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.