The hijab has become a lightning rod for conflicting ideologies, which has resulted in Muslim women having to face considerable pressures and counter pressures from forces trying to dictate what they should or should not wear.
In some countries Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab because it is obligatory by law, while in other countries they cannot wear the hijab because it has been banned.
If there are no laws regarding the hijab, on the other hand, societal pressures come into play. In some societies hijab-wearing women are pressured to take the headscarf off, while in others people look askance at those women who do not put it on.
And last, but not least, some Muslim women live in families that pressure them to wear the hijab, while others live in families where they simply cannot understand why they opt to wear the hijab and would greatly prefer it if they took it off.
Studies have shown that women who wear hijab point to several different motivations when asked why they wear it. Some say that they do so because it is an act of worship that helps them to build virtue. Others say that it helps them to control their vanity, and circumscribes their behaviour, thus helping them to stay on the path of righteousness and become better Muslims. There are also women who cling to the hijab as a defining characteristic of their identity, while others wear it as an act of activism, both to support their Muslim sisters who face pressures to take it off, as well as to act as role models for Islam, a religion that faces lots of detractors in the West since 9/11.
In this essay I will be looking at hijab through the lens of resistance, where Muslim women use the politics of the headscarf and what it represents to assert their identity and increase their visibility.
Hijab and Resistance in Iran
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and passed laws that forced women to cover all their bodies except their faces and hands, while also empowering the police to enforce the new veiling rules ruthlessly.
“Soon after the revolution, military police caught and detained Maryam because her bangs poked out from under her rusari … A large black van with the face of the Ayatollah Khomeini airbrushed on the side screeched to a halt on the adjacent corner. The passenger door swung violently open. Rushing out of the vehicle, charging toward Maryam were four feverish men. Pulled into the interrogation van the soldiers repeatedly questioned her about her disgraceful appearance.”Mohammadi 2016 p. 14
In an ethnography of women in Iran, the concept of resistance arises repeatedly. Some Iranian women challenge the government and the morality police by wearing colourful headscarves or draping the hijab in a way that allows some hair to be seen. Their appearance thus becomes a highly visible act of political protest. However, the ethnography also reveals that other women, who appear to be following the rules, sometimes even wearing coverings that are more conservative than those required by law, are also resisting, albeit in a covert manner.
“Scared to be caught? No! I just refuse to give anyone the space to step up to me and say whatever they want, tell me I am wrong, or try to embarrass me. I respect myself too much for that. If a foamy mouth street dog rears the mangy fur on his back, pointlessly barking at me on the street, I do not stand there and bark back.”Maryam, an Iranian woman in her late 60s (Mohammadi 2016 p. 15)
“Veiling is the smallest of our issues. Veiling is not the issue. The issue is the way this government treats people, the relationships this government has with the globe. Hijab is the symptom of larger problems. Instead of occupying my time concerning myself with distractions I do exactly what they say, to show the powers to be I am aware of the ridiculousness, the ludicrousness of our government.”Mitra, a forty-year-old woman Iran (Mohammadi 2016 p. 19)
Using Hijab as Resistance in Turkey
In Turkey, on the other hand, wearing the headscarf in public institutions such as government departments or universities was banned after the 1980 coup, with the ban staying in place until 2013.
Ethnographies of women who lived in Turkey during the time the headscarf ban was in place also reveal various acts of resistance by women challenging the authorities. Some women stopped going to university or resigned from their government jobs, while others took off their headscarf but instead put on a wig.
Interestingly, as in the case of Iran, there were also women who opted to obey the law as a form of resistance. They took off their hijab in order to push back at the forces that they felt were trying to push them out of public spaces.
