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(A)Head of Her Times: The Sexual Politics of the Headscarf in the Netherlands

Headscarves and Heels: Women on the Streets

Women in heels take over the streets. Some are wearing bold red lipstick, some boast short skirts, and a brave few are even topless, exposing their breasts proudly with conviction and defiance. Welcome to Amsterdam’s first Slutwalk. On June 4, this march was coordinated by feminists around the world to protest the idea that women can be blamed for being raped because of the way they dress. Slutwalk affirms the right of women to wear what they want to, regardless of having to fear social and physical rebuke.

While the group of participants was certainly diverse, one face was missing from the crowd. Where were the women in headscarves? 

In many ways, the Slutwalk symbolizes the current direction of the feminist movement in Western countries like the Netherlands. During the past few years, feminists have been advocating for sex-positivity: an ideology which promotes open discussion about sexual activity, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation; especially for women whose sexual pleasure and agency have historically been denied. The absence of women in hijabs or niqabs at this event is particularly salient, as it reflects the broader tensions that have propagated between immigrant Muslim women and white (secular) feminists in the Netherlands. 

For many Dutch secular people, the presence of a niqab at the Slutwalk would be a paradox. How can a woman own her sexuality when she submits to such an ‘oppressive’ and patriarchal institution? Over the past few years, the headscarf has become increasingly political symbol of the integration of Muslim immigrants into Europe. The debate over the headscarf can no longer be avoided – it addresses us on the news, in our newspapers, on our streets. With so much exposure, the truth is: this debate is becoming stale. 

We would like to reinvigorate the headscarf debate by reinterpreting it as a fundamental question of sexual rights. This article departs from earlier debate not just by discussing the sexual politics of the headscarf, but also by calling for action and outlining steps to begin actually resolving this question. We will reevaluate the rhetoric of Dutch sexual tolerance and emancipation, and examine the personal, emotional, and sexual dimensions of the headscarf from the perspective of Muslim women themselves. By re-interpreting the hijab as a symbol of sexual capital among Muslim women, we hope to reframe the debate about the right to wear the hijab. In viewing women who choose to wear the headscarf as sexual minorities, we hope to inspirea new broad-based coalition of Dutch citizens united against the ban on headscarves in the Netherlands.

Stop at the Red Light: Sexual (In)tolerance in the Netherlands

Following the murder of Theo van Gogh, Geert Wilders and his PVV party began to call for Islam to be outlawed in the Netherlands. He argued that Islam is inherently anti-female and homophobic, and therefore not aligned with the liberal, tolerant culture of the Netherlands. In making these claims,Wilders insinuates that not only have gay people and women successfully assimilated into Dutch society, but that they have been emancipated. In framing his opposition to Islam in this manner, Wilders expresses his belief that native Dutch culture is sexually liberated, while the Muslim, non-Western lifestyle is sexually repressed and antiquated. According to Wilders, people who practice Islam,  by virtue of their sexual views and practices, cannot be ‘Dutch.’.

According to Karlijn de Blécourt, the Program Coordinator for the feminist organization Women, Inc., women’s groups are frustrated by the co-optation of minority issues by conservative politicians like Wilders. De Blécourt notes, “You see a lot of people getting angry about how Wilders uses feminist arguments to put aside Islam…the truth is he doesn’t care about us. Women feel used and feel as if their subject is not taken seriously, he tries to divide us more.” Doutje Lettinga, a PhD candidate who recently wrote her dissertation on the headscarf debate in Europe, agrees. “These politicians are saying they are the most pro-women party [and] using the discourse of liberation but actually do not implement policies for women and sexual minorities.”

It seems as if the emancipated nation that Wilders uses to justify his Islamophobia is actually an illusion. From his [offbeat? colorful? funky?] apartment overlooking the Red Light District, Gert Hekma, a lecturer in Gay and Lesbian Studies at the University of Amsterdam, has nothing but criticism for the co-optation of gay rights by this conservative party. “The Dutch think that we are the most free country in the world. The question is, what are they actually doing about it? All these parties say that they are pro-gay, but what do they actually do that is pro-gay? There are discrepancies between the tolerant image, and the real effect.” According to Hekma, while many people like to believe that there is no longer a need for gay emancipation in the Netherlands after the opening of marriage to gay and lesbian couples, continued anti-gay violence and a lack of comprehensive LGBTeducation in schools suggests otherwise.

