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‘Shocking and Fantastic’: Miss Tørklæde 2008 and the Headscarf Debate in Denmark

“I feel like it’s a civil war.”
– blogger Helen Latifi on the debate 

Pageants have caused their fair share of controversy. Over the past thirty years, especially, as the feminist movement has gained momentum and influence, the idea that women should be judged based on how they look in a bathing suit has lost some popularity. But what about how they look in a hijab? That’s the premise of Miss Headscarf 2008, a competition launched by Danish public broadcasting company DR this past May through its youth division, Skum-tv. We were originally drawn to the idea because it seemed like a bold and innovative way to address an issue that has become the subject of increasingly heated debate in Denmark. Here, in a microcosm of the clash of civilizations being played out in the Danish media, the ‘Western’ beauty pageant meets with ‘Muslim’ values of modesty and chasteness, challenging both stereotypes and the notion that they are somehow fundamentally incompatible.

More than just a program, Skum is a community designed to foster debate among its target audience roughly aged fifteen to twenty; it incorporates blogs and a lively online discussion forum. Rune Sparre Geertsen, Skum’s chief content editor, first came up with the idea of the competition as a way to counter the polarized nature of the public discussions of the headscarf in Denmark. By focusing on what he says is an ignored aspect of the scarf – its stylistic, expressive functions – he hoped the initiative would cast a new light on the debate as well as steer it away from the heavy religious and political aspects that have framed it as an un-nuanced, black and white issue. He wanted to involve Danish youth in a debate long dominated by politicians and media pundits and, more importantly perhaps, to give young Muslim women themselves a voice. 

Rikke Andreassen, a professor at the School of Art and Communication at Malmö University who is working on a comparative study of debates around the headscarf in Europe with EU project VEIL, describes how the headscarf has been used as a divisive tool by politicians: “What we have in Denmark is a lot of politicians who are using gender equality as an instrument. They now say: ‘we have gender equality, therefore we can’t accept women with a headscarf because Muslim society is patriarchal.’ Politicians who never ever voted for women-friendly legislation now use this argument in an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration agenda.” 

To understand how the debate came to be so charged, we need to examine its development over the past few years. The most recent debate concerning the headscarf has centered on the government’s preparations to pass legislation prohibiting judges from wearing any political or religious symbols. This proposal has resulted in not only internal conflict between the government Liberal Party (Venstre) and the opposition Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiet) but also between the two parties’ constituents. A recent poll conducted by Gallup on behalf of the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende showed that a fourth of Venstre’s electorate disagree with the proposed legislation, while 58% of the questioned voters for Socialdemokratiet consider it unnecessary to legislate on the matter. 

The ban on religious symbols for judges follows a long line of similar debates. After the latest election in Denmark, there was a period of intense debate surrounding the young politician Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, who was elected as a substitute for Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen of the left-wing party Enhedslisten. The controversy there was about whether she should be allowed to address the Parliament while wearing a headscarf, with some opponents characterizing the scarf as a totalitarian symbol that is actually antithetical to the principles of democracy. 

This kind of extreme polarization is typical of any mention of the headscarf in the media or government in Denmark, and it is exactly what Skum was aiming to challenge with Miss Headscarf. As we went about our research, our own opinions were challenged again and again by people on all sides of the issue. It became important for us to examine the features of the debate itself: How is it being played out? Whose voices do we hear and whose are excluded? Is having this debate a healthy and important part of the process as Danish society becomes increasingly multicultural or is it a symptom of deep intolerance?

Returning to Miss Headscarf 2008, the lens through which we chose to approach these broad questions, we wanted to know how the competition fits into the bigger picture of the debate. Did it have a real impact on what was being said and how? Was it just a brief media ploy? How did the people involved – organizers, contestants, judges – feel about it before, during, and after? How did outside groups – politicians, journalists, activist organizations – react or portray it? Finally, did the contest accomplish any of its stated goals?

Goal 1: The fashion twist

In a debate so fraught with political and religious significance, invoking the fashion aspect of the wearing of the headscarf seems tangential at best, if not downright frivolous. But that’s exactly the problem: the headscarf has become symbolic for the entire debate about immigration and integration of Muslims in Denmark, and the burden of this symbol falls disproportionately on young Muslim women. Highlighting this neglected aspect of the scarf – the possibility of wearing it for style and self-expression – serves several useful functions. 