“Özge, a medical doctor who experienced the ban in the last semester of her university education, had emotionally a difficult time when she took off her headscarf, though she was rationally convinced that it was the right thing to do…. She thought that there was a need for pious and educated women in social life; if she and her friends withdrew from public life, the vacuum that they created would be filled by people who impose the ban (referring to Kemalists). She regarded the ban as a conscious move on their (Kemalists’) side to confine women with headscarves to their homes. According to Özge, the Kemalists wanted to impede pious women from being successful in social life. Considering this fact, she decided to become part of social life as a doctor and a pious woman. Özge considered that her niyet, intention, is good and for God’s sake”Akbulut 2015 p. 445
Palestinian women and resistance by hijab
An ethnography of Palestinian women living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem reveals that after the second Intifada (2000 to 2004), many young Palestinian women started to wear the hijab as a strong political statement about their identity and their very existence, expressing their resistance through their bodies.
“My hijab is a tool for me to show them that we exist and will forever stay on this land”Alayan, Lana 2021 p. 1057
Palestinian women living in the West Bank spoke about the degrading way soldiers treated them at checkpoints.
“They ask us a lot of questions even though I am only visiting my parents and not entering Jerusalem. Even in our country they demonstrate their power and so the way to fight them is for them to see me wearing the hijab, it infuriates the female soldiers and scares them”Alayan, Lana 2021 p. 1057)
Palestinian women in East Jerusalem do not experience the same heavy army presence as those who live in the West Bank, but in their case there is a stronger sense of being erased.
“Jews do not want to see Arabs in Jerusalem. They want us to disappear and instead we are here, and we show our presence by wearing the hijab”Alayan, Lana 2021 p. 1059
The hijab and resistance in the western world
The scenarios discussed so far relate to power being exerted by a government or an occupier.
However, most Muslim women do not live under occupation or in countries where laws are enacted to enforce putting on or taking off the headscarf. What is much more common is that Muslim women experience pressure from the societies they live in or interact with.
Ethnographies of Muslim women in Europe and the US, for example, reveal that the hijab becomes a symbol of their “otherness” and the social pressure to stop wearing it in order to facilitate “integration” is unrelenting.
As posited by Engelke, however, “Anthropologists regularly find that the threat of cultural homogenization, real or imagined, is the best way to ensure new cultural flourishings” (Engelke 2017 p. 167), so the pressure to remove the hijab to “fit in” achieves exactly the opposite – making the women even more aware of the importance of the hijab as part of their cultural identity, increasing their commitment to resist societal pressures and wear their headscarf. Thus the hijab becomes a powerful symbol of resistance for these women.
“I know that it would be much easier for me to live here and be part of this society – get a job, find an apartment, and even get a permanent status and residency if I took off the hijab.…But I won’t do it. It’s my body, my faith, and only I decide on my body, no one else. What else do I have here? I have nothing, everything was taken away from me – my home, my family, political influence, independence…And the hijab is mine, and I won’t take it off.”Zulikha, 42-year-old woman of Afghan descent (Paz, Kook 2021 p. 2989)
The rise of the hijab activitists
Several Muslim women have reacted to the undue pressure they experience by becoming hijab activists, openly defying those who try to dictate what they should or should not wear. The following quotes are taken from ethnographies of Muslim women in the US and the Netherlands, where the women are very clear that their main motivation for veiling is not religion, but resistance.
“‘Why did I wear a hijab?’ … this was a question that I was asked a lot, and that I had also asked myself … I feel that I am doing this out of solidarity … solidarity with people who wear it and are attacked for it … the hijab indicates modesty and protection, but in my opinion it’s not just that … it’s a lot of other things that merge together.”Leyla, Muslim living in the Netherlands (Hass, Lutek 2019 p. 356)
“I wouldn’t say that I’m 100% comfortable with why I wear a scarf, because . . . right now I feel like if you wear a scarf it should be for religious reasons, and I don’t feel that connection to it religiously, so it is a little conflicting. [ . . . ] But then at the same time being a Muslim woman in the U.S. I feel that it actually has helped me in a sense, because I feel like it is my expression of activism even though I don’t necessarily defend the religious reasons for wearing the scarf. But, I defend the social reasons for wearing it in a foreign country.”Dalia, Muslim of Palestinian origin, living in the US (Mansson McGinty 2014 p. 693)
Facing off with Islamophobia
The activism mentioned above relates to solidarity between Muslim “sisters” facing discrimination worldwide because of the veil.