The sexual tolerance that exists in the Netherlands is, to be quite blunt, fake. It serves to obfuscate ignorance and lack of interest about ways of being sexual that are not part of ‘normal’ Western heterosexual culture. The silence surrounding sexuality in politics does not speak to the presence of sexual emancipation. Rather, it suggests unease; an anxiety which still permeates our culture. Hekma argues that we don’t really know anything [about sexuality] and what people are doing sexually in the Netherlands. “There is no serious conversation about sexual culture because if you think about sex you think about privacy.” Indeed, according to Hekma, sexual norms still govern the way that sexuality is addressed in the Netherlands. To be an appropriately sexual citizen, one must be part of a heterosexual couple where both partners typically have a similar education, class, and age. Sex and love must be combined, and you shouldn’t have sex with people outside of your monogamous relationship. Most importantly, sex is private. Even in the same city that boasts the infamous Red Light District, Dutch people are still quite narrow-minded when it comes ton their sexual values. One must comply with the rigid, normative assumptions associated with one’s sexualidentity, and deviance from these sexual norms is not accepted. Thus, in accusing Islam of  being misogynist and homophobic, Wilders willingly overlooks the Netherlands' own continuing issues around gender and sexuality.

The Veiled Desire: The New Sexual Minority

Perhaps one of the most pervasive, yet understated, norms that shapes our sexual values is our Western Christian worldview. While we often congratulate ourselves for having a ‘secular’ society, the time has come for us to acknowledge how Dutch society still continues to be influenced by Western interpretations of Christianity. This is particularly evident in regard to our sexual values and norms. We must think critically about why we find certain sexual practices appropriate and others unacceptable.

First, what makes us think that Islam is sexually conservative? Muslim grassroots activist Cihan Tekeli and D66 Party Chairman of the D66 Party in Rotterdam,Selima Belhaj, tell us that the religion of Islam is actually very sexually progressive. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an does not advocate that sex must only be for procreation, nor does it have a concept of original sin. Eve is not responsible for eating the forbidden apple; in fact, both she and Adam are held responsible. The Qur’an actually encourages sexuality as something sacred and beautiful between a consenting couple. Conversely, the Bible has historically been – and still continues to be -- interpreted in a way that construes sexual desire as something shameful.

The current views surrounding sexuality in the Netherlands are influenced by a history of  certain sexual acts being seen as ‘sinful’ and ‘bad,’ and other (procreative) sex acts being seen as ‘normal’ and ‘good,’ according to the Christian concept of sin. In advocating for sex to be only for procreation, some Christian societies have constructed ‘sexuality’ as a private endeavor, relegated to the private realm of the family.

Take, for example, the way that the Netherlands has come to its ‘acceptance’ of homosexuality. According to Gert Hekma, 95% of Dutch people accept gay and lesbian people, but 45% of people do not like to see two men kissing in the streets. We accept gay people as long as they are not too gender variant, flamboyant, or sexual in the public sphere. We conflate ‘equality’ for gay and lesbian people with marriage – an institution inextricable from a long legacy of Christian ideals. Thus, we appear to accept alternative sexualities when they occupy the private sphere (that of marriage, the family, the home), while feeling threatened by the emergence of sexuality in the public sphere. We accept the ‘good’ gays (read: the ones who are our married neighbors with children) and reject the ‘bad’ gays (read: the sexually promiscuous drag queens voicing their attraction to our straight men on the streets). The same holds true for our acceptance of Islam. Using the rhetoric of multiculturalism we accept the ‘good’ Muslims, or the Muslims who practice their religion in the private sphere and keep it to themselves. The woman who wear the hijab are the ‘abject,’ ‘oppressed’ Muslims because they are so markedly Muslim, in the same way effeminate men are just too gay. These women present a version of femininity and sexuality that we are not comfortable with, in the same way that some sexually vocal gay men do. 

According to Rebecca Gomperts, director of the feminist abortion rights organization Women on Waves, mainstream media often portrays veiled women as victims. For Gomperts, this is similar to the victimization of prostitutes (as unquestionably victims of sex trafficking) and women who get abortions (as loose or fallen women). Gomperts argues that people who are against prostitution and pornography are also against the veil for the same reason: “they say that it’s a form of forcing women to a place where their bodies are being commodified, whether it’s through prostitution or sexual repression of Islam.” The victimization of these women – the figure of the prostitute, the veiled woman, the woman who had an abortion – is eerily reminiscent of the figure of Eve, the woman who must be saved from her sin.

