The Freedom to wear a Veil

by four Danish women

That the veiled Muslim woman by all means should be regarded as oppressed is a myth that ought to be killed. Many people are scandalized by the veil, but only few seek an explanation from the Muslim woman herself; her voice is often overheard in this matter. If she is asked, on the other hand, the veil represents freedom and dignity.

O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Sura 33, 59)

Say to the believing men that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts; that is purer for them; surely Allah is Aware of what they do. And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons... (Sura 24, 30-31)

In the Koran, the term hijab is used of the attire of the Muslim woman as a whole, but also includes the way she lives and acts. In everyday language it often only refers to the veil or scarf itself which must cover the head and chest.

This is, so to speak, the exterior sign of the way of life of the Muslim woman, but you also speak of having hijab in ears, tongue and heart. Here there is no reference to a specific veil, but to a suitable behaviour in accordance with the precepts of Islam.

This prevents her from hearing, speaking or feeling negative things of other people.

Hijab is derived from the Arabic word hajaba, which means to conceal or to prevent from being seen. The garb must be loose and opaque and must be worn, whenever the women either leaves the house, or whenever male visitors not belonging to the family are received. Only the hands and face may, according to the prophet Mohammed, be visible, but this point is rather controversial. Some also choose to cover these parts of the body, but more often than not this is the result of the personal choice of the individual woman.


We know the veil from the antique Hellas, for instance, where the established women of society had the right to wear one, while the prostitute and the female slave had to go about bare-headed and thus unprotected against being accosted. Throughout History, noblewomen have worn veils when walking about among the lower classes, or they have hidden their faces behind fans.

The bridal veil and the nun's habit had a similar purpose. In the New Testament, in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul states that during prayer, women should cover their head (11, 5-6).

Nowadays, some people are astonished daily by seing women wearing veils. Most have an idea that the veil is oppressive, and many protest loudly and publicly on behalf of these women.

One thing that these officious persons have in common is usually that they have never found it necessary to ask the women themselves, not to speak of making themselves acquainted with the religious and cultural background of the veil. Even so, they are busy imposing on others their personal opinions as to what is oppressive.

If one asks the women behind the veils, the story is quite different.

The orthodox Muslim woman does not perceive the veil as inhibiting or oppresive. Quite the contrary. The veil guarantees her the full respect of the surroundings, and thus must be considered a privilege rather than a burden.

The dignity of the wife or the daughters, or the dignity of any Muslim woman, for that matter, must be respected and protected, writes Momina Abdullah on the Internet.

Many Danes entertain the erroneous notion that the veil represents a compulsion from the husband and the religion. But women wearing veils, on the other hand, normally radiate devotion towards their religion. They have chosen the veil as a clear demonstration of their Muslim identity.

Forcing anyone to do something against their own will is against Islam. This point is stressed by all the women we have spoken to. There is no demand of compulsion in the Koran. On the other hand, every human being should see it as a religious duty to act out of a clean heart.

Of course there may be families where the woman is forced, for instance to stay at home. But that does not imply that doing so is Islam, the sisters Batool, of 21 years, and Ayisha, of 19, concord. There are oppressed women in all cultures, Danish or Muslim. And as in all other situations it is important to consider each particular case for itself instead of generalizing. For a woman is not oppressed unless she feels it that way.


The scarf contributes to creating equality between man and woman. He does not see her only as a sex symbol, says Batool. When a man looks at a woman wearing a scarf it is because he is interested in her personality and the way she thinks instead of her appearance, her sister complements. A woman who covers herself is hiding her sexual charm, and yet allows her womanliness to remain visible, writes Mominah Abdullah.

Islam does not attempt, as some people erroneously think, to exclude sexuality. It is canalized in its full strength into the marital relationship, and is not »flaunted« in other contexts. Hijab therefore guarantees the integrity of the Muslim woman.

The clothes must not be tight so that the forms show. In this way, we avoid problems like sexual harassment and rape. When we wear these clothes, we feel secure. We are more protected, Ayisha thinks.

And then a man does not stare at other women than his wife, emphasizes Batool. She elaborates on the relationship between a man and a veiled woman: When a woman covers her beauty, the man does not look at her as a woman, but as a fellow human being. Instead, he concentrates upon her intellect. Bergliot Emina, a Norwegian convert, also emphasizes: You cover your head and chest, but not your brains.

For Ayisha, the notion of the oppressed Muslim housewife is a myth. In Islam, the husband has a duty to maintain his family. It is therefore a matter of course that he must work. But, of course, the woman may also work. It is not so that she cannot go out and get an education or a job. But she is allowed to sit at home, it is not her duty to maintain the family.

Emina adds examples of professional women in Muslim countries: About 60% are illiterate in Egypt, but I have met more female professors in Egypt and Jordan than in Denmark.

Batool adds: Islam encourages everybody, both the man and the woman, to go out and read and study. Bergliot Emina even characterizes it as a Muslim duty to seek knowledge.

She continues: In many ways, Muslim women have more freedom than women in the West. First of all, the veil has meant that I can walk around without being judged by my appearance. Secondly, the women are equally respected and appreciated whether they choose to be housewives or professional women.

For the Muslim woman, the veil therefore represents freedom. Only this freedom has another character and expresses itself in another way than that of the West. But must the women of the West be the only ones to define freedom? Are they the only ones who know what the right to choose for oneself and to decide over one's own body means? We wonder if not the many millions of Muslim women would claim otherwise!

Of course, every woman must have the right to wear a veil as well as the right not to wear one.

Tania Brogaard
Gry Helene Herbener
Anne Kristine Jakobsen
Lene Wittrup Jensen
Uta Kreie Larsen
© 1996-1999 Faklen,br> Comments to · 07.03.99

The Torch (Danish: FAKLEN) is a Danish magazine devoted to cultural trends and social comment. It focuses on certain tendencies in the European countries, and in Denmark in particular, that can only be described as reminiscent of fascism.

The Torch is not affiliated to political parties or organizations of any kind. The magazine is published by a group of students from the universities of Aarhus and Copenhagen representing practically all subjects, from philosophy, classical philology and psychology to physics, biology and mathematics.


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