Five truths about the Hijab (Muslim Veil) that need to be told

By Peter Hopkins | (The Conversation) | – –

Rio 2016 is proving not just to be a platform for sporting prowess, it is also helping to shake up some traditionally-held cultural misconceptions too.

In the West, many regard traditional Muslim dress like the hijab as a sign of oppression, with women forced to wear the garments by men. But it is not as simple as that: many women choose to wear the hijab as a sign of faith, feminism, or simply because they want to.

Recently, 19-year-old Egyptian volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy’s decision to wear a hijab while competing against Germany caused a stir. Her and partner Nada Meawad’s team uniform of long sleeved tops and ankle length trousers were already a “stark contrast” to the German competitors’ bikinis, yet it was Elghobashy’s hijab that media attention focused on.


Elgobashy and Meawad were the first team to represent Egypt in volleyball at the Olympics and, in the words of Elgobashy, the hijab which she has worn for ten years “doesn’t keep me away from the things I love to do”.

The determination and sporting prowess that Elgobashy displayed is a polar opposite to the assumption that all hijab-wearing Muslim women are passive and oppressed. The support and celebration that Elgobashy’s hiajb has also received is in direct contrast to the banning of burkinis in several French towns – though to look at both outfits, they cover the same amount of the body.

Many Muslim women today are wearing hijabs and other traditional dress to challenge the assumption that these are symbols of control. In fact, there are several revealing truths about Muslim dress that society must hear.

1. Women are not forced to wear hijabs

Some women choose to wear the hijab because it is a national tradition of their country of origin, or because it is the norm in their local area, city or country. Others wear it to demonstrate their commitment to dressing modestly and for religious reasons. Like any item of clothing, some women wear the hijab for specific occasions, such as for family or community events, or during particular times of day but take it off at other times, such as wearing the hijab to and from school or work but taking it off while studying or working.

A very small minority may claim to be forced to wear the hijab. However, many studies show that in fact Muslim women choose to wear the hijab as a way of showing self-control, power and agency.

2. You’re not sexually oppressed

Many hijab wearers have said that they wear the veil not as a symbol of control by a man, but rather to promote their own feminist ideals. For many Muslim women, wearing a hijab offers a way for them to take control of their bodies and to claim a stance that challenges the ways in which women are marginalised by men.

Research has shown that for young Muslim women, wearing a hijab says little about the likelihood of them having a boyfriend or participating in a sexual relationship. Indeed, some young women have said they would wear the hijab to give them more space to engage in such activities.

3. You’re not more likely to be linked to terrorism

Since 9/11, negative media coverage of Muslim communities, alongside government counter-terrorism policies in many Western countries, has further demonised Muslims. British research has shown that government policies have resulted in Muslims receiving unjustified attention in airport security, for example. They have also been shown to have created extra tensions and divisions between Muslim communities and the police.

For some hijab wearers, the hatred towards Muslim communities pushed them to stop wearing the veil after terrorist incidents, like the 7/7 London bombings, in order to minimise the chance of them experiencing racism. However, at the same time others started to wear the hijab to show their commitment to their religious faith. The hijab therefore cannot be a fixed symbol, but is far more flexible and changeable – and certainly cannot be deemed a marker of terrorism.

4. It’s not a ‘West versus rest’ division

There are many different styles, colours and shapes of hijab including different ways of wearing it. There is also a rising transnational Muslim fashion trade focusing particularly on younger women. In many respects, the hijab is similar to any other item of clothing with businesses marketing different styles and brands in order to maximise sales.

This global fashion trade transcends national and regional boundaries. It is about maximising the market rather than reinforcing divisions between the West and the Muslim “rest”. Rather than asking why a women is wearing a hijab to reinforce difference, we should ask what high street store or online retailer she purchased her clothing from and what attracted her to this brand. For some wearers, this is far more pertinent and telling of their personality.

5. The hijab is not something to be feared

A recently published report of anti-Muslim abuse in England found that more than 60% of victims are women, and 75% of these women were visibly Muslim so were likely to be wearing some form of head-covering. Women were also more likely than men to suffer anti-Muslim attacks on public transport or when shopping. The vast majority of the perpetrators in these incidents were white men, motivated by stereotypes. So rather than being feared, it’s more likely that women wearing hijab might fear others.

