The Divide over Headscarves


Feminist criticism looks at social practices in terms of whether they help or hinder women’s quest for equality with men, but here’s an issue that is not so black and white.

by Dr. Lisa Fishbayn

The article below was written by Lisa Fishbayn, director of the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University.

Leyla Sahin was a medical student at the University of Istanbul. As an observant Muslim, she wore a headscarf. While the university had long had a ban on headscarves, it was not enforced with much vigor until a military coup overthrew the Islamist government elected in 1997. From then on, military guards policed the borders of the campus and refused admission to any woman wearing a headscarf. Similar policies were enforced against women in government and the courts. Leyla Sahin was given the choice between continuing her professional education and violating what she felt to be a binding religious obligation.

Ms. Sahin challenged her exclusion from the university in court. In 2005, her case was heard by the European Court of Human Rights. While it acknowledged that the university policy violated her freedom to practice her religion as she saw fit, they found that her interests were outweighed by those of the government in creating an environment that limited the role of religion in public life, through a policy of official secularism.

The headscarf issue was back in the news this month. Turkey’s new Islamist government, elected in 2007, had sought to amend the Turkish constitution to permit the withdrawal of the ban on headscarves in public institutions. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself an observant Muslim, had noted the irony that, in order to be free to wear headscarves, his daughters had to attend college in America. But on June 5, 2008, the Constitutional Court of Turkey held that this new law was impermissible. The headscarf ban could not be repealed.

Feminists argue over whether women should wear the veil

The headscarf issue is a fraught one for feminists around the world. Feminist criticism tends to look at social practices in terms of their capacity to help or hinder women’s quest for equality with men. It tries to identify and support legal or social changes that will give women more freedom to express their ideals, values, and aspirations. With the current controversy regarding whether to prohibit women appearing veiled in the public sphere, however, it is sometimes difficult to identify an approach that best supports women’s autonomy.

Policies addressing headscarves and facial veils might be expected to reflect differing conceptions of the role of the state in responding to cultural pluralism, the presence of multiple cultural groups in one nation. In Turkey and France, where the wearing of headscarves and other attire that indicates religious affiliation in schools is banned, cultural pluralism is seen as a threat, a potential source of insecurity, instability and social conflict. In place of religious values, the state seeks to emphasize instead a set of shared civic values. They seek to minimize the impact of potential conflicting commitments to cultural and religious communities.

Conversely, countries like the United Kingdom, Holland, and Canada are committed to policies of multicultural accommodation. These policies value, rather than merely tolerate, cultural differences. They are based on the belief that accommodating and facilitating the observance of cultural norms does not alienate members of different groups from each other, but rather enhances the integration of minorities into the broader community.

Does giving the right to wear veils hurt other women’s rights?

However, when it comes to the veiling issue, the regulatory practices of these nations are very similar. The law limits the right to adopt religious dress in order to achieve overarching policy objectives. In France and Turkey, the concern is that, if women were allowed to wear traditional Islamic garb while participating in the public educational system, other women would be subjected to increased pressure to adopt such dress themselves. The choices of some women to adopt Islamic dress can justifiably be denied in order to preserve the rights of other women to decline community pressure to do so.

In England, courts have held that women can be excluded from employment where their clothing interferes with their ability to do their jobs. For example, Aishah Azmi was fired from her job as a teacher for refusing to remove her face veil. The dismissal was upheld because it was felt the veil interfered with her capacity to teach in the classroom.

Some feminists, particularly in France, have praised the headscarf ban precisely because it gives women a tool with which to resist community pressure to adhere to norms that they do not agree with. However, some Turkish women argue the headscarf ban does not allow them to express their own genuine beliefs. Indeed, they suggest that the ban harms the prospects for women’s equality because it forces powerful, educated women, who could provide leadership in negotiating the tension between traditional norms and women’s professional and political aspirations, out of the public sphere.

What does the veil really say?

Something that often goes unremarked in these debates about the practical impact of headscarf bans on women’s opportunities is the way in which the bans valorize the treatment of women’s bodies and women’s attire as grand cultural symbols rather than as expressions of individual women’s intentions and aspirations. Attitudes toward the veil may provide an avenue to express all sorts of anxieties about assimilation and oppression in Muslim communities and worries about loss of cultural dominance of Western values.

University of Wisconsin law professor Asifa Quraishi cautions that Western feminist responses to the headscarf debate may reproduce this idea of the veiled woman as a symbol of oppression rather than an active agent defining her religious and secular identities. She points out that there may be liberating and empowering reasons for wearing the veil.

Women who wear the veil may, themselves, have ambivalent and contradictory feelings about it. Some of these might include seeing it as the expression of religious piety; as a rejection of the commodification of women’s bodies in Western society; as an expression of solidarity with other Muslims; as an act of rebellion against Western social norms or, indeed, against their parents’ values and choices. Observing this practice may also allow them to be taken more seriously by those in authority as they try to transform discriminatory practices in their community.

Given the tangled web of meanings that are wrapped up in the veil, it is not possible to identify a single policy that best promotes women’s autonomy in every national context. In France, where schoolgirls who decline to wear the veil may face assault by thugs in their community, a ban may perform a useful function.

Elsewhere in Europe and in North America, where there is a presumption in favor of freedom of religious attire, a ban can only be justified on functional grounds, where, for example, the scarf might present a threat to health and safety on the job. In the vast majority of other cases, where the threat posed by the veil is an ideological one, feminists must err on the side on supporting women’s freedom to wear the headscarf if they wish.

Feminist advocacy should support the idea that women are capable of complex, subtle and autonomous reflection in choosing whether or not to wear the veil. It is individual women, not the state, who should decide the meaning of their religious attire and the appropriate balance to be struck between personal intent and political effect.

About the Author

Dr. Lisa Fishbayn
While completing her doctorate at Harvard Law School, Dr. Fishbayn was a lecturer in law at the Faculty of Laws, University College London. She was a law clerk for Justice Frank Iacobucci of the Supreme Court of Canada. She has held a graduate fellowship in the Program on Ethics and the Professions at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a Reginald Lewis International Law Fellowship at Harvard Law School. She has been a visiting researcher working on African customary law at the Gender Research Project of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School.

There are no comments yet, add one below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


− 8 = one