“In the Norwegian debate, the hijab has been represented as a symbol of female oppression, as expressing something we don’t tolerate or perceive as compatible with Norwegian values. Therefore there has not been the same kind of commotion about, for example, male turbans,“ says Kristin Engh Førde, who has written her Master’s thesis on the hijab and interviewed Muslim girls in an upper secondary school in Oslo.
Over the last – almost – ten years, the debate on the Muslim veil has regularly flared up in several of the Nordic countries. Many contentious issues in society have been boiled down to the debate on this piece of cloth, which has come to form the battleground in the fight as to what it means to be civilised, Western, gender-equal and independent.
The debate easily turns into the question as to whether head-coverings should be allowed or forbidden, into attitudes for and against. Feminists who have participated in the hijab debate are found in both groups.
“The hijab becomes a platform on which the internal feminist battle is fought. This is in many ways a generational battle about who is to have the right to define what feminism should be today,” says Danish Rikke Andreassen, lecturer at the Malmö University in Sweden. She was also one of the researchers participating in the EU project VEIL, which surveyed and analysed debates on Muslim veils in Europe.
When France banned the use of the hijab in 2003–2004, a large-scale debate on the veil arose in the Norwegian media.
The hijab ban hinders vocational life
Researcher Berit Gullikstad analysed the debate and was surprised to find that few of those who called themselves feminists raised the question of what consequences a hijab ban might have for the financial situation of Muslim women. If Muslim women are forced to choose between their hijab and their job, many will leave work. The battle for the financial freedom of women has traditionally held a strong position within the women’s movement, but it has not done so in the battle about the hijab. Is financial independence no longer a central issue for ethnically Norwegian feminists? In an interview on the Norwegian website Kilden, Berit Gullikstad provides a possible answer: the battle for gender equality today primarily focuses on sexuality.
And this creates many traps.
“In the name of women’s freedom all women must be able to show their hair. It’s a strange thought that you can be a legitimate citizen in our countries only if you are bodily available. This is not a very feminist thought”, says Rikke Andreassen.
There are several current examples where body, sexuality and sufficient bodily availability have been the focus in the gender equality battle. The prostitution issue is one such case. It, too, divides feminists. It is not hard to find similarities between these debates.
“The prostitution debate, too, is one where we talk about those involved, but not with them. Muslim women and women in prostitution are both archetypes of ‘the other’. The debates are about embodiments of ‘the other’ and, at the same time, expressions of the notion that ‘we will save them’”, says Rikke Andreassen.
When the veil is drawn there is an absolute division between ‘us’ and ‘them’; there is no opportunity for mutual understanding. Placing the hijab in relation to other garments and other gendered practices is perhaps a way of loosening attitudes and finding unifying themes. Kristin Engh Førde articulates the need for somebody who can talk about the relativisation of the hijab.
“Very little is said about this in the debate. I think it’s necessary to relativise the hijab in order to at all be able to understand the complexity of the issue and show solidarity”, she says.
One way of relativising and de-mystifying the hijab is not only to discuss what women wearing a hijab are, but also what they do with their veil. Such a perspective reveals many similarities between women’s lives, regardless of religious or cultural contexts.
Slimming and the hijab
Kristin Engh Førde thinks that wearing the hijab can be seen as a sign of the will to a ‘true’ femininity among Muslim women.
“They wish to present an acceptable femininity, in the same way as women in Western cultures want to look good. Not wanting to ‘tend to’ one’s feminine appearance in a Western culture – for example, not shaving one’s legs – is also regarded as very suspicious”, she points out.
Regardless of what kind of femininity one wants to ascribe oneself and show, it takes an effort.
“Wearing a hijab takes a great deal of self-discipline. Several of my informants described how, when they put on the hijab, it often turns out wrong and they take it off again and try anew, they lose their motivation. They fail to wear it correctly. This reminds me very much of, for example, slimming”, says Kristin Engh Førde.
The similarities are there between various sorts of regulatory norms. Western women try to lose weight and shave their legs; Muslim women cover their hair and neck with a hijab. But do these parallels actually hold? The ‘compulsion’ to wear a hijab is based on religion, while the ‘compulsion’ to shave one’s legs is not. Kristin Engh Førde thinks that the parallel is valid.
“There is a difference, yes, but I don’t see it as relevant whether the driving force is religion or culture. In both cases, women internalise norms for femininity and this is an issue of gender and power.
Kristin Engh Førde does not think that the hijab practises can be changed by means of laws and bans.
“On the contrary. If one aspires to a situation where Muslim women are able to participate in public life, then focusing on the hijab is like shooting oneself in the foot”, she says.
Focusing on the symbols of religious expression is obviously not the solution; there needs to be an analysis of the underlying structures. Gender equality problems are not solved by forbidding either the practice of slimming, or of wearing a hijab. Banning the hijab could, in fact, have the consequence of confining Muslim women, rather than liberating them.
“For some of the informants, I see wearing the hijab as a way of building a bridge between the modern and the traditional, between the role of women in the society where they live and the more traditional femininity associated with their culture of origin. Wearing the hijab lessens the conflict between these two worlds. If one wears a hijab, it’s not so dangerous to go out into an ‘immoral’ society. The hijab becomes a useful instrument for some”, says Kristin Engh Førde.
“For some, there is compulsion involved, for others this is not the case. Regardless of this, I think we must take the women seriously. We can’t sit here and claim that the hijab is oppressive and that we don’t find its defenders credible”, Rikke Andreassen underlines.
Reason for suspicion
Perhaps the opponents do themselves a disservice by giving the hijab so much air time in the debate.
“I tend to say that if we want less of the hijab, we must talk less of it”, says Kristin Engh Førde.
Rikke Andreassen for her part emphasizes that there is reason for suspicion, when those who have never before shown any interest in gender equality issues, suddenly become interested in the hijab and oppression of Muslim women.
“The hijab becomes a platform for criticising Islam and gender equality becomes the hostage in the debate”, she says.
By Jennie Westlund is advisor at NIKK
Facts box: What is a hijab?
• In daily language, the headgear worn by Muslim women to cover their hair and neck is called hijab in Norway, tørklæde (scarf) in Denmark and slöja (veil) in Sweden.
• The hijab was introduced by Arabs long before the prophet Mohammed and the spread of Islam.
• The hijab was a sign of social status in many societies and was used by Greeks, Romans, Jews and Assyrians.
• The verses in the Koran which concern the headgear of women are few and can be interpreted in various ways.
Facts box: Hijab ban
• In 2004, the Danish People’s Party presented a proposal in parliament to ban the wearing of hijabs among all public employees. The proposal was voted down.
• In Norway, the Progress Party presented a similar suggestion in the same year.
• Denmark introduced a ban for judges to wear religious symbols in 2009. This is the only example of national legislation in the area.
• In Sweden, the National Police Board decided in 2006 to let police officers wear headgear when on duty.
• In 2009, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice suggested a similar amendment, but after much opposition, also internally within the government, the Minister of Justice withdraw the suggestion to allow the wearing of hijabs within the police force.
• In Finland, there are no public regulations on the headgear of Muslim women. The hijab has surfaced in the public debate every now and then, mainly as an issue of discrimination on the labour market.