Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/The Power of the Hijab

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The hijab is the universally recognised symbol for Islam. This garment is at the centre of many issues regarding gender, religion, socio-economic status, and security. A new movement in the Western world has now given the hijab a different powerful role: the trademark of modern feminism.

The Hijab through an anthropological lense[edit]

In Early Civilizations[edit]

Islam wasn´t the first religion to introduce the “veil” into Arab societies. It already existed in Hellenic, Judaic, Byzantine and Balkan cultures, for both genders. However, this piece of clothing was granted a distinct meaning in the Arab society. It originally wasn´t a piece of clothing exclusive for women. Turkish and Persian civilizations often represented Prophet Muhammad with his head covered in a white veil. This “veil” wasn't even the hijab. The hijab became the frequently used term when the headscarf became the centre of nationalist and feminist speeches in Egypt during Britain’s colonial rule. Only one of the Qur’an references to the hijab concerns women´s clothing. As much as religion commanded women to wear a veil, it didn't alienate them from society. In fact, women in Arabo-Islamic societies held important positions, playing a role in the religious and social life of the community. The veil was a reminder of God’s command and a metaphor for a sacred divide: according to the Qur’an, humans weren’t naked in their beginnings. It thus separated obedience and disobedience to God, mortal from immortal, earth from heaven.

Drawing of a hijab [1]

Prophet Muhammad's wives[edit]

The Prophet’s wives wore a veil, like the “verse of the veil”[2] describes: “[...] And when you ask of his wives anything, ask from behind a hijab. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts”[3]. Men had to ask permission to talk to the Prophet’s wives and if granted, it would be from behind a partition or curtain. The veil protected women from the behaviour of men, slaves of lust and desire. Given the position of the Prophet’s wives: “O wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women”[4], the separating aspect of the hijab cannot be restrained to just gender. It also separated wrongdoers from the righteous. This explains why women nowadays who wear the niqab feel more virtuous and dedicated to Islam than women who wear the hijab[5]. The Prophet’s wives were put in a particular position, regardless of their right to privacy: they were to go out only when necessary and avoid exhibitionist dresses. This pictures the restraining of Muslim women to one man only, a phenomenon embodied by the veil.

Socio-political view of the Hijab[edit]

The Hijab : a garment for patriarchal domination ?[edit]

Hijabs question the male-female relationship. It’s a sensitive subject to analyse as there are different opinions from a country to another.

For some, hijabs are used by men to dominate females, suppressing their femininity and sexual appeal. Feminists consider that wearing the hijab isn’t a free decision and is imposed by males to limit women’s roles to household tasks and the education of children. Therefore, females are excluded from the labor market with no economical role to play. It creates a financial dependency that strengthens the husband’s domination.

One feminist view concerning hijabs [6]

Others reject the idea that it represents a blind submission to men and religion but consider it a personal choice that reflects their values and their identity. They claim the freedom to dispose of their bodies and to dress as they wish. They defend a society where everyone can display distinctive signs without being excluded from economic and social life.[7]

The hijab issue reflects the differences between the French republican principles and the Anglo-Saxon liberal model.[8]

Two perceptions of the Hijab[edit]

In France, society is built around the principle of republican unity and secularism. Unity doesn’t accept plurality: society is built around the marginalisation of differences. The Hijab is viewed as a threat to social cohesion and has been forbidden by law in public spaces. When Decathlon launched in February 2019 its “running hijab”, it triggered a national heated debate. President Macron’s party spokesperson wrote: "Sport emancipates. It doesn’t submit. My choice as a woman and as a citizen will be to no longer trust a brand that doesn’t respect our values"[9]. The far-right called the runner’s hijab a “new intrusion of Islamic communitarianism in the public space”, while far- left-wing feminists declared “hijab's sole purpose is to prolong sexual apartheid”[10]. Initially Decathlon fired back, but ultimately removed it from the market.

So close yet so different, Great-Britain has another approach, considering society is a juxtaposition of communities with different values. Hijabs aren't forbidden in public spaces and diversity is considered as a social enrichment factor. Inclusion is largely promoted by social and political institutions. It’s commonly accepted for individuals to display their religious affiliation in public as it supports society’s cultural enrichment. Therefore, hijabs, kippahs, crosses, or any religious signs coexist in a relative harmony.

