Hijab vs. no hijab
Women are expected to remain covered under most interpretations of Islamic teachings, so should visitors abide by the same custom?

When non-Muslim women travel to majority-Islamic countries, it’s fairly common for them to don a hijab, in line with local customs (and in some cases, laws). But is that the right approach? Should Western women cover their heads in foreign lands, or instead let their locks fly free?

It’s been a question of hot debate – fueled further by the current political climate and several high-profile incidents in which Western female leaders have decided to cover up while on diplomatic trips.

Why Wear the Hijab?

Those in favor insist that wearing a hijab in Muslim countries is a sign of respect for the culture. Women are expected to remain covered under most interpretations of Islamic teachings, so it’s only reasonable that visitors abide by those same customs, right?

Certain advocates of this view go a step further, insisting that not only is it respectful, but it’s also a necessary step to combat anti-Muslim bigotry back home. In their eyes, to wear a hijab is to stand in solidarity with Muslim women forced to deal with prejudice in Western countries due to their skin color and religious beliefs.

So in fact, they argue, putting on a headscarf is actually an empowering act. This rejection of Islamophobia – even at the expense of women’s freedom of dress – is an outgrowth of the belief that true feminism must be intersectional.

Woman wearing black hijab

Is the Hijab Feminist – or Oppressive?

However, there exists a vocal (and defiant) opposition to this view. Critics of the pro-hijab movement insist that wearing a hijab to “show solidarity” with Muslim women does no such thing. In fact, they say, the only people it serves to empower are male oppressors because it reinforces the idea that women must be subservient. In that sense, the hijab is a literal symbol of the patriarchy.

In many Muslim countries, women are forbidden from leaving the house with their head uncovered (and sometimes their faces, too), lest they accidentally attract the attention of lustful men. These laws were created by men, are enforced largely by men, and only apply to women. Punishment for disobeying is notoriously severe.

Among those countries is Iran, which has recently been rocked by cries for social change. Amnesty International estimates more than 7,000 protestors were arrested in 2018, a crackdown which has included students, journalists, environmental activists, factory workers, lawyers and women’s rights activists.

One of the changes activists are demanding? Eliminating mandatory hijab laws.

Adding Insult to Injury

Masih Alinejad is the founder of White Wednesdays, a movement that has encouraged many Iranian women to shed their headscarves in protest – consequences be damned. Not only does Alinejad think women should visit Iran uncovered, she says it’s “insulting” to see foreigners supporting the same discriminatory law she’s been working tirelessly to overturn.

The activist doesn’t mince words when it comes to this contradiction. “Iranian women, they fight against the compulsory hijab and they are alone, they are on their own,” she said. Here is Alinejad giving a speech expressing her frustration on the issue:

Feminism for Me, but Not for Thee

Alinejad was particularly upset by an incident involving Swedish politicians that she claims shows a clear double standard in how Muslim women are treated by the West. It all started when eight female politicians in Sweden took a picture at the signing of a climate change law to mock a similar photo taken of President Trump’s male-heavy administration. But just weeks later, Swedish trade minister Ann Linde and other members of the government made headlines by wearing headscarves on a visit to Iran. 

“I was like, I love this picture, it’s a good way to criticise a male-dominated Cabinet. But what happened, the same feminists went to Iran. The same ministers in Iran, they obeyed compulsory hijab laws in front of the President. I said to myself, when it comes to America, they are trying to say men and women are equal. But when it comes to [Iran] they are trying to send another message, that men are more equal than women.”

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern put on a headscarf as an act of solidarity after the Christchurch shooting.

A similar thing happened in New Zealand.

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (who is not Muslim) chose to wear a headscarf to a memorial ceremony. Ms. Alinejad praised the prime minister’s “compassion” for the Muslim community, but she said it “broke her heart” to see a world leader wearing a hijab. “I also felt that you are using one of the most visible symbols of oppression for Muslim women in many countries for solidarity. Let me be clear with you: calling a discriminatory law a part of our culture – this is an insult to a nation.”  

Navigating Muddy Waters

Social justice advocates obviously are walking a very fine line here. On the one hand, they want to be culturally sensitive to the Muslim way of life and help to root out Islamophobia in the West. On the other hand, they face pressure to condemn the oppression of women in all forms – or risk being labeled hypocrites.

However, critics continue to argue that promoting the hijab necessarily requires looking the other way on women’s rights and autonomy. Isn’t there a middle ground to be found here? Shouldn’t it be possible to support freedom of religion and also support women’s rights?

Part of the issue, perhaps, is that Muslim culture and religion are so closely tied. If Islam instructs its followers to keep women covered up, the government institutes laws based on those teachings, and then head coverings become an enforced cultural norm, the lines between culture and faith quickly become blurry.

