Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Hijab: A Religious Symbol and a Tool for Discrimination

The Hijab
A Lebanese woman plays in water on a beach in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre. Benjamin CREMEL / AFP

Dana Hourany

Aya*, a 20-year-old student and activist from one of the Arab Gulf states, worries that if the authorities learn that she has been vocal about oppression and persecution in her country, there could be serious consequences.

“The governments of the Gulf believe that women already have their full rights and do not require advocacy. Ironically, we don’t even have a say when it comes to wearing the headscarf,” Aya, whose name has been changed, told Fanack.

Despite the fact that Islam is widely practiced in the MENA area, groups and cultures take different approaches; some have made the hijab a legal requirement, while others have made it a social norm, and others disapprove of women who wear it.

For some Muslim women, wearing the hijab is a way of demonstrating their faith and devotion to God. Quranic texts instruct both women and men to be modest in their behavior and dress but do not explicitly mention the headscarf.

The original philosophy behind the hijab is to partition or to veil one’s senses “from anything that may lessen one’s innocence.”

Headscarves and veils are not strictly Islamic. Though less common, Christianity and Judaism still place high value on head coverings in modern society.

Though an instrument for modesty, the hijab can be perceived as a tool to foment injustice and inequality when it is enforced, especially on women in the region who are already subject to both.

Mandatory by law and culture

In the years that followed the Islamic revolution, Iran implemented a regulation requiring all Muslim women to cover their heads in public. The law is still in effect despite protests and public outrage, and individuals who have resisted or rebelled have been prosecuted.

The last few years have seen a wave of women removing their veils in the capital Tehran and putting themselves at risk of familial exclusion and imprisonment.

As for Iraq, while the hijab law has received less criticism than it has in Iran, it is nonetheless enforced with the same rigor, and perhaps more so in the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

In Saudi Arabia, it is legally required for women to be fully covered, however the country’s crown prince and de-facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, announced in 2018 that the black abaya and headscarf, which are traditional for women in the Gulf, are no longer required as long as women are dressed modestly in public.

“The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear,” Prince Mohammed said in his first US television appearance.

According to Aya, these “meager indications of development are a far cry from the standard of living that Gulf women desire.”

The student, who maintains a low profile in her activism for women’s and human rights, claims that the hijab, in all of its variations, may be uncomfortable to wear and can result in severe emotional distress when women and girls are unable to even consider the possibility of going without it.

“Communities will not regard you as a ‘local’ if you are not wearing the abaya. You are made to feel like an outcast degenerate who is ruining the name of the family and is no longer exhibiting traits of chastity and purity,” Aya explained.

In the Gulf, the hijab may protect women from social exclusion and promote their acceptability; nevertheless, in other nations, it could have the exact opposite impact.

Choosing your battles

Earlier this year, a pop-up store at a well-known mall in Beirut claimed that the management of the mall had instructed it to fire a worker for donning the hijab.

The mall management disclosed in a statement that their internal policy “forbids all religious public displays and symbolic items/accessories” in response to strong public outrage.

Fawzia Jaffan, an activist and photographer, told Fanack that this was an obvious sign of Islamophobia and that it perpetuated injustice in the workplace.

“You have to work twice as hard when you’re a hijabi in a diverse nation like Lebanon, where there are 18 sects, since people only perceive you for your religious affiliation and not for who you are as a person,” Jaffan said.

She describes how recruiting managers at theater and marketing agencies told her they were making an exception for her since as a hijabi applicant she “looked different” and “cooler” than the others.

Breaking gender stereotypes for hijabis means that they are constantly shunned for smoking, partying, and partaking in non-traditional careers such as singing and acting, Jaffan points out.

Jaffan contends that wearing the headscarf is liberating; it reinforces her religion and symbolizes her values. This is true despite the criticism she encounters for being “too religious” or “not religious enough.”

However, the headscarf could be “exploited by racists in society to discriminate against women who wear it.”

Hijab used to identify and classify

Women who wear the hijab or niqab, in a more traditional manner can be subjected to unsolicited opinions and/or ill treatment, according to Jamila Khodor of the Lebanese feminist NGO Fe-Male. Women wearing the hijab in a “non-stylish” manner can be looked down on, Khodor added.

“Unveiled women are prioritized by business owners who employ women as a marketing tool to promote their businesses. This is particularly the case in the age of social media where image is everything,” Khodor said.

“Veiled women are viewed as less attractive by marketers because the focus is on a woman’s outward appearance. It caters to the male gaze,” Khodor added.

In Lebanon, hijabi women have limited job offers and can be subjected to discriminatory remarks in higher institutions. Similarly, in Egypt, the headscarf is barred for faculty members at the American University of Cairo and Cairo University.

Many women turn to starting their own enterprises as a response to the scarce employment opportunities. For example, in the southern suburbs of Beirut (Dahye), a Shi’ite-dominated area, Muslim hijabi women are visible in the workforce. They run beauty salons, clothes shops, supermarkets, and many other businesses, Dahye resident Reem Reda told Fanack.

“Many have typical desk jobs, some in journalism, less so in PR jobs. But in strictly Islamic institutions, hijabis are prioritized,” Reda said.

The Western perception

“There is a thin line between what Middle Easterners consider to be ‘modern’ and what they deem to be ‘degenerate’. Women, whether veiled or not, shoulder the majority of the responsibility for upholding their families’ honor,” according to Khodor.

On the flip side, women are placed at the heart of Islamophobic campaigns in some Western circles, especially where the headscarf is seen as fundamentally repressive. With this strategy, Western leaders like former US first lady Laura Bush and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, called for the liberation of Muslim women from the “confines of Islam”— stripping women of their agency and positioning Islam as a monolithic entity.

In Europe, 13 nations—Belgium (which has the most restrictions), Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and United Kingdom—restrict the wearing of Islamic attire by women in private firms and educational institutions.

Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and Romania are the only 6 countries in the European Union that do not impose any restrictions.

In the French city of Grenoble, a court has overturned a previous burkini ban, allowing women who don the modest swimwear access to public pools and shores.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he will challenge the court decision, declaring it “an unacceptable provocation.”

Though not ordained by any law on the matter, some beach resorts in Lebanon prohibit women from wearing burkinis. Some have even asked hijabis to leave their premises based on their “swimsuits only” policy. Such attitudes foster racism, according to Jaffan. She recalls going to the beach with her family during last summer’s Covid wave, only to be met with unwanted looks by a woman who continuously monitored their behavior and bombarded them with social distancing rules, despite the presence of other large crowds.

“We were the only family with hijabis so our religion was apparent. What was shocking to me, however, was the presence of couples cuddling and kissing, yet she chose to antagonize us,” Jaffan said.

“There are times when I want to quit when I see all this hatred against hijabis. Then I remember that we must remain empowered and resist being demoralized if we are to win the war,” Jaffan said.

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