liberal city in what many consider the most liberal country in the world. In all questions of the matter, I am supposed to be living in one of the most progressive places for women's rights in the world.

But daily, when I step out of my apartment, I get sexually harassed. I get cat calls, appalling comments about my body and the most violating sexual looks on a weekly basis. This is a form of intimidation, power, and violence. I feel unsafe every time I leave my apartment and I sometimes wonder if I would enjoy more freedom and peace of mind if I wore hijab. I am not Muslim and would feel uncomfortable adopting a cultural custom not my own. So I continue to endure the violations every time I leave the house. Do I have a choice? I feel powerless in the face of this verbal and nonverbal violence. Am I any more empowered than a woman whose religion asks her to wear a covering?

Tags: The woman should be able to wear what she wants...

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