What do you think? Is it possible to target just the religious ideas for criticism? Or does pointing out oppressive aspects of the hijab automatically equate to an attack on Muslim culture and its people?

44 comments

  1. James Mounts says:

    When Islamic women start removing them in the United States, then by all means American women should return the courtesy when in Islamic countries, but don’t hold your breath.

    1. Kathryn says:

      Is sensitivity to another’s culture becoming a one way street?
      When in Morocco, I wore a headscarf and dressed conservatively out of respect for their customs. The concept of women as “less than” in religious dominated countries is offensive, but I was a guest there and did not want to cause any difficulty. When observing a Moslem woman covered by a headscarf or burka in the United States, I am offended. I would never confront her or treat her with less politeness than anyone else, but nevertheless less it offends deeply my sense of fairness and knowledge of the feminist history still being written here. The idea of covering women so as not to attract lustful men is putting the onus on females for the actions of men. If males are unable to control themselves, shouldn’t they be the ones considered the inferior sex?
      As for the concept of wearing the headscarf as a feminist statement….ridiculous.

    2. Loren J Fay says:

      So your morality is dependent on someone else’s ?

      1. James Mounts says:

        It most certainly is NOT dependent upon a piece of silk.

    3. Diana Lee McAnsh says:

      Respect for people’s culture should be a given when travelling. We hear of tourists who don’t know the cultures, customs or laws of other countries who get into trouble. Claiming they didn’t know is no excuse. When traveling it would make sense for men and women to dress modestly. Read one women’s opinion for being covered she said it freed her, she could go anywhere and not be victimized by unwanted attention from men.

  2. ET says:

    The old saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” seems reasonable to me. If one doesn’t want to do so, perhaps one should refrain from entering “Rome”. Maybe safer to criticize in one’s own country what one doesn’t like about a particular custom in another country.

    1. Marisa Nova says:

      100% correct, my same thoughts.

    2. Mr Lister says:

      In Rome it was custom to throw persons unarmed into a pit of lions. Would you do that too?

    3. Bill says:

      Rome sucked, the world is better because it was opposed.

  3. JASON D BENDER says:

    Islam SUCKS! even more than Christianity does!

  4. Dan Anderson says:

    Wearing hijab is neither opressive nor feminist. It is respecting the culture which practices such an issue.

    1. Tuk says:

      Why not control the “lustful men” and let women have a bit more personal freefom… if the want it.

      It’s funny that their bible allows rape, child marriages, female disfigurement, and many more back word attitudes to prevail in today’s world.

      I don’t think we as a people are Islamophobic; we just don’t feel that man should have such control over women. It’s like the comic caveman dragging a female by her hair with a large club over his shoulder — it belongs to history.

    2. Randall Worcester says:

      You obviously don’t know why they are forced, and they are forced, to wear those ridiculous clothes.
      Islam states “if a MAN sees a woman’s skin, he might not be able to control his urge to RAPE HER”.
      Making RAPE the fault of the woman!
      Women who are RAPED are subject to STONING or other severe punishment!
      The Rapist goes free!
      That’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of!

      1. Lori M says:

        In the Court of law, this is called, “hear say!” I am not defending Islam what so ever. It’s just sad to hear things that are heard but not studied about and/or done any research on. You seem to be smart. I hope you read about a subject before you judge. It will do you good if you take some time and read. Also, if you read, hejab is in Judaism, Christianity, and some other religions like Sikh. When you go to Churches, Synagogues, and Temples, you will see ladies cover their hair. If you read more, you will learn that men should cover their head and dress modestly as well. At the end, I believe, all these should be women’s and men’s choices. No one has the right to force others to dress in a certain way. History has proved that men have been victims of women’s lust as well like the story of Joseph, the prophet, in the Egypt palace. This is only one example that most people know about. Of course, women have been more victimized and hurt by men. Please let’s read more and educate ourselves better. This is indeed a reminder to myself. By no means I meant to insult anyone. Awareness, fighting against ignorance, stop judging one another with no knowledge about them, and getting rid of prejudices are the best prescriptions to most of our today’s social problems and conflicts. One more thing, FYI, if you read the history of Iran, long long time ago, hejab was a sign of royalty and women in palaces were supposed to cover their hear to show they are royal. Their maids were not allowed to have hejab. I hope you find this interesting. With LOVE for humanity, freedom, justice, and awareness!!!

  5. Dan Anderson says:

    Jason – So, why do you think “Islam sucks!”??? Please be specific. (Methinks you do not understand it, but then again, I could be wrong. Educate me, please.)

  6. Howard Pippin says:

    Why would any Christian woman want to visit a Muslim country where they would have very few rights? By the same token, why would any Christian man want to do so either? Such things defy common sense.

    1. NV says:

      There are a lot of Christians living in Iran actually. The Christians have all of the same rights that the Muslims do. I’m Iranian and Christian. That’s how I know. I also lived there.