However, we must not forget that these women also form part of the worldwide population of Muslims, male and female, which as a group is often stigmatized and reviled in the Western world, particularly after the events of 9/11.
It is not surprising, therefore, that several women say that they wear the hijab as a sign of their Muslimness, as a symbol and reminder of their resistance against the Islamophobia they encounter in their everyday lives.
“Because I’m feeling that even if I’m not putting on events and talking about being a Muslim, or being an Arab, or being a Palestinian, I still feel in my everyday life it is a form of activism. Even if it just incites a few questions here and there, even as basic as seeing a Muslim woman in the public sphere where she is doing something and being an active part of the society.”Dalia (Mansson McGinty 2014 p. 696)
Expressing resistance through digital identities
The final group of women I will be discussing are Muslim women who are raised in conservative Muslim families in secular countries in the West.
These young women inhabit two different worlds with conflicting cultures. They face pressure from their family to dress modestly and wear the hijab, and counterpressure to take off the hijab from the wider society they grow up in.
In many cases the girls react by resisting both pressures, albeit in different ways. Many of them wear the hijab in public as an assertion of their identity and their religion, while also resisting their families by using technology to extend their private domain.
The private versus the public sphere
For the purposes of this essay, I will be defining the “private” sphere as “that which one would rather keep concealed and protected from others; … that over which the individual should exercise exclusive authority and control. … In contrast, in the public sphere, nothing is kept secret from or rendered by the citizens: the management, improvement, and alteration of the public sphere are the prerogative of the citizenry” (Kadivar 2002 p. 661). When Muslims are in the public domain they are obliged to follow the rules and testify to their faith – “the public sphere requires the outer manifestation of religious conduct” (Sobh, Belk 2011 p. 322).
Many young Muslim women living in the West wear the hijab as a manifestation of faith in action and to conform with their families’ expectations, but also as an act of resistance against those who stigmatize them for wearing a hijab or for being Muslim (see quote by Leyla above). In the digital world, however, they defy conventions by pushing the boundaries of the “private” domain using social media, while carefully curating who has access to the information shared.
“Most of my informants only use Instagram’s visual platform and the personal comments and statements in Twitter to communicate with a select group of people. They discern closely who is allowed to see what, who to trust with what, and when: Secrecy, (in)visibility and timing are of the essence.”Waltorp 2015 p.58
These young women often have “public” social media accounts where they post “appropriate” content such as verses from the Koran, totally separate to the “private” accounts where they post photos and other content that they would not dream of sharing in public. They are therefore creating “private” social media spaces, where taking off the hijab is akin to doing so in the privacy of one’s own home.
“In social media, they carve out additional spaces in which they play with identities or sides of themselves that seem to be informed by overlapping ideas of public/private in new ways… by extending their typical appearance in public (veiled and dressed in a modest way) to virtual spaces in which they live out and produce the composite habitus. They do this by playing with alternative ways of representing, expressing and being themselves; sending pictures to close friends (or even a secret boyfriend) without the veil, wearing beautiful make-up, pouting and posing in sexy positions. This mode of communicating in social media is always done discreetly. Discreetly in this context means that this sort of content would never find its way onto the public Facebook wall but is kept within private messages in WhatsApp or Snaps.”Waltorp 2015 p. 58
Conclusion – wearing the hijab has become a powerful act of resistance
In conclusion, this essay has shown that laws passed by governments to dictate what Muslim women can, or cannot, wear are simply two sides of the same coin.
Laws in France that forbid the wearing of hijab in places such as schools or during sports events, or in the case of minors, in any public space, are just as much a move to control Muslim women as the laws in Iran where women are forced to cover all their bodies except their faces and hands.