Firstly, it challenges many common assumptions about women who wear headscarves: that they lack individuality, that they are oppressed, that no one would ever choose of her own free will to put on the scarf. One of the contestants, twenty-three year old Batoul, told us she was initially drawn to the competition for this very reason: “I liked the concept because people have a totally fucked-up idea of what a girl with a headscarf is like – like we’re an army.” Emphasizing the diversity of backgrounds, nationalities, and religious and political views among headscarf-wearing women was a common theme brought up by nearly all our interview subjects. There are as many different reasons to put on a headscarf, and as many ways to wear it, as there are women who choose to do so. 

Originally from Kuwait, Batoul came to Denmark at the age of three, and now lives and studies at Copenhagen University. She will receive her bachelor’s degree in Arabic this winter. Growing up in Esbjerg, she was always active working with the municipality and within her communities for better understanding and integration. She describes growing up with the scarf as a process where it became part of her and says she chooses to wear it “despite the fact that you don’t have to wear a scarf to be a good Muslim.” Batoul says it became much easier for her to proudly wear her scarf when she moved from Jutland – where “you get confronted more…people pull on your scarf, say things, old ladies cross the street or move their purse to the other side” – to Copenhagen, where she no longer feels like the only one. She’s also participated in Politiken’s ‘I am also a Dane’ (‘jeg er også dansker’) campaign. 

When Batoul told us that she started wearing a headscarf at the age of seven, she added immediately that of course at this age it had very little to do with religion (“How much consciousness could I have had when I was seven?”) and much more to do with her wanting to look like her mother. In contrast, Helen Latifi – popular blogger and one of the judges of Miss Headscarf 2008 – told us decidedly: “If my child came when she was seven years old and asked if she could wear a scarf, I would say no.” Spokeswoman Bettina Meisner of the Islamic Faith Community agrees that it’s neither practical nor desirable for very young girls to wear a headscarf. We include their perspectives here not to undermine Batoul’s point or criticize her experience, but to highlight the very different opinions and approaches within the Muslim community itself, differences that are completely ignored in a public discourse that lumps all Muslims together and reduces the religion itself to one highly visible controversy. Latifi emphasizes the need to challenge that oversimplification and the idea that Islam is one monolithic thing that is the same for all Muslims: “Islam is much more than praying five times a day, not eating pork, wearing the scarf – it’s a whole perspective on the world. You have to accept that there are a lot of points of view in Islam. I feel that this aspect is so hard to perceive.”

Nearly all of our interview subjects agreed that the headscarf isn’t even that central to Islam and expressed frustration at the narrow-minded focus on it as such in Danish politics and media. “This is my style,” says Latifi. “You can express yourself even though you have faith. You don’t have to be boring and dead.” She admits she herself held that stereotype before she became religious. “We need people to see it’s only fabric,” agrees Batoul, which points to another important function served by the emphasis on fashion in Miss Headscarf 2008. By calling it a fashion competition, Rune explains, they could “pretend” the issue isn’t political and religious, distancing it from those dimensions and putting the headscarf in the media in a totally different context however briefly. 

When asked about this specific objective, Vibeke Manniche, head of the organization Women for Freedom (Kvinder for Frihed) stressed that it was naïve and downright dangerous to view the scarf as just a piece of fabric. She argues that it is a contradiction to call it just a piece of fabric and then insist on the importance of wearing it. “There is nothing optional,” she says emphatically, “about the headscarf. The scarf symbolises purity and chasteness. Girls cover themselves to accomplish this and it holds them in gender-based stereotypes that are oppressive. The bottom line is that as long as the man or boy doesn’t have to wear it, why should the woman?” When we asked Batoul about Women for Freedom, she laughed and said she would like to sit down and talk to them because “they don’t know anything, women trying to fight for other women’s rights. If they knew me, they wouldn’t fight for me. I have my rights, I know my rights.”

