Signs of integration into the freedom of the veil

Zainab Chaudry, center, joins supporters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations at the United States Supreme Court. The group sued the Abercrombie & Fitch label for religious discrimination by refusing to hire her because she wore a headscarf, a symbol of her Muslim faith. (Photo: Getty Images / AFP)

The latest controversy over the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women, erupted at the end of October. Ironically, the trigger was an anti-discrimination campaign launched by the Council of Europe.

The council posted a short video on its social media that featured a series of images split in two. One side shows a woman wearing a hijab and the other shows the same woman without the headgear. At the end of the video, the text “Beauty is in diversity like freedom is in the hijab” appears, followed by the hashtags #celebratediversity and #JOYinHIJAB.

The video sparked an uproar in France, where government spokesman Gabriel Attal was quoted by the Financial Time as saying that “religious freedom should not be confused with the de facto promotion of a religious symbol”. Mr. Attal described the wearing of the hijab as an “identity” position “contrary to the freedom of conscience which France supports”. The French Minister of Youth and Sports, Sarah El Hairy, spoke out forcefully against the video and claimed the Council’s decision to withdraw it from circulation. Right-wing politicians such as Marine le Pen and Michel Barnier and prominent television experts have added their voices to criticism of the campaign.

France is not the only European country to restrict the wearing of the hijab. The influx of Muslim immigrants to Europe and the threat of violent Islamist groups have made Muslim minorities a target of hostility and discrimination, and the hijab has become a visual symbol of such tensions. Nine of the 27 EU Member States and the UK have legal restrictions on the veil; there have been legislative proposals to limit the practice to five more. In countries without national restrictions, some regions have independently decided to ban face coverings. There are only six EU countries – Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Portugal and Romania – where there has been no public debate so far on the veil restriction. .

Supporters of restrictive measures represent a wide range of views. Many liberal politicians, strong supporters of the secular state, view religion as a private matter to be kept out of sight. Some feminists regard the headscarf as a symbol of the patriarchal or religious oppression of women. But the most vocal supporters of the bans have been right-wing populist politicians who find it appropriate to hide their xenophobia behind arguments that have broader ideological appeal.

Amid all the demagoguery, little attention is paid to the perspectives of Muslim women. Sociologists have long predicted that modernization would lead to a decline in religiosity and therefore the use of religious symbols like the hijab. This prediction has been confirmed in Christian and Muslim societies, and as modernization increases, the frequency of wearing the veil generally decreases.

But there is a crucial nuance in the interplay between earlier levels of religiosity and modernization. For example, among highly religious Muslim women, the likelihood of wearing the hijab increases with women’s participation in modern social life, especially if they are young, educated, and single. This seems to be true not only in predominantly Muslim countries, but also where Muslims are in the minority, such as Belgium. The more Muslim women who identify as deeply religious associate with native Belgians, the more likely they are to wear the hijab. This trend is also observed in countries where religiosity remains high. For example, in Indonesia, the number of women who wear the hijab tends to increase with prosperity.

Studies show that most women do not wear the hijab due to pressure from their family or community. In fact, the practice is more prevalent among very religious women who, due to their employment status, education, income and political participation, should be relatively better prepared to withstand family pressures.

The veil seems to be not only an expression of religiosity, but also a strategic decision. Religious women appear to wear the hijab to reconcile their life outside the home with the social norms of their community. Adopting the hijab reassures their communities that their involvement in “riskier” secular lives away from home should not be interpreted as an opportunity to engage in behavior contrary to their religious norms. The hijab then signals the resisting piety of truly religious women against the dangers that modernization could pose to their reputation.

This understanding of the veil has implications for cultural policy. In Europe, the hijab could be a sign not of segregation, but of the integration of Muslims into society. As very religious Muslim women make more non-Muslim friends and move to neighborhoods where they are in the minority, they may choose to wear the hijab as a means of safeguarding their reputation as pious in the face of modernity. Banning certain forms of veiling would deprive these women of a choice that allows them more freedom, not less.

If the wearing of the hijab were banned, a woman who wanted to signal her piety and her decision to live up to the standards of her own community would be forced to seek alternatives that could be so burdensome that she decides to stay at home. This is likely not a desired outcome by many supporters of the ban.

All that is hidden behind the veil is not to be feared. The Council of Europe slogan is perhaps not far from the truth, which is perhaps surprising. There is certainly more “freedom in the hijab” than there would be by forbidding it.© 2021 Project union


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