Muslim women wear the hijab for many different reasons all of which can change over time. This applies if the wearer is a community activist, an Olympic athlete like Elghobashy, a PhD student, a mother of young children or some or all of these. Any assumption that society attaches to the veil will never be right for each individual wearer, and it is for that very reason that we need to start changing the way we view it.

The Conversation

Peter Hopkins, Professor of Social Geography, Newcastle University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

27 Responses

  1. This article seems pretty wide of the mark when it comes to the West’s criticism of the way women are treated by extremists.

  2. The first point of the article is not true…..

    When Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and human rights activist living in exile in Brooklyn, started her online campaign two years ago encouraging women in her home country to post photos of themselves in public without their headscarves, it was a powerful statement for gender equality.

    At great personal risk, thousands of Iranian women have defied the law and removed their hijabs in defiance.

    link to

    • such women are doing a bad job in trying to sharpen the clash of civilization and many like Salman Rushdie have been doing this because they get a tremendous support in the West and potentially become powerful political participants and aim for designations in the future political set up

      There are intellectual mercenaries in all nations and cultures

  3. Jabbermonkey

    Agree with everything but one point. Choosing to accept an oppressive thing is not the same as absence of oppression.

  4. While one can expect an Islamophile blog such as Informed Comment, it’s still saddens me to see apologetic articles perpetuating half- and non-truths alike.

    1. Women are not forced to wear hijabs

    While certainly true that not all woman are forced to wear hijabs all the time, a blanket statement like this is just plain wrong. Many women ARE very much forced to wear hijabs, just like many not wearing them are scorned and insulted on a daily basis.

    2. You’re not sexually oppressed

    So it seems these women try and prove their independence by adhering to the tenets of an inherently patriarchal system. As the authors states, wearing the hijab gives them ‘more space to engage in activities’. That also means that not wearing it gives them less space. If that is not the very definition of oppression I don’t know what is.

    3. You’re not more likely to be linked to terrorism

    The only factually accurate statement in this article.
    I do take issue with the media anti-muslim bias, which is far from a one-sided deal. Pro-Muslim apologists are still widely represented, Muslim criminal names are altered or withheld to prevent increasing communal tensions, and one needs only one glance at viral pictures and the subsequent outpour of (symbolic) support to see that these are not al all anti-Muslim in their entirety, in fact quite the opposite.

    4. It’s not a ‘West versus rest’ division

    With great sorrow I would refer the author to the many online Muslim communities, especially those based in W-Europe. Reading these forums where one is granted the freedom to voice his or her concerns without any fear of repercussion, it is very much a tale of ‘the West vs the Rest’. I wish it wasn’t so, but I have simply read too many posts perpetuating this very emotion to be convinced that it isn’t a widespread sentiment in the Muslim community living in the West.

    Also, the fact that capitalism is jumping on the opportunity to make money of Islamic dress does not in any way, shape of form indicate an inherent relationship or compatibility between the two. To the contrary, it is beyond ironic that only faith in money and greed seems able to transcend borders and communities, and that capitalism is easily able to overcome even those vehemently opposed to it.

    5. The hijab is not something to be feared

    It is, for me and many others, a symbol of a religious and political system based in make-belief, archaic assumptions, the subjugation of the individual to a cult claiming to have all the answers.

    That being said, I vehemently oppose the ban of the veil in any form. We should garantuee the freedom for anyone to wear whatever they choose. Furthermore, one cannot ‘ban the veil’, one can only ban veiled woman from participating in society outside their own community.

    But with this freedom comes our right to question, criticise, and deride the motives that come with the choice of following ancient rites and rituals, such as covering one’s body to shield herself from predatory glances.

    I hope to grow old in a secular Europe, a continent where people can shake off their superstitions both old and new and contribute to a society that points to a moldable and inclusive future, not to a dividing past set in stone.

    Everytime I see a veil, I’m reminded we’re not quite there yet.

    • I am happy to grow old in multi-cultural Peru, where indigenous people in high Andes and the Amazonian lowlands can wear traditional clothes if they wish to (or not). And I come from a country – the US – founded by people who fled Europe seeking freedom to practice their religion. Being ‘secular’ is a belief system as any other and I am sorry you cannot see that. Because if you can’t, you are not truly free and cannot grant the people around you true freedom and respect.

