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As the hijab—the headscarf worn by many Muslim women—has become increasingly visible in global metropolises, it has also become increasingly politicized. Many people are surprised to learn that the hijab, in the sense of a head-covering appears nowhere in the Qur’an. Where it is used, it is as a “curtain” or “barrier” intended to separate the wives of the Prophet Muhammad from visitors. More generally, hijab is used to described modest behavior and the Qur’an does indeed prescribe modesty in clothing for both men and women. The so-called “hijab verses” (24:30-31) use the Arabic words “khimar” and “jilbab,” translated variously as “covering” or “headscarf” and “outer garment” or “cloak,” respectively. This range of definitions leads to varied understandings of the need for head-covering; some say it is required, others deem it optional.

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Primarily associated with Islam, the headscarf has been popular in different parts of the world for a spectrum of cultural, religious, and pragmatic reasons. The practice of head covering has been common in Jewish, Christian, and Hindu communities, but it never attracted as much attention—and engendered so much controversy—in relation to those faiths as it has done in the Muslim context since the 19th century, when the veil was established as a symbol of Muslim societies by colonial rulers of the Middle East.

Historically, political actors who banned or imposed partial prohibitions upon it did so to signal their “modern,” secular orientation. There was, for instance, Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1936 in Iran, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey about a decade earlier. Afghanistan’s King Amanullah strongly discouraged its use in the 1920s and 1930s. By contrast, the Islamic Republic of Iran has, since it came to power in 1979, enforced its use as a symbol of its fundamentalist approach and a reproach of what it sees as the Shah’s permissiveness.

In Egypt, during the British colonial period, the hijab was controversial; Lord Cromer, the British consul in the second half of the 19th century, advocated Muslim women’s unveiling which he saw as improvement of their lives (while fiercely opposing suffrage at home). Leila Ahmed explains in her Women and Gender in Islam that Egyptian women had much more varied and nuanced views on the hijab: while some, like Huda Sha’rawi, the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, rejected the hijab and staged public unveilings, others, such as Malak Hifni Nasif, took a much more moderate position that women should be able to decide themselves whether to cover their heads. There were also those like Zainab al-Ghazali, their contemporary and one of the leaders of the Islamist movement in Egypt, who believed that the hijab should be mandatory.

The Pahlavi dynasty in Iran survived into the 1970s, but the shahs’ rule was widely opposed. The Pahlavis were corrupt, politically repressive, and lavish in their spending and lifestyle. As a sign of civil protest, Iranian women adopted the hijab. It is one of many moments in history when the hijab was employed as a symbol of resistance. As Homa Hoodfar writes, “veiling is a lived experience full of contradictions and multiple meanings.” In the now classic feminist title The Veil and the Male Elite Fatima Mernissi argues that the preoccupation with the hijab in the 80s was ignited by conservative Muslim scholars and movement leaders in Arab countries who advocated limiting women’s mobility and public visibility. Mernissi concluded that powerful male elites were simply threatened by women’s presence and freedom. Another scholar, Fadwa El Guindi, pointed out that at that time, adoption of the hijab helped Egyptian women protect the opportunities that modernization had brought, such as access to education and ability to work outside the home. It was then that stereotypes of “modernized women” as socially irresponsible or even sexually promiscuous were used to limit these very opportunities.

The hijab, however, as well as other traditional modest garments, including the abaya and the jilbab—cloaks that envelop the body from the neck down—and face-covering niqab played a much more complex role for women who wore them than helping them gain social approval. For many women, wearing the hijab was—and is—an element of piety.

As the Islamic Revolution unfolded in Iran in 1979, the hijab became a lens through which external observers interpreted—or misapprehended—developments there. Western media saw the head-covering chador (“tent” in Farsi) as proof that Iranian society considered women inferior, even while it was women themselves who first spontaneously and voluntarily started to wear them as a sign of protest the year before. When Ayatollah Khomeini ruled that women must wear the chador, those who objected were portrayed simply as Iranian-style second wave feminists who make similar demands to those of Western feminists. The anti-colonial aspect of their protests—in particular the criticism of Western powers’ involvement in Iran’s oil industry—was erased. This was the inception, argues Sylvia Chan-Malik, of a new binary: “Islam” versus “feminism.” Moreover, it signaled the moment when feminism as an ideology began to collude with the state, paving the way for future justifications for war as a means to liberate women from male oppression. Gender equality was poised to be an “American:” value that had to be introduced in a military way.

The attacks of September 11 introduced a new era: Muslims were collectively punished for terror committed by 19 men, most of them from Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 17-fold in 2001 compared to 2000. Women who wore the hijab were conspicuous targets. They frequently experienced discrimination at work and racial profiling at airports. American propaganda for the “War on Terrorism” blamed Islam for acts of terror, and American Muslims had to choose Islam or the United States order in order to survive. American Muslim women overwhelmingly decided to step outside of this manufactured binary; thousands took up the hijab, simultaneously claiming the right to be Americans. In reference to her newly adopted hijab, one interview subject said: “Islam is beautiful! Deal with it!” A woman I interviewed for a project about niqab-wearing in America recalled the remarks of a co-worker after she adopted hijab: : “Halima, what you need to do you need to just wrap a big ol’ American flag around the head and then you can be covered but then nobody will worry about where your loyalties are.”

Yet framing Islam as inherently un-American erases the experiences and voices of African-American Muslim women. Their legacy dates back over 400 years, to the ships bound for North America carrying slaves, approximately 30% of whom were Muslim. Their stories indicate that for them, discrimination involved intersecting racist, sexist, and anti-Muslim prejudice, sometimes simultaneously. While there are racial and religious tensions between “transnational”/immigrant and African-American Muslim identities, how these groups practice Islam affect each other. For example, some African-American Muslim women adopt the “Arab-style” wrapped hijab instead of turbans that are popular among this group. Meanwhile, having observed much more free gender-mixing in African American mosques, many immigrant Muslim women often speak out against strict gender segregation in their mosques.

After 9/11, the search for Osama bin Laden, its architect, and his terrorist networks in Afghanistan was reframed as a noble war to liberate Afghan women who had to wear the burka, the all-enveloping garment which covers even the eyes. With echoes of the notoriety that attended the chador in the eyes of the West in 1979, the burka in 2001 became the symbol of women’s oppression at the hands of the patriarchal Taliban. It figured prominently in cynical justifications for the “War on Terror” offered by both right- and left-wing political actors on both sides of the Atlantic. First Lady Laura Bush made this explicit in a radio address in November, 2001 when she asserted that the “fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Yet the Taliban’s harsh reign became noteworthy to the West only after 9/11. The fact that by 2001, the Taliban had been brutalizing the people of Afghanistan for four years during which activists unsuccessfully campaigned for Western support failed to register.

A Palestinian woman attends a protest against the French proposal to bar Muslim women from wearing headscarves in state schools at the French Culture Council on January 17, 2004 in Gaza City
A Palestinian woman attends a protest against the French proposal to bar Muslim women from wearing headscarves in state schools at the French Culture Council on January 17, 2004 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Abid Katib/Getty

The impact of those initial portrayals of women in burka reverberated beyond the theater of war. In 2004, the French “hijab ban” initiated a wave of legislation that took aim at Muslim women who wore the more concealing form of Muslim dress, the niqab. That ban was followed in France by a country-wide ban on niqab. Politicians who were in favor of it argued that the niqab is forced on women by male relatives. They compared niqab wearing to Taliban-enforced burka wearing in Afghanistan. Counterarguments presented by French Muslim women who insisted they wore the niqab by choice were largely ignored. Legal challenges to this legislation in the European Court of Human Rights were unsuccessful, but the rulings were widely criticized by legal scholars who viewed the Court’s interpretation of “religious practice” as rooted in Christian theology. They argued that the Court could instead accept the position taken by the women who wear the niqab that it is their choice. Otherwise, such laws criminalize the niqab, which eventually results in the erasure of niqab-wearing women from the public space.

Several countries, including seven in Europe, have instituted a similar ban on the niqab, most recently Switzerland in 2021. Elsewhere regional or partial bans are in effect, notably as in the Francophone province of Quebec, where government employees are forbidden from wearing “religious symbols” on the job. These bans remained intact over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries introduced mask mandates, creating a paradoxical situation whereby a Muslim woman could be fined about 150 euros (ca. $160) wearing a niqab, and 135 euros (ca. $147) for going without a mask.

Despite—or perhaps because—of these strictures, many Muslim women are challenging negative associations with Islamic dress. Some have actively promoted it as central to “modest fashion,” a global movement spearheaded by religious women selecting stylish fashion choices that allow them to avoid the sexualized designs that are characteristic of mainstream fashion. While at first glance, modest fashion styled by hijabistas appears simply to challenge the stereotype of religious women as dowdy, it is also a space allowing women to negotiate tensions that underpin their interpretations of Islam, personal politics, and demands of capitalism that shape their online content (in which they often recommend a brand or a halal product). The identities that emerge as their result are often seen as conflicting with religious orthodoxy.

The hijab and the niqab have become controversial because they have been coopted into political symbols, stripped of any religious import, and exploited by geopolitical actors and movements which use their purported attitude toward Islamic dress as form of political posturing. “It has become impossible to talk about Islam without reference to women,” assert scholars Gholam Khiabany and Milly Williamson, “and impossible to talk of Muslim women without reference to the veil.” Thus, the “discourse of the veil” created by everyone but Muslim women has largely and regrettably overshadowed the insights that Muslim women themselves have made about it.

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