Why some Muslim women feel allowed to wear the hijab, a headscarf

For those interested in learning more about Islam, The Conversation publishes a series of articles, available on our website or as six emails sent every other day, written by Kalpana Jain, editor-in-chief of religion and ethics. In recent years, she has commissioned dozens of articles on Islam written by academics. These articles are taken from these archives and have been verified for accuracy by specialists in the religion.


Some Americans believe that the Islamic faith is oppressive for women. In the West, especially in France, the hijab, or headscarf, worn by many Muslim women has become a symbol of this perception of oppression.

This article will explain some of the complex issues that go into choosing many Muslim women to wear the hijab, including why some women see it as a mark of empowerment. It will also draw attention to some of the global Muslim feminist movements that often go unnoticed in the Western world.

Sociologist Caitlin Killian explains that Jewish, Christian and Hindu women have covered their heads since pre-Islamic times.

For some Muslim women today, wearing a hijab can be a religious act – a way of demonstrating their submission to God. The Quran instructs men and women observe modesty in their dress and behavior. However, the clothing of Muslim women is not only about adherence to the faith. It has been used in the past – and today – as an affirmation of identity.

Under colonial rule, Muslim women were encouraged to look more like European women and to remove the veil. As demands for independence from colonial rule increased, the veil, according to Killian, became a “symbol of national identity and opposition to the West.”

Nazma Khan, pictured, founded World Hijab Day in 2013.
Atilgan Ozdil / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Today, some Muslim women in America may wear the hijab as a way to assert their pride in Islamophobia. World Hijab Day, celebrated on February 1, 2013, was born out of the efforts of Nazma Khan, an immigrant from Bangladesh to the United States, who was ashamed to wear a headscarf. She decided to start a day where Muslim and non-Muslim women could experiment with wearing the head garment.

Even so, in much of the western world, the headscarf continues to be seen as representative of the oppression of Muslim women. In Swiss, voters approved the legislation in March 2021 to ban face coverings, while France is push for a more restrictive hijab policy.

In a judgment of March 14, 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union, which interprets EU law, has authorized private companies in France to prohibit employees from wearing “religious, political and philosophical symbols” for the sake of “neutrality”.

A woman wearing a headscarf at a protest in Toulouse, France, shows a design indicating
A woman at a protest against Islamphobia in Toulouse, France, shows a cartoon that says “My veil, my choice, free” in French.
Alain Pitton / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sociologist Z. Fareen Parvez said anti-veil legislation was a “turning point” in the lives of Muslim women seeking acceptance and integration into French society. The headscarf is not only a religious symbol for many women; it is a way of being.

But this focus on Muslim women’s clothing distracts attention from other issues and from how Muslim feminist movements are trying to effect change. In Indonesia, for example, female Muslim religious scholars, or ulama, are helping to change the way Islam is understood and practiced.

As sociologist Rachel Rinaldo says, the past three decades in Indonesia have seen the emergence of a new generation of female religious leaders who interpret the Quran in a way that empowers women. The word of female Ulema is more accepted than that of women’s rights activists, says Rinaldo, because they are trained Islamic scholars.

A 2017 conference of Muslim religious women scholars held in Indonesia, with participants from Kenya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, issued fatwas – non-binding religious edicts – against child marriage, sexual abuse and destruction of the environment.

The point is, like other faiths, Islam is a multifaceted religion, and Muslim women choose how they want to be heard and seen.

This article has been reviewed for accuracy by Jessica Marglin, Associate Professor of Religion at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Made: Female ulemas in Indonesia date back to the 17th century. Queen Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Syah ruled the Islamic Kingdom of Aceh (now Indonesia’s northernmost province) for 35 years and commissioned several important books of Islamic commentary and theology. At a time when female rulers around the world were unusual, she was the main defender of religious authority in what was then a prosperous and peaceful kingdom. – Based on an article written by Rachel Rinaldo, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In the next issue: What is Islamic law?


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