    2. Carl Elfstrom says:

      There are many self – defeatists in this world. It’s a common character defect of alcoholics and addicts. And some people forget yo leave their masochistic tendencies in the bedroom.

  7. Guairdean says:

    If a woman freely chooses to wear the hijab as a sign of reverence and faith, it is right and proper. If it is worn out of fear, it is oppressive and should be fought against and renounced the world over.

  8. Tom B says:

    Respectfully…the ULC stands for equality…Islam does not stand for equality, so it should not be supported until it changes…Peace…Tom

  9. Lionheart says:

    Would I wear a yarmulke if I visited Israel, no. End of story!

    1. Carl Elfstrom says:

      I’d wear a beanie in a synagogue if I went to one, to try to fit in. So far I’ve been to one jewish memorial service, one Passover, and one Bar mitzvah. It’s called going with the flow, and is not a bad way to be. It can also be far less painful, in some cases.

  10. Alvin Jones says:

    Follow the laws of the land! Amen

  11. Secretary3rd says:

    It is required. Because not to wear one you are seen as a whore. Rape is common.
    If your Amish then the females wear head coverings. Sign of pride.
    There was a African dance group dancing in America in New York where the women were bare chested as they dance. When question about it as distasteful the comment back was. If they cover their bodies to American standards then when American dance companies come to their country the female dancers need to be bare chested.
    They performed bare chested.

  12. Secretary3rd says:

    The rules are simple do as in Rome as Romans do.If you never been to The Kingdom all women wear the hijab. Simple.

  13. Tom says:

    When it comes to Islamic issues, ULC moderators like to censor anything critical of Islam but I’ll give it a try: I can’t understand why anyone would want to go anywhere they would be oppressed especially women coming from a country where they are treated as equal and in some cases superior to men so much so that you have men scrambling to become women. Dan, to answer for Jason as to why “Islam sucks”, maybe because women are treated like American blacks were prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is illegal for them to drive a car, they are segregated when standing in line at Starbucks, they need Male escorts to go anywhere, and don’t get me started about rape. If an American woman wants to experience an Islamic country so bad, pay some kids to throw rocks at her head.

    1. Abe says:

      Wow. There is a lot of confused logic in this. As well as some unfunny jokes about gender and violence. Tolerance is supposed to be the ruling principle here. Your post projects the opposite.

      1. Gary says:

        You can’t be tolerant with people that want to kill you.

  14. Ben says:

    I say, that American women should avoid Muslim nations for safety’s sake. But if they insist on going, then the should follow the law of the land, for there is no mercy for women over there.

  15. Alicia says:

    I don’t think anyone should be forced to do anything they don’t believe in. I’m not Muslim, so I would NOT wear a hijab.

    For those commenting “When in Rome…..”, think about this: We are in the US. Muslim women walk around wearing the hijab and even full burqas. Are they practicing “When in Rome….”?

    I do agree with another commentor here: American woman, if they refuse to abide by the customs of the country, they shouldn’t go. It’s brutal there! Years ago, I visited Algiers. I was an American teenager (the only one in the group), 14 years old. We took a flight from Mallorca, traveling with a group. Being an American teenager, my “uniform” was jeans and t-shirt. When we got off the plane, we all got on a bus to the city. As soon as I got off the bus, a crowd gathered. People were screaming at me as they followed us down the street. Our tour guide tried to defuse the situation, but no matter what he said, nothing worked. We were followed for blocks! The authorities were called in and FINALLY, the tour guide told me that the reason for all the fuss was my jeans! I had to go into a shop and buy something more “appropriate” to wear. I spent the rest of the day being uncomfortable in head-to-toe black flowing garb. I’d hate to think if I wore a mini-skirt!!! Never again.

  16. Gerardo Defendini says:

    Here is my take. Respect is a two way street.
    The person has to have respect for the country AND the country has to respect the visitor.

    A visitor respect: In certain parts of the world it is lawful for females, for example, to wear no clothing at all on top. When they travel to U.S., they don’t do that. That is respect from the traveler to the country they visit.

    As far as the country respecting the traveler (with reason) I’ll say this.
    When visiting Israel, you are not required to wear a yarmulke. When visiting India, you are not required to wear a Saree or a Turban. In U.S. the largest religion is Christian. No one is required to wear a cross.

    What is different about most Islam countries is that you are required by law to wear a Hijab or a Chador. There is no separation of law and religion on these matters and many others. I find this intolerant of them.

    However, you have a choice.If you don’t agree, don’t go. If you go, follow the law.

    Personally speaking, intolerant places that place these restrictions on travelers are hurting no one but themselves and I really don’t have any desire to visit them.
    Specially knowing that most of these regulations are detrimental specifically to women.

