Freedom in the veil

Freedom in the veil
The latest controversy over the hijab in Europe has reignited an old debate about the "freedom in hijab", but absent from the conversation are the voices of Muslim women, write Diego Gambetta and Ozan Aksoy.
5 min read
Protest from Muslim students called HijabisFightBack in Brussels, Belgium on 05 June 2020. [Getty]

The latest controversy over the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women, erupted at the end of October. Ironically, the trigger was an anti-discrimination campaign launched by the Council of Europe.

The Council posted a short video on its social media channels comprising a series of images split in half. One side features a woman wearing a hijab, and the other shows the same woman without the head covering. At the end of the video, the text “Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab” appears, followed by the hashtags #celebratediversity and #JOYinHIJAB.

The video caused an uproar in France, where government spokesman Gabriel Attal was quoted by the Financial Times as saying that “one shouldn’t confuse religious freedom with the de facto promotion of a religious symbol.” Attal called wearing the hijab an “identitarian” position “contrary to the freedom of conscience that France supports.”

The French minister for youth and sport, Sarah El Haïry, spoke out forcefully against the video and claimed credit for the Council’s decision to withdraw it from circulation. Right-wing politicians such as Marine le Pen and Michel Barnier and prominent television pundits added their voices to the criticism of the campaign.

"The most vociferous backers of bans have been populist, right-wing politicians who find it expedient to hide their xenophobia behind arguments that have broader ideological appeal"

France is not the only European country that restricts the hijab. The inflow of Muslim immigrants to Europe and the threat of violent Islamist groups have made Muslim minorities a target of hostility and discrimination, and the hijab has become a visual symbol of these tensions. Of the 27 EU member states and the United Kingdom, nine have some legal restriction on veiling; there have been legislative proposals to limit the practice in five more.

In countries with no national restrictions, some regions have decided independently to ban face coverings. There are only six EU countries – Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and Romania – where there has been no public debate so far on restricting the veil.

The supporters of restrictive measures represent a diverse range of perspectives. Many liberal politicians, staunch believers in the secular state, regard religion as a private affair to be kept out of sight. Some feminists view the headscarf as a symbol of patriarchal or religious oppression of women.

But the most vociferous backers of bans have been populist, right-wing politicians who find it expedient to hide their xenophobia behind arguments that have broader ideological appeal.

Amid all the grandstanding, little heed is paid to the perspectives of Muslim women. Sociologists long have predicted that modernisation would bring about a decline in religiosity and thus in the use of religious symbols such as the hijab. This prediction has been borne out in both Christian and Muslim societies, and as modernisation increases, the frequency of veiling generally decreases.

But there is a crucial nuance in the interaction between prior levels of religiosity and modernisation. For example, among highly religious Muslim women, the probability of wearing the hijab increases with women’s participation in modern social life, particularly if they are young, educated, and single. This seems true not only in predominantly Muslim countries, but also where Muslims are a minority, as in Belgium.

The more Muslim women who identify as deeply religious associate with native Belgians, the likelier they are to wear the hijab. This trend also can be seen in countries where religiosity remains high. For example, in Indonesia, the number of women who wear the hijab has shown a tendency to increase with prosperity.

Studies show that most women do not wear the hijab because of pressure from their families or communities. In fact, the practice is more widespread among highly religious women who, because of their employment status, education, income, and political participation, should be relatively better prepared to resist family pressure.


Veiling seems to be not just an expression of religiosity, but also a strategic decision. Religious women seem to wear the hijab to reconcile their life outside the home with the social norms of their community.

Adopting the hijab reassures their communities that their involvement in “riskier” secular lives away from their homes should not be interpreted as an opportunity to engage in behaviour contrary to their religious norms. The hijab then signals the resilient piety of truly religious women against the perils that modernisation could pose to their reputations.

This understanding of veiling has implications for cultural policy. In Europe, the hijab could be a sign not of segregation, but of integration of Muslims into society.

As highly religious Muslim women make more non-Muslim friends and move to neighbourhoods where they are the minority, they may choose to wear the hijab as a means to safeguard their pious reputation in the face of modernity. Bans on some forms of the veil would deprive these women of a choice that allows them more freedom, not less.

"There certainly is more “freedom in hijab” than there would be in banning it"

If wearing the hijab were barred, a woman who wants to signal her piety and her decision to abide by the norms of her own community would be forced to seek alternatives that could be so cumbersome that she decides to stay at home. That, presumably, is not an outcome that many proponents of prohibition desire.

Not all that lies behind the veil is to be feared. The Council of Europe’s slogan is, perhaps surprisingly, not far from the truth. There certainly is more “freedom in hijab” than there would be in banning it.


Diego Gambetta, Chair in Social Science at the Collegio Carlo Alberto, Turin, and an emeritus fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, is a co-author of the book Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Extremism and Education, Princeton University Press, 2016.

Ozan Aksoy is an associate professor of social science at the Social Research Institute at University College London.

This article originally appeared on Project Syndicate.

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