      • Having spent many years in Latin America, I can surmise that your happiness in growing old in multi-cultural Peru is a function of your European ethnic heritage. Peru is “multi-cultural” only in the sense that there are those of European (primarily Spanish) heritage and indigenous Indian heritage living within the same borders. Peru has one of the most stratified divisions separating those of European descent and those of Indian descent in the world. Were you one of the Indians living in either the Andean highlands or the Amazonian lowlands, you would most certainly not be enjoying the life you now lead, wearing traditional clothes notwithstanding.

        Consider that until very recently the statue standing in Lima’s Plaza de Armas was of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conqueror of the Incas. compare that to Mexico’s much more accepting response to its Indian heritage, exemplified by the statue of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, in Mexico City’s Zocalo.

        That Peru allows its Indian population to wear traditional clothes is nice, but more importantly it helps to keep them in their place. In America we allow our Indian population to wear traditional clothes as well. All you have to do is visit the Navajo and Hopi in Arizona to appreciate that. But that does not mean they have been “multi-culturally” accepted by the larger society. We have, however, done a better job of it than has Peru.

      • A secular society is the only way to truly garantuee freedom of religion. In fact, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention god or gods anywhere, and guarantees Freedom of Religion (which definitely includes freedom from religion) in The Bill of Rights.
        It is, in essence, a godless constitution and you should be proud of that.

        I also don’t see why you seem to think you disagree with me in saying that indigenous people should be allowed to wear traditional clothing, since that is my viewpoint as well. This is why I expressly said I fully oppose the ban on the veil.

        But whenever I see traditional garment, I’m reminded that for many of us, finding an identity seems only possible through common fantasy or history with a but tiny fraction of the human race. And this saddens me enormously.

    • How many women Heads of States that Muslim nations had had before the great empire Amarikiya has been considering giving an opportunity in 2017 to the lesser evil, sure people know Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Indonesia, Kosovo and so on

      There is a strong generalisation in the views of mostly western based apologetics

      The ideas of captainship has been forcefully amplified by Prophet Muhammad as follows.

      Abdullah ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said,

      “Every one of you ( both male and female)is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock.
      The leader of people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects.
      A man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them.
      A woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children and she is responsible for them.
      The servant of a man is a guardian of the property of his master and he is responsible for it.
      No doubt, every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock.”

      Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6719, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1829

      These ideas have been wrongly abused in some tribal and less progressive societies and many authors like you heavily misinterpret it

      Did any religion 1 400 years ago give the woman the right to divorce or inherit parental properties
      Islam was the only religion

  5. How about societal pressure? In many areas in Egypt, girls get the constant message that if they don’t wear hejab they are infidels. You are very simplistic in your explantions.

    • Male dominance and women’s rights are two different issues.

      Male dominance is against the shariah law but a Muslim woman’s garments fall within the Quranic laws.

      Islam gave more rights to women 1400 years ago, more rights than any other culture then.

      It was Islam that gave the women the right to divorce her husband 1400 years ago. There is no need to confuse both.

      Forty five years ago (1970s) the male domination was greater for instance in South and South East Asia among all religious groups including Muslims.

      But 45 years ago fewer educated ladies were using even head scarves.

      But now in Malaysia alone for instance the University male female ratio is 50:50.

      More women get liberated, more educated but at the same time more educated women wear head scarves, far more than 45 years ago.

      This indicates an Islamic revival, initiated by the organised state terrorist and aggressive policies of the West, supporting the oppressive dictators and monarchs and un-democratic regimes throughout the Muslim world,


  6. From what I have seen, it seems that the real point of the hijab nowadays is to serve as a cell phone holder. It’s the perfect place to place a cell phone for hands-free conversation.

  7. Two points:
    The hijab is not a veil. Veils cover the face. Since until recently the habits of Roman Catholic women religious (nuns) included a covering much like the hijab, there must be a more appropriate English word than ‘veil’.

    Along with everything else, the hijab functions as a voluntary self-identification as a Muslim woman, much as the skull-cap (kippe) does for Jewish men.

  8. Here is a sixth myth that the author seems to believe, that the Hijab is equivalent to the “Muslim Veil.” The Hijab covers the hair and ears, leaving the face exposed. The veil, such as the niqab, covers everything except the eyes. One wonders where the author learned about Islam?

  9. People should be free to wear what they choose. I distrust this author because he says things like, “research shows and British research shows” without backing it up with links.

    I’ve visited the middle east and I’ve talked to people about this custom and it is an Arab custom that predates Islam. Most men I talked to say they would not want to marry a woman who does not use the cover-up because she is perceived as impure and purity is very important for Muslim men.