From this perspective, we neglect to consider the agency involved in their decisions. Contrary to popular belief, many women actually choose to wear the headscarf. Women like television star Hajar Alariachi (Meiden van Halal) actually wear their headscarves in the Netherlands because they “do not want to be a seen as a lust object.” As Alariachi contends, “I don’t want to contribute to the current focus on beauty ideals in current society.” 

We do not mean to suggest that all women who wear the headscarf have chosen to do so (or have done so for these reasons), and we acknowledge the continual instances of sexual and gender oppression that take place in some Muslim households. However, we contest the idea that this oppression isn’t also a problem in the Netherlands, and challenge the conflation of the veiled woman with oppression. The truth is, many of these women have agency and may choose to wear the headscarf as a symbol of their views on modesty, sexuality, and their body. Indeed, what we may interpret as sexual oppression/conservatism from a Western (Christian) standpoint, may actually be a distinctly Muslim  version of sexual modesty. As Anam Maeed argues in her article “Islam, Modesty and Sex in the West” the Islamic notion of haya, or shyness, is actually a reflection of self-empowerment, of possessing enough confidence in oneself that one does not need to put one’s body on display for all to see. Just as a Western (secular) woman might wear heels to reflect her self-confidence and sexuality, a Muslim woman might choose to wear a hijab to reflect her own.

In her essay “Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality,” Naomi Wolf provocatively asks: are we in the West radically misinterpreting Muslim sexual mores, particularly the meaning to many Muslim women of being veiled or wearing the chador? And are we blind to our own markers for the oppression and control of women?” Her words echo our concerns with politicians like Geert Wilders, who seem to displace blame to Islam without reflecting on how Dutch culture itself is implicated in these issues. De Blécourt of WomenInc. reminds us that the Netherlands still has issues with the objectification and sexualization of women, especially in media and advertisements. Dutch women continue to experience social pressure to dress in provocative, revealing clothing in order to be ‘sexy.’ How is this pressure on women somehow immune to critique?

The Right to Privacy

Wherein lies the desire of the State to remove the veil and ‘liberate’ the Muslim woman? As Gomperts of Women on Waves suggests, “the discomfort that comes with the headscarf of the veil is that Western people are used to having everything public and open as a way of controlling it.” When a woman covers herself, she is no longer accessible for control.

As Gert Hekma suggests, the headscarf is now seen as “an accusation” it “brings sexuality into play.” A woman wearing a veil on the streets may be read as expressing a sexual preference – a desire for her body not to be consumed by objectification. A desire not to be sexual with someone is just as legitimate as a desire to be sexual with someone. Sexual preference not only involves what we are interested in sexually, but also what we are not interested in. In choosing to wear a headscarf to preserve her body and her privacy, a woman expresses a unique sexual preference in our Western world. In this sense, she can be read as a sexual minority – an individual whose sexual identity, orientation, or practices differ from the majority in the surrounding society.

The veiled figure of a woman on the streets of Amsterdam suggests that objectification and oppression of women still exists in the Netherlands. Semra Celebi, who used to wear a headscarf but no longer does, noticed that after she took off her headscarf she was shocked to find out that men ask her to go to bed with them. “They were definitely more sexually forward and definitely more likely to approach me.” The headscarf protects many women from the continual sexualization and objectification that occurs here in our very own ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive’ society.

In the same way that a sexual gay man in public makes our society uncomfortable, a veiled woman challenges and defies our conception of sexual normativity. She expresses that she is not necessarily interested in being objectified by male suitors and immediately indicates these sexual views in the public arena, a space that has been defined (by a Christian notion of sex as only being a part of the private realm) as de-eroticized.

Furthermore, talk of banning the veil can be read in light of the increasing discomfort with public sexuality in the Netherlands. Recently, the government has been trying to close down parts of the Red Light District and modulate the production of pornography. The State has been restricting the exposure of sexual symbols in the public realm, and the headscarf is only one of many symbols that are too threatening, too provocative for ‘tolerant’ Dutch sexual culture. 

If the government were to initiate a ban on wearing the headscarf in the public arena, not only would severely restrict the right of women to determine how they wish to convey their bodies and sexuality, it would also enforce Western norms of sexual propriety (that all women have to dress in a certain (Western) way to be liberated). However, we would not be surprised if such a ban was actually enacted. In doing so, the government would play the role of the Savior, the paternal figure responsible for saving the fallen woman, sinful Eve. But, according to Celebi, to truly emancipate a group of people you should not insult them. You should not victimize them. You should not assume that you know best and that they are ill-informed. Instead, you should listen and allow communities themselves to become involved with empowerment.