  17. T'Keren Valmaz says:

    First of this isnt about the pride of a woman in thier faith. women there are so indoctrinated from birth that there is no concept of choice or free will for them. This therefore means that it is wrong to dress based on any set of rules. a persons clothing should always be about personal representation. That is why even back in my youth when things like gay bashing was more then rule and norm then tolerance I still never saw issue with cross dressing men. Nor have I ever seen those taking part in the various punk styles as anything other then people doing what all people should be doing, dressing as you want to dress,

    That said I have no issue with uniform dress codes in places of work and study. If countries want tourist dollars and to be respected by the world wide community then they must learn to stop trying to push such things on visitors.

    Frankly I feel all people simply need to set aside ancient archaic rules and views, Either seek a modern path for an ancient faith and adapt to the times or set aside those views altogether. Culture like all else must evolve and adapt or perish as is right.

    I have known several women that practice a modern version of the islamic faith. shedding the garb and many or the rules, most of them have also shed the idea of a formal place of worship and prefer isolated natural settings to put down their mat to pray towards mecca.

    Such things I view as good and right. While I recall a woman who converted to islam and traveled to their holy city for the big pilgramage who after her return gave up that faith because she said even being as close as she was to the source, the way women were treated made her feel farther from her faith then ever and she wept as she said it.

    I suspect very few women raised in harsh islamic traditions has much real faith, what they have is fear.

  18. Rev. Fulton L. Arrington says:

    The headscarf is an obvious example of patriarchal oppression, in my opinion. I would never willingly visit a country where my wife had to cover her hair. I say damn the dishrag and damnation to the oppression it represents.

  19. Marisa Nova says:

    I have to shake my head here in Chicago, whenever I see a woman dressed head-to-toe in black, full eye makeup, wearing heels, talking on her cell phone, driving her SUV, louder on the street compared to non-Muslims…

  20. Mike Burton says:

    The practice grows out of the necessity religions have to express their faith through symbols, be they objects or words. In every case these objects are used by the religions to not just express aspects of their faith, but as a means of control. Why it is necessary to express one’s personal beliefs by giving god a name and a corporate structure, draped in symbols escapes me.

  21. Oldaabill says:

    There are many aspects of secular life that are not compatible with moderate and fundamentalist Islam. Islam is tolerant of other ideas when they are in the minority. When in Islam do as the Muslims do.

  22. A druid says:

    We are americans. It is among our core beliefs that religion is a personal choice.This is not the case in most of the world.
    Every year many americans come to grief believing that american freedoms are ours to enjoy in foreign countries. They are not. We are subject to the local laws and customs of places we visit. When we violate local customs we are rude. When we violate local laws we are criminals.
    It is not our business to dictate that the rest of the world become american.
    They may not wish to.
    Just an observation.

    1. Tom B says:

      A druid…and a reasonable observation it is…Peace… Tom B

  23. Rev Ned says:

    I think the only correct answer to the question of “Is the hijab a sign of religious freedom or of women’s oppression?” is “Yes”.

  24. Rev bob says:

    The “when in Rome” viewpoint concerning this issue does not have validity as far as I believe. Years ago when I was traveling more and in another occupation we’d see Islamic families visiting for official state department functions and as soon as the women, wives and daughters, hit US soil the hijab and conservative clothes were immediately replaced with high end designer clothing and extremely tasteful application of make up and modern hair styling.

    Back home in their countries it was a severe penalty of church police caught them not wearing traditional garb or out alone, even to the point of public stoning to death as late as the 80’s it still might be. Women in most middle east nation states are subserviant and literal slaves to their fathers and later to the husbands, who hold life and death power over them under the law. Girls are regulary sold as wives or slaves in that part of the globe. Iran and Egypt were among the most stylish and modern nations in the world, frequented by ultra rich, until their respective revolutions and those who could not attain sanctuary in the West were forced back into the middle ages lifestyle under Shirha law. To westerners who approve of it or say it is respect for culture, well those feminists should then adopt midevil modes of dress for themselves when women in the West were held captive in households and castles as beasts of burdon and consorts, the Catholic Church had them dress like certain of the nun orders still do, with the penquin look. To say otherwise or deny it is to demonstrate ignorance of modern history and religious tradition.

  25. Michelle Swenson says:

    The Jews in Nazi Germany had to wear badges to identify them. The German government’s policy of forcing Jews to wear identifying badges was but one of many psychological tactics aimed at isolating and dehumanizing the Jews of Europe, directly marking them as being different (i.e., inferior). I feel that the practice of a headscarf is no different. It’s a way to dehumanizing women.

    1. Tom B says:

      Michelle…good analogy…Peace…Tom B

  26. Angel says:

    Yes! their country, their rules!

  27. Rev Ned says:

    I believe that the only correct answer to the question “Is the hijab a sign of religious freedom or a sign of women’s oppression?” is “yes!”.

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