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By Atiya Chowdhury

In June 2020, Francisco Ferrer College – a University in Belgium – banned the wearing of a hijab on campus. This decision was met with backlash as thousands of students, of all religions, took to the streets in protest to show their solidarity with Muslims. Despite the hijab being a fundamental expression of faith in Islam, the Belgian Constitutional Court ruled that the prohibition of religious symbols – including the hijab –  did not violate the right for religious freedom. Whilst the hijab ban was not widespread across Belgium, the ban and subsequent acceptance of the ban by the court, demonstrates the increasingly negative view that society today has on the hijab.

In Islam, the hijab is an umbrella term used to describe modesty – a barrier between men and women – although it is more commonly synonymous with the headscarf that Muslim women wear. Both men and women have their own hijab which they have to follow in Islam to maintain their modesty; the headscarf and the niqab (a face-covering) are among the types of hijab Muslim women wear to show their devotion to God. 

Unfortunately, there are some instances where the hijab is imposed upon women against their will. Western society often neglects however, that for the majority of Muslim women, the hijab (in this case the headscarf and niqab) is a choice – the protests in Belgium being a clear example of the choice Muslim women are making.

The commonly mistaken attitude that the hijab is an oppressive symbol which strips women of their rights is one which is shared across the West. In France, the fine for wearing a niqab in public is up to €150 (£135), while the current fine for not wearing a face mask is €135 (£121). These fines illustrate the double standard that exists as the fine for not wearing a safeguarding necessity during a global pandemic is lower than the fine for wearing something that symbolises your religion. 

A key factor that makes these policies hypocritical, is that the niqab can double as a face mask. Yet, if a Muslim woman does not have a face mask on but she is wearing a niqab, she will not only be fined for wearing a niqab but will also be fined for not wearing a face mask. The underlying islamophobia on bans such as these only highlights the growing distrust towards Islam and the reluctance for society to accept the hijab as a religious symbol.

I have been wearing the hijab for around eight years and it has become such an integral part of my identity that without it I would feel naked. However, I am well aware that wearing the hijab comes with its own struggles. Before the days of social distancing, it would be a common occurrence that people would avoid sitting next to me on the train even if there were no other seats available. As soon as I walk outside, I am advertising to the world that I am Muslim and, as Islamophobia is becoming more normalised in public, this does not always lead to the most positive of interactions. 

In a more recent experience, I made a make-shift niqab out of my headscarf as I did not have a face mask on me, and I was immediately self-conscious about how people would react. I grew concerned for my own safety. Even though nothing happened on this occasion, this very rational fear I had was brought upon by the constant negative media portrayal of the niqab, as well as the current niqab bans across multiple countries. A relative of mine, who wears the niqab more consistently than I do, is terrified of wearing it in public following a frightening experience where someone began to shout verbal abuse at her. Muslim women should be able to go to their local shops, or to the park, without fearing that their choice to wear the niqab is going to be detrimental to their safety.

The most common argument against the niqab is that it is a threat to national security, thereby providing criminals and terrorists with an opportunity to disguise themselves. A flaw in this argument is that in the current age of a global pandemic I have seen many people wear a combination of face masks, sunglasses and hats in public – which one might describe as the perfect disguise. However, if face coverings (whether it be a niqab or a face mask) are really a threat to national security then surely more people would use the current face mask rules as a way to commit more crimes? There isn’t sufficient data to support the claims that citizens are under more of a threat of people using niqabs to disguise themselves, which begs the question: why should the niqab be treated as a national threat and face masks should not? 

We live in a society which tells us that religious symbols are a violation of our individual freedom, that it feeds into apartheidism, while at the same time stripping away the rights of those who want to express their religion. There is a clear double standard regarding the hijab, shown in the rise of the burqa, niqab, and now hijab bans, bans that mistreat Muslim women while claiming to relieve them from the alleged religious oppression. What we must realise is that the hijab is just as valid as any other garment and if Muslim women are telling you that it is their choice to wear one then perhaps we should just listen to their voices instead of speaking over them.

Atiya Chowdhury is a final year English Literature student at the University of Surrey.

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