The winner, eighteen year old Huda Falah, was chosen because of what judge Uffe Buchhardt, Danish fashion guru, called the “fantastic and shocking” light blue colour of her scarf. Perhaps talking about the scarf in this uncharacteristically light-hearted way brings the debate closer to the experience of Muslim girls who put it on every day thinking of the visual impact of their outfit and not its political implications. “What happens when you make the headscarf politicised,” explains Rikke Andreassen, “is that every single woman who wears a headscarf becomes political” whether she wants to be or not. Helen Latifi’s description of the exhausting nature of her day-to-day struggle as a woman who wears a headscarf in the public eye confirms this: “It’s hard to be yourself. You always have to push, you’re always one step behind. Your identity is under assault – I want to be Danish, I feel Danish, but I’m not allowed.”

Bettina Meisner agrees that this is a large part of the problem for young Muslim women and says furthermore that “it’s a politically created problem” and most Muslims she’s talked to haven’t experienced problems related to the scarves in their daily lives or their jobs.

Goal 2: Refreshing the debate

In recent years, the political debate on integration in Denmark has left the confines of Parliament and reached the streets. The question of the Muslim headscarf is a topic that is hotly contested and debated not only on the political scene, but also in the media and reaching far into the everyday conversations of the average Dane. 

The second stated goal of the Miss Headscarf 2008 competition was to add a new angle to the now tired debate regarding the headscarf. Rune Sparre Geertsen emphasized that Skum “didn’t do a journalistic examination, that wasn’t the idea. We left it to the young people to debate. That was the goal and that is something we accomplished; we received over 500 debate threads on our online forums.” The broader social debate was also influenced as the competition drew a lot of attention from various sectors. 

Both the domestic and foreign media weighed in, a fact that actually made Geertsen nervous: “There were journalists calling, BBC calling. The bombing of our embassy in Pakistan had just taken place and people were calling up to ask if we were cancelling the competition. From day one, it was mostly about crisis management. It was important that the competition should be seen and understood in a Danish context.”  The BBC connected the story to the infamous cartoon crisis of 2006, a simplistic narrative that, like the debate about the headscarf itself, obscures many of the subtleties of the situation of Muslims in Denmark. The two biggest successes, according to Geertsen, are the positive editorial in BT, a mainstream tabloid newspaper, and the appearance of Huda Falah on Aftenshowet, a popular Danish talk show. These are two venues that reach a much broader audience and may serve to break down barriers. 

The reactions outside of the media were not as varied. Politicians, religious and feminist organizations were all quick to voice their disapproval. “I was personally surprised that the politicians reacted so heatedly to this initiative,” said Geertsen. However, given the intense political debate that has surrounded the headscarf in recent years, it’s hardly shocking that public figures on all sides of the issue felt obligated to make statements. 

Geertsen stresses that “the hardest part, since this is a multicultural project, has been finding a way of respecting both sides. We didn’t just challenge the anti-Muslims, we challenged the Muslims as well.” Both religious organizations, such as the Islamic Faith Community, and the feminist organization Women for Freedom consider the competition inappropriate but for very different reasons. Vibeke Manniche of Women for Freedom said that “the Miss Headscarf 2008 competition contributed to preserving an oppressive symbol. The headscarf is a religious, culturally manipulative and indoctrinating symbol that contributes to keep women in a submissive position.” This reaction didn’t surprise at all, as many have mentioned that the debate is not only un-nuanced, but kept that way by the interests involved. If you try to bring any nuance to the debate, you get called a Muslim lover or they accuse you of hating Danish culture or glorifying oppression. Though according to Manniche, statements such as this are not fair. “Our fight is a fight against female oppression in any religion; we are not only targeting Islam. In fact, what is currently polluting the debate is the emphasis on who thinks what. This goes beyond party politics.”

On the other hand, the negative reaction of the Islamic Faith Community could seem surprising, perhaps it was expected they would be supportive of the attempt to bring some nuance and new angles to the debate. Spokeswoman Bettina Meisner explained to us that it was not the intention of the editors at DR that her organization took issue with, but the shallow focus of the competition: “I’m sure their intentions were the best, and they wanted do good. If it had been a competition about intellectual things, it would have been different, but it was just about looking at women as objects. I think it was a cool idea, but I wish it had been under other circumstances.”

Goal 3: Voices of Muslim women

The third – and perhaps most important – goal of the competition was to give a voice to young Muslim women in a debate that rages on around them, about them, but almost never with them. In almost any other sphere of life, with almost any other issue, it is inconceivable that a debate that so deeply affects daily life would not include the voices of those whose lives it affects the most. When you let Muslim girls speak for themselves, says Geertsen, “you hear things you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. A lot of people can learn from that.” 

