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A Muslim woman buys a hijab as she prepares for the Eid celebration during Ramadan on July 13, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)


Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab are just as Muslim as those who do

June 28, 2016

The discussion of the hijab and Muslim women remains at the center of public debate in many secular societies.  France, which bans by law face coverings in public places, is obsessed with the question: “To wear or not to wear — to accept or not to accept — the headscarf?” Canada prides itself on its tolerance of the garment. But the U.S. is still trying to figure out how the public and the potential wearers feel about it.

Recently, a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and wants to join the military was accepted by Norwich University military college in Vermont (after having been rejected by the Citadel because of her insistence on maintaining her hijab). The Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana’s recent launch of a line of hijabs (which cover just the head) and abayas (a shoulder-to-toe drape to cover a woman’s body) for sale in the U.K. and elsewhere triggered more controversy.

Though these steps toward greater acceptance of the hijab in the West demonstrate respect for diversity, it is important not to narrow down Muslim women’s identify to one outward symbol. The hijab should not be normalized as the only “Muslim” choice.  The views, identities, and norms of those who choose not to wear the hijab are as legitimate and various as the reasons for wearing it.  In some countries, there are as many Muslim women who do not wear the hijab as Muslim women who do, and the discussion within Muslim culture itself is a controversial one, as hijab is not a fundamental aspect of Muslim tradition.

Some Islamic scholars believe head covering is an obligation and some believe it is not. The majority of Muslims in the world accept the hijab as part of Islam, but also believe that the decision to wear or not wear the garment is a woman’s individual choice.

The practice and its meaning have changed over time.  A few decades ago, in the 1960s and ’70s, the headscarf was worn in some places for traditional and religious reasons — as in the case of my maternal grandmother and the generation of Iraqi women before her. Some took it off in the 1950s and ’60s, during a wave of socialist movements throughout the Middle East as a show of modernity, as in the case of my paternal grandmother. Over time, most women gave up the headscarf: foregoing it was a show of progress and education, as in the case of my mother and her friends.  But some of their daughters or granddaughters of today are adopting the hijab as a display of political identity and protest against leaders’ suppression of freedom of choice. Some leaders have punished anybody viewed as religiously observant, those with extreme and sometimes not so extreme tendencies (this as growing movements have used religion as a form of political opposition to ruling leaders).

But such politically tinged symbolism is only part of the story of the hijab in Muslim women’s lives.  In Gulf countries such as the UAE and Qatar, both men and women cover their heads for traditional reasons — men wear a white scarf and women wear a black scarf against the sand and heat of the region. They distinguish between the sartorial tradition and their observation of the religion.  Some women continue the covering regardless of the context they are in, and some only wear it on formal occasions, taking it off when they socialize or travel.

What is not talked about is the fact that throughout the Middle East and in Muslim majority countries where it is not compulsory under law (Iran and Saudi Arabia are the only two countries out of 49 Muslim majority countries that do require it by law), many women choose not to wear the hijab.  These women may be equally observant of the religion, but don’t define their identity as Muslim women in terms of the headscarf. Such women may very well object to being called secular: they are just as likely to be observant as their peers who cover their heads. Those who do wear it, do so for nuanced and diverse reasons.  Some women adopt the head covering as an expression of modesty only upon reaching what they define as old age — as young as 40 years old.

In Tunis, Tunisia, I asked Fadia Bouziz, a woman in her early 40s what triggered her to adopt the scarf recently. She casually said, “Oh this?” pointing at her head.  “Oh I just adopted [it] when [I] turned 40. You know to show my modesty as an older woman.” It was no big deal for her — more a passing decision than an existential identity question, she said.

I posed the same question to a mother and daughter in Gaza who both wear the headscarf. The mother said, “I am against my daughter wearing it.  Why she is doing that when this has suffocated me for a while now?” The daughter explained that it started with a bunch of her friends in high school who decided to all wear it as a girls’ pact.  The mother, too, had adopted the scarf way back in college with her best friend, and when she didn’t like wearing it and took it off, her girlfriend got mad at her and ended the relationship.  To keep the friendship, the mother kept the scarf, and 20 years later it has become part of her attire. Some women feel that once they have put on the headscarf for whatever reason, it is hard to take off, since others might judge their change of heart.

Of course, some women do adopt the headscarf for religious reasons. The style of their hijab and its colors reflect their commitment to modesty and religious observance. Others wear it in order to be given more freedom of mobility in their conservative neighborhoods, or to appease family members who believe the hijab is proof of piety.  There are those who wear it as part of their political identify, as a defiant statement against what they feel is discrimination against women who adopt it.

This diversity of voices and behaviors can be seen in every family and community. In my own family, a couple of female cousins wore the headscarf for a period of time. Eventually one chose to give it up while the other chose to keep it.  In neither case was the choice seen and treated as a threatening or critical matter.

The danger lies in making hijab the defining issue for all Muslim women. To do so is to deny the diversity of Muslim women, and drown out the voices and identities of those who choose not to wear the hijab.

At a recent New York dinner that I hosted for a few Muslim women visiting the city from various countries to discuss their issues and concerns, those who wore the hijab took over the discussion. They spoke of their relationship with the hijab, how their parents dealt with it (not all parents are supportive of the hijab), how their friends and the public responded to them.  Though half the dinner attendees were Muslim women who do not cover their heads, they barely had a chance to speak. Finally, a young woman from Sudan broke the silence and said, “It is time for women who are wearing the hijab to defend the right of those of us who are not wearing it.  For years, you felt suppressed and judged for wearing the hijab.  Now it is those of us who are not wearing it that feel suppressed and judged. If we are talking about women’s rights and freedom of choice, you need to defend and respect our rights not to wear it as much as you expect us to respect and defend your rights to wear it.”  I think her appeal applies to all who do not want to be cornered by a stereotype.

Though Dolce & Gabbana’s intentions may be honorable, they also are crossing a perilous line: perhaps normalizing the hijab as the default option for Muslim women. A good percentage of the population of Muslim women do not wear the hijab and they are just as Muslim as those who do. Individuals have the right to make the hijab part of their identity. But societies and companies should not get involved in that process, for they often miss the nuances of the reasons behind an individual woman’s decision.  To wear or not to wear is not the urgent question here.  Not making the hijab the question in the first place is the way forward.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit


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