But You Need to Wear a Hijab Over There, Right?

The other night I was sitting with a French couple in their 50s and we came to talk about the ban on religious symbols in France. The couple, who I would say are very openminded and also has a son-in-law who’s Muslim, defended the ban and claimed that it was an equal ban for all religions. I don’t agree on this, I think the ban strikes harder on Muslim women wearing hijab, who either has to choose not to cover their hair, or stay away from certain choices in life – important choices such as education and work. The symbols in other religions are not as significant, I argued.

“But you have been to a lot of Middle Eastern countries” the woman then said. “And you have to wear a hijab there, right? So if we have to adapt when we are there, Muslims should adapt when they’re in a Western country!”

A small lesson for everyone that shares this idea: No, in the majority of the Middle Eastern countries women are not legally enforced to wear a hijab. Of the 21 countries in the MENA region (MENA=Middle East and Northern Africa, I am using the term MENA as I want to include also other Arab countries outside the Middle East) a woman is forced only to wear a hijab in Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a misunderstanding that you are obliged to do so in all Arab countries.

Yes, most countries are conservative and culturally it would be inappropriate in many places to for example display your shoulders as a woman or wear a miniskirt that would expose your thighs. But this also differs from place to place. Even in more conservative countries such as Kuwait, where there is a ban on alcohol, in the private beaches the custom is bikini, and women in such swimwear mix with women who has donned the burkini, an all-covering swimsuit. It depends a lot on the context.

Me and the French couple didn’t get along when discussing this point, even after I explained the no force in most Arab contries on wearing hijab. They argued that hijab was not fit for schools as it is a religious symbol and that also young girls shouldn’t wear a hijab before they can choose for themselves. As I often do when being involved in such discussions, I have to explain myself: no, I’m not religious myself/No, l wouldn’t wear a hijab myself/Yes, also I think girls shouldn’t be made wearing a hijab until they are old enough to choose for themselves/Yes, it should definitely be a choice of their own. But if you want to cover your hair, if it’s a private part of your body for you, how do you think it feels being forced to show it? I myself would feel hurt and violated by the society. And it’s never very good to have a large group of people that feels violated by the society.

Not to boast about my own country but… We have no such ban here, I believe many Muslims feel that they are not as exposed to hate crimes in Sweden as in other societies where they are a minority, and we also have not faced the same level of terrorist crimes such as other European countries, for example France. Why is that?

Whatever one might think of how big role the religion should be allowed to take in a society, the state is creating more problems by preventing its citizens to practise their religion. During my stays in the Middle East I have in general been met with respect for the person I am, and I wish that respect always would work both ways.

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9 thoughts on “But You Need to Wear a Hijab Over There, Right?

  1. Hmmm… an interesting look into the issue. I wish to remain neutral here. I only want to point out that you say that in all but 2 MENA countries, you are not obliged (I interpret to mean legally obliged) to wear a hijab, but there are cultural expectations. Sometimes the cultural expectations carry more weight than the legal ones…

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    • Yes good point! I have not experienced that in any of the countries I have been to -but I on the other hand have not been to all countries in MENA. From my understanding the cultural expectations would be strongest in Yemen and Iraq; in Iraq due to the lack of security which makes u a target for extremist groups if you’re uncovered. So in most MENA countries the understanding of you as a non-Muslim would be prevalent.

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    • Interesting subject and one I am also torn on. I do believe (to a certain degree) that when in a country, you should act as they do. I do see where France is coming from. On the other hand. I also agree that if someone has very strong religious beliefs on this, who are we to say that they cannot follow them?

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  2. I agree. I think that a woman should be able to show as much skin as she wants to, or cover up as much as she wants as well. If they’re afraid that women are being forced to cover, then they should ban the act of forcing a woman to cover, not the actual hijab itself. Great post 🙂

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  3. Hey Jenny – as a Muslim, I was happy to read this well-reasoned post. Thank you for taking that stance.

    The region I live in – South Asia – is home to about 44% of Muslims. And nowhere will one find any coercion / law enforcing the Hijab. It’s a woman’s choice and between her and her Lord. We can’t force it any more than we can ban it. Of course, cultural expectations / pressure to dress in a certain way is we can’t help 🙂

    Most of the people who blindly and doggedly oppose or insult the Hijab – have never really experienced it outside of television. I suspect your experiences in MENA had something to do with your views. Either way, thanks for standing out from the crowd. If you have time, check out my recent post on the Hijab.
    http://adnanramin.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/hijab/

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