Skip to main content

‘We must create a society where women’s attire doesn’t matter’

The issue of restricting women’s wearing of veils is currently being debated in the Nordic countries. In Denmark, the tone of the debate is rather fierce. In Sweden, many women are reporting verbal attacks and harassment. Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) talked to one woman from each Nordic country about people’s attitudes to the veil issue and what changes will be necessary to enable women to wear veils freely and without judgement.

In France, Belgium and the Netherlands, there are laws prohibiting the wearing of face-covering veils in public. The veil issue is on the political agenda in the Nordic countries as well. In both Denmark and Norway, there are discussions of a possible veil ban in schools. In Sweden, the National Agency for Education has decided that schools can ban students from wearing face-covering veils in certain situations.

At the same time, an increasing number of veiled women can be seen in the media and popular culture. The fourth and final season of the celebrated Norwegian TV series Skam is focused around a character named Sana, who wears a hijab. At New York Fashion Week, Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan presented her collection of hijab outfits, and in Sweden a play titled Swedish Hijabs addresses stereotypes against Swedish women and has toured the country. What are the consequences of the ongoing debate in the Nordic countries? In NIKK’s survey, one person from each country has answered three questions:

1. What is the attitude to veiled women in your country?
2. Has the attitude changed over time?
3. How does society need to change in order for women to wear veils as they wish?

Natasha Al-Hariri, community organizer, Denmark 
 It’s difficult to give a general description of the attitudes towards hijabis, because it is a piece of clothing that everyone have an opinion about. Our politicians, and especially the government, are very harsh when it comes to hijabi women. I remember a politician that represented the Liberal Party Venstre in Denmark on a tv-show, saying that he understands totally if a company don’t want to hire hijabi women – and thereby more or less promoting discrimination. Really awful, because we do have issues with discrimination, hate crimes and racism. It often get worse right after an attack of any sort in the West, carried out by people who swear allegiance to ISIS. As a hijabi I am extremely aware of myself in public spaces, and even more in times after attacks.  On the other hand, it just makes me so happy to see hijabi women used in mainstream media and advertising. It shows a development that starts to see a hijabi women as a human and woman first.

2. Both yes and no. I’ve been challenging the narrative on hijabis for 10+ years, and at times it feels like we have not moved the least. Obviously it is still questionably whether hijabis should be allowed the same jobs as everyone else! Ten years ago hijabis were described as oppressed, dependent, not educated and barely even able of speaking Danish. There were no nuances whatsoever of women wearing the hijab. Today we see that muslim women in general are being portrayed more varied and not only in relation to their hijab. At times it feels like we’ve moved so much, and other times it feels like we haven’t moved at all.

3. The same social change that is needed to stop all sorts of hate crimes against all minorities. That we are all human beings, and that we all have equal rights to be here – and therefore to be treated equally. That is my dream scenario of how the world should be.

Derya Ozdilek, teacher engaging in multicultural work, Iceland
 I’m from Denmark and have lived in Iceland for four years. Only about 30 women wear a veil here on a daily basis. I would say Icelanders generally don’t think negatively about veils. Rather, they are interested in why we wear it. Sure, a lot of bad things are happening in the world right now, and there is widespread Islamophobia. But we don’t really notice it in everyday life here in Iceland. If people ask me about the veil or what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, I offer them coffee and tell them my story. This helps them understand the difference between the image conveyed in the media and what it’s like in real life. I’m very open and happy to share things, and people know that. This is also my answer to the second and third question.

Bilan Osman, journalist and debater, Sweden 
 There is a historical continuity in viewing the veil as something foreign and oppressive. That attitude is also present in Sweden and affects the way veiled women are treated. The women have to endure a lot of name-calling, and physical violence is also common. This stuff happens frequently in places like buses and trains. For example, some guy might grab a veil and try to rip it off the women’s head. It doesn’t help that we have a debate where the veil is lifted as a symbol of Muslim men’s oppression of women. The whole debate is characterised by ignorance and simplifications. In Sweden, some political parties at the local level are arguing for a veil ban based on the view that the wearing of veils is linked to honour-related oppression. This is not true. The debate is very populist.

2. I believe the way veils are discussed in the public debate has affected the situation in Sweden. In the Sweden Democrat’s election campaign in 2010, women in burkas were used as a symbol of everything that’s bad about immigration. Those types of campaigns and narrow-minded contributions to the debate are making the situation worse. People can use it to confirm their prejudices and to justify attacks on Muslims.