And yet the debate in Denmark is dominated by politicians, media, and interest groups – all institutions to which Muslim women have limited access and little representation. They ignore the real experiences of young Muslim women in Denmark about whom they argue so much and, in doing so, are able to pretend they are actually speaking not just about them but for them. According to Rikke Andreassen, this is a problem not only because it excludes the important perspectives of these young women, but also because it “constructs them as passive objects, playing into the very myth about Muslim women being passive and powerless.” 

Did Miss Headscarf succeed in creating a space for the voices of young women who wear headscarves to be heard? Yes and no. In many ways, the format of the contest itself could have been improved, as could the handling of the aftermath in the press. The Islamic Faith Community’s objections to the competition were echoed by others more closely connected to it. Batoul, herself a participant, would have liked to share more than her photo: “We didn’t get that much of a voice, we got a picture hidden somewhere on the Internet. We didn’t see what the girls thought or believed. Instead, we had the judges giving their opinions on the girls and their fashions.” Judge Helen Latifi “ would have made it a talk show or something, and added humor. Muslim people can make fun of themselves.” She also says she would have liked to have more to decide on than the photos, and suggests it would have been more effective if the contestants had been asked to submit some statement about themselves and what the scarf means to them.

However, both of them also agreed that some voice is better than none and hopefully this will lead to more opportunities for representation and participation in public life for Muslim women. Bettina Meisner acknowledges that Muslims in Denmark could do a better job making themselves heard. To improve this, she has been working to establish a new network called ‘Free Women’ that will act as an umbrella organization to bring together Muslims across Denmark and empower them to speak on their issues. They are preparing themselves for the debate that is sure to erupt in the fall as Parliament votes on the legislation regarding judges: “We don’t feel secure about this development, and I think it’s against the constitution. In fighting for our right to wear a headscarf, we don’t use Islamic arguments, we use Danish arguments. We think it’s very anti-Danish for governments to decide what people should and shouldn’t wear. We’re afraid if they succeed in banning the scarf for judges, this will just be the first step and it will spread to other working areas as well.” At the moment, the network encompasses thirty different Muslim organizations, and she doesn’t rule out cooperation with non-Muslim groups in the future. 

The competition has clearly evoked strong responses from both Muslim and non-Muslims, but it’s doubtful whether it has had real impact on the ongoing debate. Batoul hopes it’s brought another angle to the whole discussion, but honestly thinks “it was more like fifteen minutes of fame.” It may have had a greater impact if there had been more widespread support in the Muslim community, says Helen Latifi, and while “it was good that it showed a variety of Muslim girls, it didn’t change anything.” 

While it is inarguably positive to have discussion in a democracy, debate is not good in and of itself, and this debate in particular will never move forward if the women whose lives it touches most deeply are not brought into the fray. Rikke Andreassen cautions against what she calls ‘forced expression,’ or tokenizing, where the only thing women who wear a headscarf are asked to speak out in public about is the headscarf itself, rather than the myriad other things they may be interested in or experts on. “In an ideal world,” she says, “veiled women would get a voice on issues besides the headscarf. If we had women wearing headscarves and people with disabilities and openly trans people speaking as experts on nuclear weapons instead of just on the issues of those minorities, it would be very different.” She goes on to say that she believes representation is key to improving the situation of Muslim women in Denmark, as well as that of other minorities. She imagines a media, Parliament, educational system, and police force, the diversity of whose members better reflects that of the general population. If that is indeed how things are to change, Miss Headscarf was a tiny step but nonetheless a step in the right direction. 

References

Interviews 

Rune Sparre Geertsen; Chief content editor for Skum-tv (25th of June)
Batoul; Contestant in Miss Headscarf 2008 (26th of June)
Helen Latifi; Judge in Miss Headscarf 2008, (27th of June)
Birte Siim; Professor at Aalborg University, researcher on Debates about Female Headscarves in Europe (Answered questions through email)
Rikke Andreassen; Lecturer at Malmö University and researcher on the EU project VEIL (30th of June)
Vibeke Manniche; Head of Women for Freedom (30th of June)
Bettina Meisner; Spokeswoman for Islamic Faith Community (30th of June)
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