The Headscarf and its Relation to Cultural Identity

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The headscarf has become a normalised object in our society and is seen every day. However, there are many controversies about whether the headscarf is an object of cultural identity or an act of the repression of women. There have been many discussions globally about this debate. Many political parties have discussed the possible legislation of the prohibition of headscarves in public locations, especially in primary schools. This discussion has brought up quite some controversy. Many people argue this legislation to be highly intolerable, as they see the headscarf as an object of cultural identity. Others agree with such political parties and state that the headscarf is in many occasions an act of the repression of women, submissive to the male sex. This leads us to the urgent question, which has been an on-going discussion point throughout the conversations of many people: To what extent is the headscarf an act of the repression of women? In addition to this: should the headscarf become a prohibition in public locations, outstandingly for young girls in public schools? I have personally walked around with this question in mind and I certainly can clearly understand both perspectives on this subject. However, I do not know enough of the subject to form a general opinion, so I am very eager to understand the value and meaning of the headscarf and all of the reasoning other civilians have to this subject, in order to form a well-rounded opinion.

We will first of all discuss the underlying meaning and purpose of the headscarf, as this is often rather unclear. I cite from the Quran 24:31: ‘Tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their khimar over their chests.’ (Quran 24:31) Out of the 6000 verses in the Quran, this is approximately the only thing stated about what the woman is ought to wear in the Islamic religion. Women are ought to glance their vision down a little to people of the opposite sex to not make them feel intimidated and out of respect. This is idem to the male sex, which is also mentioned in the Quran.

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The above and following is discussed in an informative video talk of Samina Ali (2017), who explains the history and purpose of the headscarf. Ali (2017) explains that the woman is ought to dress a bit more modest and not expose their adornment in order to protect herself from unwanted attention of the male sex. This should be done by the use of a khimar, a scarf on the head, which is able to flow and is put behind the ears. The bosom also should be covered, which could be done by the khimar or another piece of clothing. This is everything that is written in the Quran about the clothing of women and is confirmed by numerous sources.

People argue that Mohammed was rather vague about the description on purpose, so women could still have their own interpretations about the subject and so that the interpretation could evolve through society. In addition, the term ‘hijab’ is never mentioned in the Quran for the meaning as today’s society knows. The term originally has the meaning of a barrier. This could be the barrier between Allah and the people or between a male and a female (Ali, 2017).

There are many translations of the Quran, where the translator has adjusted the verses slightly, but which gives an altered meaning to it. Basic misinterpretations are that men are allowed to give the women orders in what they are allowed to do or wear. Even though this is not originally in the Quran, it does not mean that this does not appear in Islamic households. Here is where the problem of the discussion on headscarves starts. There is a tremendous amount of Islamic households, which all have different rules and values in their house. In some households, the woman is pressurised to wear a headscarf. In others, the woman is free to decide to wear a headscarf or not, although they often feel the pressure of wearing it in an non-spoken manner. People cannot judge for every household what the current status is. This is another difficulty which adds to this debate.

Additionally to the differences in households, there is the difference in the reasons why women wear headscarves. In 2007, Yusufali stated that ‘the concept of the hijab, contrary to popular opinion, is actually one of the most fundamental aspects of female empowerment.’ She explains this statement further with the following: ‘Because of the superficiality of the world in which we live, external appearances are so stressed that the value of the individual counts for almost nothing.’ This indicates a very different global perspective, where she explains that women are constantly comparing themselves to each other and that men are generally ‘checking women out’. She argues that the hijab protects her from this: ‘I can rest assured that no one is looking at me and making assumptions about my character from the length of my skirt.’ This is an example of a woman who states to have chosen for the hijab. Again, there is another controversy about such statements from women. It is to be argued that this woman still did not make this decision for her own. She does indeed have a muslim family and if she would have grown up in a non-Islamic family, she presumably would not have this opinion. This proves that environmental factors also have an enormous influence on someone’s identity and decisions.