    How would you feel wearing all black, with only your eyes exposed in 120 degree weather, Muslim guys? I wonder how many women die of heat stroke in Saudi Arabia? Any research on that?

    Mohammad never said to do that! He was very progressive for his day. He married an older woman with a very successful business and he loved an respected her very much. I imagine he wouldn’t care if someone saw her hair or neck while she was conducting business.

    • From my reading and classes, I believe many of the customs, traditions, etc that the Western media labels as Islamic are – as you said – pre-Islamic tribal traditions. I don’t think Americans have any idea of what pre-Islamic history in context of Arabia, Iran and other Middle Eastern nations. They read about Cyrus in the Bible, but don’t link him up to pre-Islamic culture in the Middle East.

  10. “No girl or woman is forced to wear it”

    Not true. In some countries (examples: Iran, and also non-foreigner women in Saudi Arabia), wearing a hijab is required of all women, even non-Muslims in Iran. So of course, some women (millions in fact) are required to wear it. Many would wear it voluntarily of course, but some would not.

  11. Four groups of Muslim women on this issue: 1) My reading of the Quran says it is required; 2) My reading of the Quran says this is a choice, I choose to wear it; 3) My reading of the Quran says this is a choice, I choose not to wear it; 4) I had never read the Quran. . .someone else tells me it is required. For all four groups of women (and I am in one of those groups) we’d like to say loud and clear, “GET OVER IT.” What we wear on our heads has little to do with who we are as women. . . what are our issues are. . . what drives out lives on a day-to-day basis.

    • Distinction between Islamic and ‘Western’ cultures is highly problematic

      But we see it in practice throughout the world.

      Compare the statistics on divorce rate in Europe, USA and in Muslim nations for instance

      Can we morally judge divorce?

      Would we say that the cause of divorce has no moral angle to it?

      Children are brought up with far better discipline when the parents both take care of them but children tend to go wrong ways when more often in broken families.

      Men and women have separate roles- that is part of an approach towards gender inequality in a sense.

      But child rearing and caring is not biologically determined

      Child rearing and caring when they are babies are more biologically related to the mother due to breast feeding for example.

      Equal opportunities to all is true, but it is equally true that men get more under a certain circumstances and a women get more under a certain circumstances.

      Women’s bodies, their sexuality, etc. is their own choice and no body should have a right to tell them what to do with those personal aspects of their life That includes veils by Muslim women .

      By all means the West can have its freedom and it is up to the women to follow a certain traditional, scriptural laws or ignore them them as they do in the West

      A culture gets destroyed not by wars but by loose sex morality

  12. The comments this time are as interesting as the article! I found that in the US and Canada wearing of the hijab was very often a personal choice. I was told the same by the Indonesian women I talked to. They told me it was a decision between them and God. In the US, Amish women must cover their hair and there are no protests on their behalf. In general, I agree with Audrey: ‘Get over it already’! Do you really not have more serious problems to fix in your own societies?

  13. Apparently Professor Hopkins has not been to Iran since 1979. Try wearing a headscarf there in the heat of summer where it is the law. I’ve done it. I might take your writing seriously if you were forced to cover your head.

  14. Absolute gender equality is a myth Many who support gender equality in their personal life know they are bluffing

    Any man made system or organisation can’t sustain itself within normal functioning if it has two person at helm having same powers , same duties and same rights.

    Can you imagine a country with two prime ministers or presidents, an army with two chiefs , a company with two CEOs, a film with two directors, a team with two captains ? …..

    it is against human nature and a clash is inevitable. As there are proverbs that there can’t be to lions in same jungle ….or there can’t be two swords in a single scabbard.

    Same applies to a couple in marital relation, equality can’t be in form of absolute identicality, no doubt there is a need for mutual trust and respect but only that is not enough , certainly one should have a slight edge over the other in decision making over crucial matters and slight differences in duties , rights and powers.

    Islam took human psychology, anatomy, physiology everything into account for its all rules relating to all aspects of human life.

    While West , secularists, atheists and rationalists failed to realise this very basic fact of life while postulating attractive looking (on face value) slogan of absolute GENDER EQUALITY in every matter.

    Results of which we can see in western societies in statistical terms mainly in form of promiscuity, crumbling family structures, very high divorce rates, teenage pregnancies, drug addictions, single mothers, moral degradation of society, high incidances of sexual offences, live in relations , psychiatric illnesses etc.

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