Looking (A)Head: Recommendations for the Future of the Headscarf Debate

No critique can be effective without presenting alternatives. Keenly aware of how urgent political and social issues in the Netherlands often get stuck on the ‘debate’ stage for years, we have devised several strategies to begin actually addressing the concerns we have raised.

Media Responsibility

Our first strategy involves changing the way the media frames and communicates the debate. It is important to recognize that the voices heard in the media regarding the headscarf debate had been predominantly non-Muslim. Alia Azzouzi, vice-president of the Muslim women's organization Al Nisa, fiercely speaks out against the one-sided view of Muslim women  brought forward by newspapers and journals: “The debate in politics and the media about the Muslim women is characterized by defining the problems. The Muslim women is seen as a case for which there must be found a solution. These solutions are brought forward by non-Islamic people who are against Islam in general.” There are multiple perspectives to explain why Muslim women’s voices have not been privileged in this debate. Some women accuse mainstream media of failing to encourage Muslim women to share their perspectives, while other women believe that Muslim women have been too timid to reach out to the media on their own. Thus, we simultaneously call for media to incorporate the perspectives of Muslim women more, and encourage Muslim women to actively reach out to media to communicate their stories. 

However, the lack of a female Muslim perspective in the headscarf debate is a symptom of a greater problem: the lack of a diverse voice in Dutch media in general. Muslim women should not only be invited to speak about the headscarf, but also about issues of politics, law, culture, and the arts. In order to change the current status quo, the media – including television, newspapers and internet – should offer the floor to more diverse social viewpoints that would give a respectable representation of multicultural Holland. Diversity in this sense does not restrict itself to  voices of Muslim women only, but to all voices produced by society. 

Additionally, the media must change the way that it frames the headscarf debate. According to Salima Belhaj, the focus of these debates is often non-essential issues (e.g. whether the hijab should be allowed in public places). This has diverted attention from issues that actually matter – such as the sexual rights [right to sexual expression] discussed above.

The oversimplification of the debate is symptomatic of yet another general problem: the tendency of Dutch media to reduce a complex situation to something that is simply the result of Islam, and to depict the ‘Muslim’ identity as a single static, stereotypical, and monolithic one. Belhaj describes a discussion she had at the local municipal meeting in Rotterdam. After Ramadan, many young Moroccan-Dutch and Turkish-Dutch guys made a ruckus in the center of the city. When Belhaj raised the possibility that the nuisance might have been the result of excessive drinking, her argument was swept aside based on the simplistic assumption that Muslim youth would never engage in alcohol abuse. Later, it was discovered that many of these youngsters had, indeed, been drinking after Ramadan. The real discussion should have been about alcohol abuse among teenagers and how to combat this, instead of a discussion of the ‘bad’ behaviour of Muslim youth. 

This simplistic and stereotypical understanding of Islam may be the result of an inability to differentiate between ‘religion’ and ‘culture.’ Feyza, a Turkish-Dutch Muslim student, feels that the discussions are often concerned with the negative influence of Islam on behaviour, when in reality it might actually be the specific individuals who misuse the concept of religion to justify their acts. Cihan Tekeli clarifies that, “There’s no religion without culture and no culture without religion, but religion is not culture.” 

By incorporating multiple perspectives on Islam, refusing to reduce it to a monolithic entity, and differentiating between ‘religion’ and ‘culture,’ we believe that the debate around not just the headscarf, but Islam in general, will be more productive. 

Sexual Education

We call for Dutch society to move beyond current norms of sexuality, and establish a more broad and inclusive understanding of sexuality and cultural differences through increased comprehensive sexual education for youth.

Unlike American universities, which offer many courses and institutionalized programs on Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Netherlands has very little to offer on this subject. Gert Hekma explains that his field of Gender Studies only constitutes a minor at the University of Amsterdam. Because Dutch society assumes itself to be so sexually tolerant, it is difficult to challenge this notion and teach people how to critique Dutch sexual norms and the current level of tolerance. By expanding university course offerings in this field, Dutch citizens will begin to think more critically about diverse sexualities, identities, and models of sexual propriety. Such  education will foster greater cohesion and understanding between people of diverse ethnicities, who may hold different sexual values.