Social preconceptions and misconceptions regarding the Hijab[edit]

Cultural oppression behind a multicultural world[edit]

[11]We live in a multicultural world where issues concerning women’s rights are often linked with religion. Mainly, heads have turned to the muslim religion. Its sacred text indicates that women must be covered to preserve their purity. This may seem an oppressive measure in a highly patriarchal society. Therefore, headscarves have been negatively perceived in the Western world. The latter has built a social stigma around headscarves, especially after 9/11. This led to many integration problems: veiled women are less likely to find a job, to be able to send their children to schools, etc... Moreover, muslim communities are often segregated in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Feeling left-out, they've developed a sentiment of hate towards the governments.

As national security is becoming a priority in the Western world, governments have to choose between an integrated society or a supposedly bettered national security.

The American view of Islam has created many preconceptions of the culture, turning it into an object to fear and undermine. How many times have people associated muslims with “terrorists”? However, those uneducated cannot understand the reasons behind choosing to wear the hijab.

[12]The hijab allows you to build a stronger connection with your religion. Everyday, you are affirming your belief in God. In this multicultural world that is uniformizing, it is hard to maintain your cultural identity. The hijab is a mean to remember your roots and keep your identity.

Another feminist view concerning hijabs [13]

The Hijab: a form of feminism[edit]

[14]Nowadays, the hijab has become the symbol of a new feminism, many muslim women choose to veil themselves. In a world focused on appearances, covering yourself is a way to highlight your intellectual abilities, rejecting preconceptions based on your physique. Many women found that being veiled allowed them to have a voice in the political scene. Furthermore, the hijab projects a sense of modesty, a need to stay grounded and connected with your own culture and identity.

[15]Many muslim women disregard the idea of submission, and consider being veiled a personal choice that reflects their values. It grants them the freedom to dispose of their bodies and to freely dress themselves. They defend a society where distinctive signs are welcomed, without any form of exclusion.

Many western countries have prohibited the hijab, claiming it is a liability to national security. However, this creates ethnic prejudices that harden the process of national integration.


Islam relies on the subjugation of women on many levels, but the veil should not be seen as the perfect representation of it. It deprives women of their autonomy as much as it grants them power. Women who grew up in Western countries claim that it's their choice to wear the veil, as a protection in public settings. Nevertheless, there's an obvious hint of patriarchy in this religious obligation imposed on women – it marks their belonging to one man only. This asymmetry is the key of gender inequalities in Islam.

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  2. Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: modesty, privacy and resitance, "The Sacred in the Veil: "Hijab"", 1999, Oxford International Publishers Ltd
  3. Surah 33:53
  4. Surah 33:31
  5. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety - The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, "The subject of freedom", 2004, Princeton University Press
  6. My Hijab Doesn't Oppress Me, It Empowers Me [Internet]. HuffPost Canada. 2019 [cited 8 December 2019]. Available from:
  7. Boinet C. Pourquoi la question du voile divise-t-elle les féministes? [Internet]. Les Inrocks. 2019 [cited 8 April 2016]. Available from:
  8. Werner D. Le féminisme à l'épreuve du voile - Elle [Internet]. 2019 [cited 29 April 2016]. Available from:
  9. Couvelaire L. Decathlon renonce à vendre son « hidjab de running », sous la pression des réactions politiques et anonymes [Internet]. Le 2019 [cited 26 February 2019]. Available from:
  10. McAuley J. A hijab for Muslim runners ? In France, that's a scandal. [Internet]. The Washington Post. 2019 [cited 26 February 2019]. Available from:
  11. D. Lettinga. Framing the hijab. (accessed 15 November 2019).
  12. Bracke S. ‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’ Field Notes from the Multicultural Debate in: Religion and Gender Volume 2 Issue 1 (2012) [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Dec 6]. Available from:
  13. Parker O. HIJABI, FEMINIST & DAMN PROUD | Mayada [Internet]. Mayada. 2019 [cited 8 December 2019]. Available from:
  14. T. Dreher and C. Ho. Beyond the Hijab Debates . 1st ed. United Kingdom. Cambridge Scholars Publication; 2009
  15. Asifa Siraj (2011) Meanings of modesty and the hijab amongst Muslim women in Glasgow, Scotland, Gender, Place & Culture, 18:6, 716-731,