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Among two Worlds: Interviews with Veiled Young Women on the Symbolism of the Headscarf in the Netherlands

 

Esmaa, a twenty-seven year old Dutch Muslim of Moroccan background sits covered in bright pink, a fluorescent complement to a radiant smile and extroverted mannerisms that some of the more socially conservative cultures would not permit. “It only states that I’m a Muslim and nothing about my personality,” she says of her hijab. 

And yet, the impassioned public discourse on the issue of the headscarf has centered overwhelmingly on the broader interpretations of the hijab’s symbolism. To many in the West, the traditional practice of Muslim women covering their hair represents backwardness, subjugation of women, and even radicalism. To many Muslims, the debate over headscarves typifies discriminatory Western attitudes and apprehension toward Islam in another openly patronizing assertion of the superiority of Western values and culture. To ethnocentric ideologues on either side of the debate, the confrontation over the hijab confirms the incompatibility of the notions of the West and Islam. 

However, the headscarf controversies have not been isolated phenomena in France, Germany and the West. Muslim countries in general (including Indonesia and Egypt), and Turkey in particular, are also severely divided on the issue. But despite the likelihood that discourse within the Muslim communities promises to be more meaningful and constructive in the long-run, attention has nonetheless primarily focused on the Western debates because of the political climate and the primacy paid to the relations between Islam and the West.  

Under the recent initiative of the European Commission, research commissions have been established in eight European countries, including Turkey, to explore the differences in policies and debates on the national level, and to explain their distinct developments and implications.

Doutje Lettinga, conducting research on the Dutch debate, notes that “in general, debate over the headscarf (in the Netherlands) surrounds secularism in the public sphere”. She notes that Dutch official policy towards the headscarf has been liberal but is concerned that popular discourse has perhaps been more intolerant and abrasive. “My impression is that increasingly, gender equality and radicalism are becoming more prominent issues within the debates”. If true, the shift is significant, altering the debate from an issue of appropriate religious policy within secularism to a focus on the interpretation and influence of Islam itself. 

At the heart of the debate—but marginalized within the dialogue itself—is the self-identification of women who wear the hijab. Of these, the experiences of young Muslim women living (often born) in the West are particularly interesting.  As they have negotiated their identity within the dichotomy of their communities and societies at large, they are in a unique position to speak about the significance of the hijab from the personal experience of a veiled Muslim woman raised in the West. 

In the hope of increasing the visibility and level of participation of these vital voices within the debate, young Dutch Muslim women—ethnic Turks and Moroccans as well as converted women—spoke of their personal identification with the headscarf, its political symbolism--- using the headscarf as a non verbal form of communication that is intended to influence the negative tendency of the white Dutch society towards Muslims nowadays--- and the impact of September 11th and the Theo van Gogh murder on both. Political symbolism as 

IDENTITY, COMMUNITY AND THE HIJAB

“It’s more than a dress code, it’s a behaviour code.”—Esmaa, 27

“I am not only a headscarf—I am a lot more—which I like to talk about as well.”—Josien, 18

For Muslim girls that have worn it since childhood, the hijab has long been a part of their identity. “It was normal to wear a headscarf for a Muslim girl—I didn’t know why; it was tradition,” says Jihad. Her sister Esmaa, who together with Jihad and their youngest sister stars in a Dutch television series confronting taboos and social issues in the Netherlands, recalls that “One day the headmaster of our school asked us if we wore our headscarves outside school…everyone raised her hand, except for me. I was so ashamed that I started to wear my headscarf always from that moment on. I found out later that some of my classmates had lied.” Some motives were more direct, “I started to wear my headscarf because I had to obey my mother,” Rükiye says.

If covering themselves at an early age because of tradition and/or social benefits and pressures, all of the women interviewed were adamant about the independence of their choice today. “Nowadays I believe that my headscarf is part of my identity as a young Muslim woman,” says Rükiye, absolving her mother. Josien declares herself as having “…several identities (and) wearing a headscarf is something which I do very consciously, more consciously than other choices I make in life.”

Esra and Yasemin started to wear the headscarf after becoming part of a more religiously conscious circle of friends. Each discovered themselves anew within Islam and Esra says her “headscarf was the first step I took to become closer to God.” Fatima, who has worn her hijab for three years, started to wear it because she wanted to commit herself further to Islam. “I was already doing my prayers, but I still felt something was missing, there was a feeling of emptiness…That’s when I decided to wear my headscarf.” 