3. I think, above all, that we need to get a basic attitude change. The general approach to the head scarfes is connected to several things. Among other things, people do not know why women wear veil. But actually, there is no excuse for that in today´s information society: google it and learn! Just like working on all forms of racism, you need to start with value-based work at schools and workplaces. I think can also attitudes can change the more women in head scarfes are allowed to appear in all parts of our society. It is in the meeting with others prejudices get challenged. There is also a need of more veiled women in public, as news anchors in television. It normalizes and changes hopefully people’s attitudes.

Sumaya Jirde Ali, debater, Norway 
 I see two different worlds when it comes to people’s reactions. I’m very active on Facebook. The attitude can be very intense and vicious in the comment fields. People bring up my religion and the veil, no matter what the debate is about. If I write “I like carrots”, I get a response like, “You can’t like carrots until you take that stupid bandage off your head”. They want a ban and call me brainwashed, indoctrinated and naive. Then there’s the off-line reality, which is different. I am a very friendly person and have no problem reaching out to people. Only once have I been confronted by a hateful person. The vast majority of Norwegians are good people who treat you respectfully when they soon realise you are not all that different. They don’t care what’s on my head, but what’s in my head. The big differences between the attitudes online and in real life can be difficult to handle.

2. I think it has become more socially acceptable to simply want to ban things you don’t like. It is very unfortunate. Last year, two women were told they couldn’t wear their hijabs at the nursing home where they worked. None of the residents had any objections to it, instead the decision was made because the residents’ home environment must be “safe”. What does that even mean? The hijab debate will go on forever, like so many other debates, but when for example the European Convention on Human Rights legitimises bans and discrimination by giving employers the right to refuse staff requests to wear a hijab, we can’t pretend that everything is like it used to be.

I would not say that my life has become more difficult. I am an outspoken person who won’t take any crap. I’m fully aware of my rights and if anyone denies me or violates any of them, I will let them know. But I’m thinking of all my Muslim friends who are pressured not to wear hijabs anymore because of the social control that exists in society when it comes to this type of clothing. It’s no longer enough to be integrated, you have to be assimilated, which means you need to take off your hijab. It irritates me to no end.

I have Muslim friends who don’t want to wear hijab anymore because the harassment they knew it would generate became too much to handle. I know girls who have been openly attacked, girls who have been threatened, because they wore hijabs. There are a lot of horror stories, and we hear new ones every day.

3. Knowledge is the key to most things. And openness. You can’t ban everything you don’t like. You can’t avoid everything that’s different. If you isolate yourself with like-minded people, you will never achieve the intellectual development your mind is longing for. I believe that it is in the encounters with contrasts that you develop into a better version of yourself, so you need to talk and ask questions. Be critical but objective. And to girls who wear hijabs, I want to say: When people display openness, curiosity and a willingness to learn about the veil/the religion – don’t be offended when they express themselves awkwardly or ask things everyone should know. Instead, be open-minded and courteous. Crush the prejudices instead of confirming them.

Maryan Abdulkarim, freelance journalist and debater, Finland 
 Like other European countries, Finland has problems with Islamophobia. One expression of this is the veil debate. I think it’s interesting with people who argue that the veil is a symbol of Muslim men’s oppression and in so doing claim to stand up for veiled women’s equal rights. The thing is that the same people would never defend these women’s human rights in any other context. But since the veil is something that deviates from Western culture, that’s what they choose to focus on. I believe the veil debate directs attention away from other, more important issues. In Finland, I sometimes get a lot of criticism when I as a feminist wear a veil in a public context. The critics often don’t want to understand my perspective.

2. In the early 90s, the big Finnish newspapers could publish racist cartoons with veiled women without being criticised. Today, that’s not possible. The Finnish anti-racist feminist movement is stronger than ever, and it’s very assertive. In the last election, our feminist party won a seat in the Helsinki City Council for the first time ever, while the right-wing populist the Finns Party lost several seats. I believe the success of these sentiments has passed its peak.

3.We need to create a society where it doesn’t matter how women dress. The first step is to crush the patriarchy. The present debate is very contradictory. People talk about banning the veil to protect the freedom of women. But what’s freedom if not being able to choose what clothes to wear? I think we should stop talking about the veil. The more attention we give to this garment, the more fuel it adds to the distorted debate. Instead, we should raise the question: Why is it at all acceptable to regulate how people should dress? And why is the focus always on the bodies of women?

Updated 23 January 2020