From comments like those of Wilders, that Holland is sexually liberated while Islam is not, we can assume that people genuinely believe that the Netherlands is somehow more knowledgeable or aware of sexuality than people from predominantly Muslim countries. We propose that the government increase funding to prioritize comprehensive sexual education as a compulsory part of one's education in the Netherlands. This education should include a survey of global perspectives on sexuality, and should not privilege Western definitions of sexuality. This would ensure that all citizens, regardless of their background, be exposed to a broad survey of ideas about sexuality, sexual health, sexual violence, and sexual identity. Such a policy would greatly enhance Dutch society by giving people a better understanding of sexual politics and ethics. Increased sexual awareness will allow people to make more informed decisions about how they choose to construct and convey their sexual identity. No longer will we blame the veiled woman (or the heeled woman, for that matter) for being “oppressed” – for not knowing better.

According to de Blécourt, a ‘Cuntbook’ circulating during the period of sexual liberation during the 1970s. Various  examples of female genitals were placed together in a book, so that women could see that every body looks different and that there is no such thing as a perfect form. We consider this to symbolize the sexually diverse education and society to which we aspire. Though we may look different, we are all beautiful. There is no one way to be sexy.

Coalition Building

Throughout this article, we have critiqued Dutch society for not actually being sexually emancipated. Now we ask, what would sexual emancipation actually look like in the Netherlands? Gert Hekma favors a greater allowance for public sexual expression. “People should be allowed to sniff around.” Because sexuality in Dutch society continues to be relegated to the private sphere, it is still shoved behind closed curtains with the lights off. Gert Hekma is for opening the curtains and turning on all of the lights. For him, people should begin to engage in more public sex in order to liberate sexuality from the private realm. In contrast, Hajar Alariachi advocates for a ‘veiled walk’ in response to the recent Slutwalk. In her view, Dutch society easily tolerates people taking off their clothes. However, the moment one chooses not to reveal one's body, she is immediately labelled conservative and old-fashioned. 

There are those who advocate that sexuality be more visible and difficult to avoid on the streets, while others encourage a greater acceptance of modesty in sexual appearance. Both camps have been very concerned about their specific target groups. We do not believe that these positions are irreconcilable; we do not believe that Western and non-Western ways of displaying sexuality cannot coexist. We aspire to a world in which women have the freedom to reveal or cover their entire bodies in public without fearing sexual violence, harassment, or stigma.

Rebecca Gomperts and Doutje Lettinga speak longingly of the demonstrations in France against the ban on wearing the hijab in public spaces. In France, prostitution rights organizations and LGBT rights organizations united to oppose the ban. The victimization of veiled Muslim women resonated deeply with sex workers.. Lesbian and gay people, whose sexuality and privacy have been historically criminalized and interfered with by the State, saw the State overextending its power to include the personal decisions of Muslim women. We call for a more diverse set of voices to come out against the potential ban of the headscarf in the public arena. We do not think it is ethical to claim that you support the rights of one sexual minority (gays), and not another (veiled women). We do not think it is ‘just’ to accept the model minority – the good gay, the good Muslim – and reject the ‘bad’ sexual deviant, the ‘bad’ Muslim.

The time has come for us not only to stand – but to walk – in solidarity. We see beyond the Slutwalk, and beyond the Veilwalk, to the Emancipation Walk. Emancipation does not involve the mandating of either sexual frankness or sexual reservedness (whatever your cultural perspective might be). Sexual emancipation, as Lettinga implies, is “to be emancipated from discrimination, unequal opportunities, violence and stigmatization related to sex/gender norms and roles.” 



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Wolf, Naomi. “Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality,” Sydney Morning Herald,  August 30, 2008. http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/behind-the-veil-lives-a-thriving-muslim-sexuality/2008/08/29/1219516734637.html?page=fullpage.

Majeed, Anam. “Islam, Modesty and Sex in the West,” The Western Muslim Magazine. March 7, 2008. http://www.thewesternmuslim.com/index.php/articles/item/islam_modesty_and_sex_in_the_west.

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Alariachi, Hajar. ‘Meiden van Halal’. Phone interview. June 26, 2011.

Belhaj, Salima. Party chairman of D66 in Rotterdam. Rotterdam, Netherlands. June 25, 2011.

Celebi, Semra. Founder, “I took off my veil” Facebook page. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 25, 2011. 

de Blécourt, Karlijn. Program coordinator for WomenInc. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2011.

Göksu, Feyza. Personal communication, June 24, 2011.

Gomperts, Rebecca. Founder of ‘Women on Waves’. Skype interview. June 24, 2011. 

Hekma, Gert. Lecturer of Gay and Lesbian studies in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the UvA. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 21, 2011. 

Lettinga, Doutje. PhD candidate, VU University. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 23, 2011.

Tekeli, Cihan. Muslim community activist. June 21, 2011. 

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Netherlands Netherlands 2011


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