Despite various identities with it, most fundamentally, the headscarf ties all the women with Islam. Some see the headscarf as symbolic of their Muslim identity, others as mere obedience to God. “The headscarf is a symbol of consciousness of the meaning of Islam,” says Yasemin. For Fatima, the headscarf is a form of worshipping God. ”The satisfaction of Allah is the most important thing for me and I don’t want anything else than the mercy of Allah”. ¬¬Jihad’s headscarf “is an expression of spiritual happiness I feel as a Muslim woman. It shows my way of living life, according to Islam.” According to Esmaa, the headscarf is not only an Islamic dress code, “A Muslim has to cover herself and dress in a modest way, but she also has to act in a modest way.” Modesty in this sense means not whishing to attract undue attention to oneself. 

For Esra, this approach and consciousness of modesty has “made me feel more secure of myself and gives me a feeling of inner peace.” Many girls spoke of the comfort the hijab provided them with, protecting them from objectification other women experience and ensuring they will be valued for their minds and souls. “A woman wearing a headscarf is like a present,” says Zahra. 

Within their communities, the women often reported positive associations with the headscarf. “Especially first generation Turkish people from my surroundings emphasize that a good Muslim girl is one who wears a headscarf,” says Rükiye. “By wearing a headscarf they take me more seriously and show extra respect towards me.” Zeliha says younger girls see her as a role model: “I teach a class of young girls about Islam and these girls have great respect for me. I don’t believe they would respect me that much and look up to me…if I wouldn’t be this religious and wear my headscarf.” Most women also felt that in their interactions with men in their communities, they were generally treated with more respect and admiration than women without headscarves. 

However, the feeling was not universally shared. Jihad felt that the respect girls wearing a headscarf used to receive had lessened recently.  “Some girls who wear a headscarf can be very non-Muslim in the way they live. My community is aware of this and the different form of respect they had towards Muslim girls wearing a headscarf has faded away in that sense.” And Hörü found that “When I hang out with my friends and I do not want to enter a bar because of my religion, Muslim friends are less understanding of my choice than non-Muslim friends.”

Some women who started wearing headscarves recently, converted women especially, expressed difficulty at having the choice accepted. “My family cannot accept my decision still. In that sense I am not accepted by my own community,” Nancy says. Esra has also encountered barriers. “My parents accept and respect my decision of wearing a headscarf, but other relatives and family friends don’t…They give me a hard time and still make remarks about my headscarf being old fashioned etc. which hurt my feelings.”

THE HEADSCARF AFTER 9/11 AND THEO VAN GOGH  

“You used to never think of…wearing a headscarf, now I do—I’m more conscious of it”. 

– Zeliha, 22.

“I started to wear my headscarf around the time of Theo van Gogh´s murder. I remember the reaction of my brother: ‘You chose the wrong moment’”, says Esra. Esmaa speaks of being physically confronted on a tram by a woman attempting to pull her headscarf off and the vast majority reports a discernable change in their interactions with the white Dutch society. 

The public attitudes “hardened”, “became less tolerant and understanding”, and questions once born of general curiosity turned interrogative. Many feel a stigma on the hijab as “oppressive” and notice a difference in the way they are perceived. “The headscarf is now automatically a negative image” says Jihad, “It used to have a cultural meaning. Now its seen as Islamic, with everything that this means today”. Her sister Esmaa agrees, “If you wear a headscarf, they brand you as very religious”. Most report increased awareness of discrimination and intolerance in the Netherlands—Esra comments that “I have to prove myself twice in order to be accepted as an equal.” Fatima goes a step further, “I believe that the Dutch society does not see me anymore as someone who is religious, but more as someone who is dangerous and extreme.”

Because of the increase in attention and scrutiny, nearly all women say that they have been forced to find out more about their religion, and that this exploratory process and that has brought them closer to Islam. Those who started wearing the headscarf after September 11th credit the change to the resulting familiarity and identity with Islam.  “Because of these developments I do feel more bounded to my headscarf” says Hörü, “I want to show that these negative prejudices towards women wearing headscarves are not true; I am free, I am not isolated, I can be emancipated with my headscarf”.  

This defense of Islam has been felt as a demand and a duty for most of the women. Zahra’s firm and uncompromising stand, “I do not like to be seen as a victim. I also do not feel the duty to defend myself” is shared by a couple women but they are exceptions. More often, there is agreement that the shift in society has put upon them the responsibility to explain Islam in response to the endless queries and criticisms. “I believe that a Muslim has the duty to defend Islam when needed…,” Yasemin says, “I feel the responsibility to defend my headscarf in this time as you cannot be ignorant towards the negative tendency in the Netherlands…acting as a responsible Muslim and telling people about Islam is every Muslims responsibility…; this is what society expects…in a democratic society.”

