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The Hijab: To Ban or Not to Ban

The picture that accompanies this article shows a woman wearing a burqa (Photo credit to Daderot, Wikipedia Commons).

The country of France has been in the news lately for banning Muslim women's burqas and headscarves known as the hijab. Specifically, French legislators voted to deny women and girls from wearing the hijab while playing sports. Technically, the French Senate voted to ban "conspicuous religious symbols" in sports competitions. This ban on Muslim apparel has been simmering in French politics since 1905. In detail, France is a secular country, and in 1905, it passed a law giving the French and their immigrants the freedom of religious exercise. This law also prohibits public servants from wearing religious garb during work. In 1994, the French updated their rules to ban headscarves and other religious apparel such as Christian crosses and yarmulkes (Jewish skullcaps) from being worn in public buildings and places considered the public domain because state institutions should be religiously neutral. In 2010, France banned full-face veils, known as the niqab, again in public spaces. I will go as far as to report that in 2016, authorities across 15 towns and municipalities across France banned the "burkini." The burkini is a one-piece swimsuit covering the whole body except the face. Except for the head covering, that was the bathing suit women wore in the early 1900s. Muslim women complained loudly, but there was no notable discontent from the other religions involved.

In France, the Muslim population is about 6 million, about 8-9 percent of the total population, so this law affects significant numbers. When I see a controversy like this, I like to know all the facts before coming down on one side or the other. Let's see what the facts are.

A little research shows that statuettes of veiled priestesses date back to 2500 BC, some 4,500 years ago. Elite women in ancient Mesopotamia and the Byzantine, Greek, and Persian empires wore veils and head coverings to signify respect and high status. Archaeology in 800 BC shows the Assyrian Empire had laws detailing those specific women, depending upon their rank, family, class, and occupation in society, must wear veils versus women like slaves and prostitutes who were not permitted to wear veils. Before Alexander the Great, respectable Greek women were expected to wear clothing that concealed them from the eyes of strange men. Roman pagan custom mandated that priestesses of Vesta (Vestal Virgins) wear head coverings.

During the time of Abraham (1900 BC), the Bible records that it was normative for women to wear a veil (Genesis 24:65). However, the best-known view on Christian head covering is delineated in the Bible by the passage (1 Corinthians 11: 5), which states that "every woman who prays with her head uncovered dishonors her head."

The Qur'an

The Qur'an instructs both Muslim men and women to dress modestly, but different countries have implemented the instructions along cultural lines. Of the more than 6,000 verses in the Qur'an, only about half a dozen refers specifically to the way a woman should dress in public. There are two verses worth listing. The first verse, 24:31, mentions using a veil or a shawl, depending upon which translation you use. The second verse, 24:30, refers to Muhammad telling his wives to wear outer garments when they go out.


Several hadiths are sourced by Abu Dawud, Sahih Bukhari, Imam Malik, and Jami at-Tirmidhi, all reputable scholars. The four primary Sunni law schools hold, by consensus, that women must cover their hair and the entire body except for their hands and face while in the presence of people of the opposite sex other than close family.

Four types of apparel, Five Choices

In Muslim culture, the purpose of the veil, the head covering, or the outer garment is to promote modesty. In the Muslim vernacular, modesty concerns how both men and women look at strangers, how they walk, and what they wear. Different cultures are more stringent than others; thus, there are different garments to consider. For example, women in Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and Turkey prefer the headscarf. This head covering is referred to as a hijab, and it specifically refers to a cloth wrapped around the head and neck, covering the hair but leaving the face visible. Saudi and Pakistani women prefer the niqab. The niqab covers the entire body, hands, and face with an opening for the eyes. Another version of the niqab is a partial covering: a veil across the mouth and a headscarf over the top of the head. Iranian women prefer the chador, a full-body-length shawl covering the head and body but leaving the face open. In Afghanistan, all women must wear the burqa. The burqa is a full-body veil, and women can see through a mesh screen over the eyes. There is always the option not to wear any of these garments. Many American and Lebanese Muslim women choose not to wear these restrictive garments.

Several variables will influence the covering a woman will wear. First, several governments like Afghanistan or Iran mandate a type of cover. The Morality Police enforce this mandate (see my article on The Morality Police, 10/31/21). Second, the degree of religious fundamentalism that your immediate family believes in, and third, the individual's strength for self-actualization. Many Westerners believe the head covering is forced upon them and that Muslim women look to these laws as relief from not having to wear them. That is not the case at all. Many Muslim women are pious in their own beliefs, and wearing the hijab is their way of obeying the commandants for modesty.

It seems that France is not by itself banning religious apparel. Some 16 countries have banned the hijab in some cases and the burqa in all cases, including some Muslim-dominated countries (Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia). While France says they are being religiously neutral, other countries come right out and say that 1) they want their population to become more Westernized, more progressive, and restricting Islamic dress might help achieve that goal; 2) the burqa hampers security protocols of identification. (It's hard to see who is behind the hood if the face is hidden.)

Citing the risk of radicalism and security threats, several additional countries are also considering the ban. Most Western governments use public money for schools, colleges, universities, and public places like stadiums and mass transit. Government policies usually encourage assimilation, and the rationale for banning religious garments is that wearing overt religious symbolism can create divisions between people in the group.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are also countries like Iran and Afghanistan where hijabs and burqas are compulsory. Neutral countries like the US, Canada, and the UK neither have a ban nor support wearing hijab or burqa. It remains to be seen how things like the hijab and burqa will evolve in the 21st century.

In closing, I have posted copies of the two Muslim congress members in the US House of Representatives. These pictures were taken from their official Web sites.

Congressman Omar is an immigrant from Somalia and is wearing the hijab.

Congressman Tlaib was born an American and is not wearing one.

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