On the other hand, there are women who are raised in an Islamic family, but have chosen not to wear their hijab. An example of this is Iman Amrani. Amrani (2018) mentions: ‘I feel uncomfortable every time I see well-meaning people defending parents’. She specifies this statement further by describing her own experience in secondary school, where she saw many girls wear their – often unwanted – hijabs and expressing that she was obliged to wear her hijab in the weekends too. Amrani (2018) does however mention to understand the Islamic parents: ‘They were trying to instil an idea of our identity in us, so we would meet other young Muslims and be part of a wider community.’ In addition, Amrani (2018) states that she agrees with the implication of banning headscarves on young girls. Nevertheless, women should be free to make their own choices. This leaves us to a whole other side of this debate, as this is an Islamic woman, who has a strong view, likewise to the woman we discussed beforehand.

Lastly, there is the importance of European laws, among which the freedom of religion, speech and practice. The ECHR (European Convention of Human Rights), 1950, has agreed as follows: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’ (Section 1, Article 9). Regarding the debate on allowing teachers to wear a headscarf, this article would not allow the restriction of teachers wearing a headscarf. Furthermore, this article allows people, including teachers, their freedom of speech on religious matter. However, section 2 of article 9 adds that there are limitations to this freedom of speech for the protection and freedom of others. This concludes that teachers are allowed to express their believes, only if it does not restrict the freedom of others. In addition, article 14 of the ECHR expresses that ‘The enjoyment of rights shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion,’ etc. It is to be argued that the restriction of headscarves is indeed a discrimination of religion and therefore not applicable. However, a government has the right to adjust this interpretation if it is beneficial to society.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has clarified in 2017 that a company is allowed to ban religious symbols among their workforce. This includes headscarves. Consequently, any school is allowed to introduce a prohibition of headscarves among their employees. Paterson (2017) clarifies: ‘the Court has decided that employers can have an objective justification for adopting a consistently applied workplace policy of neutrality in its dealing with its customers’. The ECJ does not express this to be a discrimination of religion. There were many people who were satisfied with this clarification and saw this as a progression in society. They argued that a public company is ought to be neutral. Again, much controversy was awakened, as ‘Plaintiffs argued that the prohibitions were discriminatory and contrary to their rights to equality and non-discrimination under European law.’ (Paterson, 2017)

The contradicting opinions on the issue whether the headscarf is an object in relation to cultural identity or an act of the repression of women are vital for the future of the European Union. People argue that a public school is ought to be non-biased and neutral, thus any form of religious expression should be banned, including the headscarf. Another group will argue this opinion to be a form of discrimination, as everyone has their freedom of religion. In addition, the first group of people will give the argument that the hijab is often repressed on women, and thus a form of abuse. This is again contradicted by the other group of people, stating that the headscarf is a form of expressing your believes towards Allah, which should not be restricted by any law. In addition, when I was looking for sources of people wanting an entire prohibition in the EU, I was not able to find anything. This surprised me, as I did experience such opinions in my daily life and articles of people wanting a prohibition on burkas were easily found. This dialogue regularly continued in the immigration issue of this moment in the EU and the argument of the women submissive to the male sex. Furthermore, people explained that the Islamic culture often expressed their beliefs very empathically, which is not something people are waiting for.

When I started this study, I was very non-biased, as I found like I was not in the right position to judge the subject, since I did not have the correct knowledge. However, going through the matter, I gained a clearer view. In my opinion, the thing most challenging is the difference in households. A legislation of wearing headscarves does not directly change a contingent family repression. We do not know if a child is wearing a hijab mandatory. This is the reason why it is very hard to make the conclusion on if a headscarf is an act of repression. I believe there are certainly females who are not forced to wear their hijab, but I definitely know there are females who are. I do not believe that a prohibition in public primary schools prevents this repression from happening, but I do believe it is a step in the right direction. Young girls are easily influenced by their surroundings and will therefore look up to an authorised figure, like their teacher. In my opinion, a public primary school should be neutral and children should be able to develop their own values. A headscarf on either them or their teacher, would not give them this ability. Regarding additional workforce, I find it very difficult to judge. I do agree that authorities like the police or lawyers, should be totally neutral in their appearances. However, I also feel like those women should have their right to express their religion and have their own values. If I had to judge now, I would be leaning more towards prohibition in public services.

The headscarf debate is a very sensitive subject and I believe that it should be handled with much caution, as it influences a significant part of the population.

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The Headscarf and its Relation to Cultural Identity. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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