The essay has also challenged the stereotype of hijab-wearing Muslim women as docile or submissive, by showing that in many cases, including those where the women are scrupulously following the rules that are imposed upon them, these women are putting up a spirited resistance against those who attempt to impose upon them. The hijab thus becomes a strong political statement of resistance, by which Muslim women assert their existence and their identity.
Akbulut, Z. (2015) “Veiling as Self-disciplining: Muslim Women, Islamic Discourses, and the Headscarf Ban in Turkey.” Contemporary Islam 9.3, pp. 433-53.
Alayan, S. and Lana S. (2021) “Religious Symbolism and Politics: Hijab and Resistance in Palestine.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 44.6 pp. 1051-1067.
Engelke, M. (2017) Think like an Anthropologist. Pelican.
Hass, B.S. (2021) “The Hybrid Researcher: Entering the Field, Ethnography and Research among Dutch Muslim Women from 2009 to 2019.” Religions, 12(4), pp. 278.
Hass, B.S. and Lutek, H. (2019) “Fashion and Faith: Islamic Dress and Identity in the Netherlands.” Religions, 10(6), pp. 356.
Hass, B.S. and Lutek, H. (2018) “The Dutch inside the ‘Moslima’ and the ‘Moslima’ inside the Dutch: Processing the Religious Experience of Muslim Women in the Netherlands.” Societies, 8(4), pp. 123.
Kadivar, M. (2003) “An Introduction to the Public and Private Debate in Islam.” Social Research, 70(3), pp. 659-680.
Mansson McGinty, A. (2014) “Emotional Geographies of Veiling: The Meanings of the Hijab for Five Palestinian American Muslim Women.” Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 21.6 (2014): 683-700.
Mohammadi, O. (2016) “The Personal, the Political, and the Public: Performing Hijab in Iran.” Liminalities 12.3
Paz, A. and Kook, R. (2021) “‘It Reminds Me that I Still Exist.’ Critical Thoughts on Intersectionality; Refugee Muslim women in Berlin and the Meanings of the Hijab.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 47(13), pp. 2979-2996.
Sobh, R. and Belk, R.W. (2011) “Privacy and Gendered Spaces in Arab Gulf Homes.” Home Cultures, 8(3), pp. 317-340.
Topal, S. (2017) “Female Muslim Subjectivity in the Secular Public Sphere: Hijab and Ritual Prayer as ‘technologies of the Self’.” Social Compass 64.4: 582-96.
Waltorp, K. (2013) “Public/Private Negotiations in the Media Uses of Young Muslim Women in Copenhagen: Gendered Social Control and the Technology-Enabled Moral Laboratories of a Multicultural City.” The International Communication Gazette, 75(5-6), pp. 555-572.
Waltorp, K. (2015) “Keeping cool, staying virtuous: Social media and the composite habitus of young Muslim women in Copenhagen.” MedieKultur, 31(58), pp. 49-67.
Zempi, I. (2016) “‘It’s a Part of Me, I Feel Naked without It’: Choice, Agency and Identityfor Muslim Women Who Wear the Niqab.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39.10: 1738-754.
For Further Reading
What are the key components of the anthropological perspective?
“Cultural values are a web of linked concepts, fixed in time and space.”
Evans-Pritchard and the Religion of the Nuer Tribe
How do economic and residence practices impact women’s status and power?
What are the different marriage wealth-exchange practices?
Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralism and its Influence on Anthropological Thought
Clifford Geertz and the Thick Description of the Balinese Cockfight
Bronislaw Malinowski, the Trobriand people and the Kula
Why did Marxist ideas only start being applied in Anthropology in the last half century, and what are some of the key ideas that influence Materialistic Anthropology?
Dance as Ritual – an anthropological perspective
How Residence Customs After Marriage Vary Around the World
Compare the operations and implications of Bridewealth and Dowry
The impact of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) on Anthropology
“The two-gender system is neither innate nor universal” (Towle and Morgan 2006)
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