 Yet despite the politicization of the scarf around them, most of the women interviewed explicitly refused to attach any political symbolism to their headscarves. “Politics and the hijab are two separate things. If God didn’t ask me to wear a hijab, I wouldn’t” says Jihad. Zeliha agrees, “I wear it for religious reasons, not as a symbol of anything political”. Others felt that societal pressures had indeed imposed a certain political quality to the hijab. Yasemin says, “Nowadays I get more attention because I am a Muslim woman…I am visible and feel obliged to bear this responsibility to present myself as good as possible to the outside world. If you want to call this political, call it that. I don’t have another choice…I am put in this position”. 

Esra echoes her, “Because I wear a headscarf society puts me in a corner. I am put in this situation by the Dutch and international community…attacked because of my Muslim identity and the headscarf as its main symbol for a Muslim woman. I will stand up for it and one can see this as making a political statement.” She adds a qualifier, “…but again, this is not the main reason for wearing the headscarf.” Incidentally, each woman took great care to express that belief in Islam was the paramount reason for wearing her hijab, any political meaning was imposed by the shift in societal attitudes toward it and Islam.

SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION

“Politics and the headscarf go very good together, because they have nothing in common.”

— Fatima, 24

Even among the few voices featured, it should be clear that there is no such thing as a single perspective of a Muslim woman. The interviews, however, did reveal some parallels. All of the women regarded the headscarf as a basic expression of Islam, and a fundamental part of their duty and identity as a Muslim. Rather than merely a dress code, the women interviewed shared a sense that the hijab also represented a modest and humble code of conduct, and inspired pride and honour within them. Each was vehement in asserting the independence of her choice in wearing the scarf and bristled at the popular association of “oppression” with the headscarf.

Nearly all saw an observable difference in the social attitudes after September 11th and Theo van Gogh, including stigmatization of societal attitudes toward Islam, which most felt personally as well. Nancy caricaturizes the social alarm as if “underneath every headscarf, there can be a bomb.” During this time, most report having reinforced their identity with Islam and express frustration with the political climate around them. 

Nonetheless, all—to the woman—invariably sought to distance religiosity from politics. Intrinsically, the veil was symbolic only of identity as a Muslim woman, and even those who recognized a political element in its symbolism today did so reluctantly and with hesitation, insisting that the phenomenon is that of the times, and not of the scarf itself. 

More accurately (and honestly perhaps), the Western focus on the meaning of the headscarf is rather a discussion on what it means to be Muslim today. The debate on the hijab is more often a debate on Islam. 

Incidentally, all of the women interviewed are both Muslim and Western, of deep personal religiosity, while overwhelmingly secular—politically. They are proof, in unfortunate times that demand the most banal conclusions, that accepting Islam does not mean rejecting the political ideals of the West, and simultaneously, that being Western is not synonomous with non-Muslim. Rather than being symbolic of the threat of radical Islam, headscarves are an expression both of Muslim identity and of the fulfillment of duty for the women who sport them. To these same young women, the political symbolism of their veils extends only so far as being Muslim in the open carries political meaning in the Netherlands and the West today. But if merely being a Muslim is now a political statement in itself, then this is a representation of something wholly different and much less debated than the headscarf. 

 “I am…sick of all the debates on integration, while what the Dutch community actually wants is for me to assimilate. They push me in a position where I am obliged to defend myself against Western society…and I will not apologize for disturbing society because of my headscarf.”—Hörü 

 

References

 

Doutje Lettinga (interviewed 26-06-06)

Yasemin Kayapinar, 22; started wearing her headscarf at 18 (interviewed 23-06-06) 

Esra Yildiz, 20; started wearing her headscarf at 19 (interviewed 19-06-06)

Esmaa Alariachi, 27; started wearing her headscarf at 11 (interviewed 19-06-06)

Jihad Alariachi, 23; started wearing her headscarf at primary school (interviewed 22-06-06)

Hörü Korkmaz, 25; started wearing her headscarf at 16 (interviewed 19-06-06)

Zeliha Şimşir, 22; started wearing her headscarf at 9 (interviewed 19-06-06)

Zahra Soussi, 22; started wearing her headscarf at 16 (interviewed 27-06-06) 

Rükiye Çelebi , 19; started wearing her headscarf at 12 (interviewed 23-06-06)

“Fatima”, 24; started wearing her headscarf at 21 (interviewed 27-06-06)

Josien Besseling, 18; started wearing her headscarf in March 2006 (interviewed 28-06-06)

Imane Nancy Bok, 21; started wearing her headscarf at 20 (interviewed 28-06-06) 

 

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2006

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