What the Headscarf Controversy is Covering Up

Jun 12, 2010
*Special to asia!
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To simply attack opponents of the Muslim veil for being anti-Islam is doing just what the headscarfs do – obscure much what lies beneath.



pulau perhentian kechil

Locals unloading supplies from the mainland on Pulau Perhentian.


Photo credit: Dan-Chyi Chua


This is Pulau Perhentian Kechil, a paradise island located in Terengganu, one of Malaysia's most conservative and religiously Islamic states. Not all the local women here had a headscarf on, but every one of them was modestly dressed, even those frolicking in the water to cool down in the indefatigable heat. The only bare local shoulders belonged to the men, pulling the boats to anchor on the beach.

Among the foreign tourists, on the other hand, it was hard to spot a shoulder that wasn't bare. Or the legs, arms, abdomens, and gleaming sweaty torsos. Yet no local I spoke to found them offensive. They were served with neither judgment nor reservation in stores, restaurants and guesthouses.

Away from all this is Belgium. There, a law has been passed to ban the niqab which veils the face and the burqa which is worn over the entire head.

"We have to free women of this burden," declared Corinne de Parmentier from the country's centre-right Reformist Movement.

This is a liberation drive also famously waged in neighbouring France. “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said. Is this, as critics lambast, anti-Islam, or merely a pompous imposition of Western values on another culture?

Those on the side of Sarkozy say France is a secular state, citing France's 2004 law which bans not just the headscarf in government schools but also the Jewish kippa, Christian crucifixes and all other visible forms of religious affiliation.

There, the French are not anti-Islam.

Perhaps then, France and Belgium are picking up Rudyard Kipling's proverbial White Man's Burden, to free these “silent, sullen peoples” from the bondage of their religion. If only it was that black and white.

In the Belgian parliament is Mahinur Ozdemir. She made the news in 2009 not because she was – at 26 – the youngest ever to be elected, but because she won, despite donning the Muslim headscarf.

The irony would not have been lost on Brussels-born Ozdemir, that if her family were still living in their native Turkey, she would never have been allowed to run. Turkey bans women working in the public sector from wearing the headscarf.

It's reactionist in a world perceived to be increasingly hostile towards Muslims to jump at the proposed European legislation as being just anti-Islam. It is also more than that. Some have noted that the face veil is banned for the same reason motorcycle helmets are not allowed in public buildings: they obscure the identity of the wearer.


 Headscarves may be worn for a variety of purposes, such as for warmth, for sanitation, for fashion or social distinction; with religious signifiance, to hide baldness, out of modesty, or other forms of social convention.

The headscarf or hijab is a slightly more revealing form of head-covering than the face veil or the niqab.

Photo credit: Özgür Mülazımoğlu


In April, Bangladesh passed a law that made it illegal to force women in educational institutions to wear the headscarf. Among all the legislation being inked, this perhaps best embodies a view to protect the woman's right to choose, in this case, her clothing.

And to be certain, although some Muslim women do don the headscarf under pressure, that's not the case for all women.

Said Ozdemir: “[W]ith or without Hijab, my view of the problems in this country and finding solutions to them and helping others will be the same. I cover my hair, but not my ideas, and the Islamic headscarf will in no way be an obstacle to my political activity.”

Zainub Razvi is another who chooses to wear the headscarf and does not regard it as a symbol of oppression, as she argues in "Hijab and why I observe it."

Wearing the headscarf is an expression of faith and cultural identity, and should be – when exercised freely – celebrated as a part of our diversity.

The Islamic headscarf and face veil have taken on political implications. They won't be easy issues to resolve, but let's take a leaf from the villagers of Pulau Perhentian. European women fly halfway round the world here to bronze their pale skins. The locals may not understand why, but they welcome them to lounge in a state of undress that they themselves would find immodest, though the foreigners are asked cover up in town where the mosque and schools are located. This is why it is paradise. Not just for the turquoise waters and fine white sand.

This is paradise because in this perfect world, it's about “live and let live”.


Related Story:

Hijab and Why I Observe It

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi