Hijab: the Ban and the Law

The Mandatory Hijab (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan)

  • Can a state impose its interpretation of beliefs on its citizens?
  • Can a state violate the basic human rights, including the right to personal choices, in the name of religion?

The Forbidden Hijab (Turkey, France)

  • Does anyone or the state have right to ban an article of clothing (the Hijab, Jewish Kippa, Sikh Turban) which holds cultural or religious value to you?
  • Is it not the violation of human rights to ban something for the sake of secularism or for security reasons?

In both cases, the different secular and religious states violate human rights by making the personal choices for their citizens. The mandatory hijab and the hijab bans are dehumanizing and insulting towards the involved citizens’ intelligence. Because the state makes its business to decide what their citizens should wear and what is right for them.


Human Rights and Hijab

Worldwide, millions of women attire themselves in some manner of veiling for social, cultural or religious reasons; one such form of veiling and dress, the hijab, is adorned by many Muslim women. Hijab and in some cases burqa is not just a religious symbol but for many it is also a cultural and a traditional form of identity. According to human rights’ standards, everyone is entitled to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Furthermore, this upholds the “freedom to manifest religion, belief or observance” both publicly and privately. However, some Muslim and non-Muslim countries have enforced restrictions and bans on Muslim attire for women in public spaces; thus they have violated human and fundamental rights and freedoms.


In order to fully comprehend the issues related to the hijab, it is necessary to understand its history. The word hijab in Arabic means screen or barrier, however at the present time it is referred to as a headscarf. The main objective of hijab is modesty for both men and women; modesty in its external form as a scarf or burqa and lowering of the gaze when approaching the opposite sex and modesty in its internal form as well intentions and behavior. These perceptions are drawn from the different Quranic verses like “…Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers that they should cast their outer garments over their persons. That is most convenient, that they may be distinguished and not be harassed” (Qur’an 33:58–59). Some argue that hijab is obligatory in both manners and a Muslim woman must dress accordingly to Islamic beliefs, whereas others believe that its meanings are exaggerated and the goal is merely modest attitude, which can be achieved without the hijab. Many people also do not agree on the concept of the external hijab; for some it is just a headscarf and for others it is covering of entire body, including the face. Therefore one can conclude that the Islamic belief of hijab is interpreted differently and holds various meanings to all Muslims.

Additionally, complicating the matter to an even larger degree is that the literal and the ideological concept of hijab pre-dates Islam. The hijab in the form of veiling existed before Islam in what is known as the Middle East and South Asia. Therefore for many, the hijab and veiling do not just hold religious connotation but also holds regional, cultural and traditional values. If bans and restrictions are applied to the hijab, they are not just condemning the religion values but also the traditional and the cultural practices. One’s choice to wear the hijab does not only date back to history and culture, but to their own willingness as well. To take this away would be depriving that individual of their natural rights.

My Hijab

I was born in Pakistan to a traditional Muslim family. My mother has been wearing hijab her entire life because she believes it is her religious duty. When I was growing up, my mother encouraged me and my sisters to also adopt the practice of hijab. Neither she nor anyone else in my family ever forced me to veil myself. After my family moved to the United States, my mother brought her religious practices with her and still continues to wear hijab today. Since I grew up in Pakistan for half of my life, I had already embraced that culture and the traditions practiced within that country. After shifting to the US, and experiencing the freedoms that the United States is known for, I also became part of the American culture and it became me. Now that I think back to the summer of 2009, I realize how much of the American culture I had adopted. The ability to decide what I wanted to do with my life and decide what to wear, overwhelmed by duties towards my religion.  I was on my way to Pakistan, dressed in jeans and had packed many modernized outfits for my sister’s wedding. Outfits that my traditional relatives back home would have never approved, yet they didn’t say a word because it was my choice to wear such attire.

It was shortly after my return from Pakistan that I decided to become a hijabi. There was no event that triggered my decision and there was no reasoning, it was just sudden.  I woke up one day and before going out I wrapped my head in a scarf. Why I became a hijabi? I did not have answer to that question for months. When people asked me, I had no reasons to give them. My mother, who I have witnessed adorn herself in a hijab all my life, did not inspire me. My grandmother, who recites Quranic verses day and night, did not inspire me. And it wasn’t my beautiful hijabi friends. People approach me as being very religious; my honest and shocking answer to them is “hijab has not made me any more religious than I was before.” So if it is not the religious aspect either, then why did I really become a hijabi? I became hijabi because it gave me a new identity. For me hijab became a bond which connected the extreme ends of my two very different eastern and western cultures. With hijab I am able to represent myself completely. Hijab is my personal choice, if legal restrictions are passed against my self-expression, then it a direct violation of my expressional rights and of others’ religious and traditional rights which are guaranteed by different declarations of human rights.

The UN and the Protection of Hijab

Since the establishment of the United Nations Organization in 1945, along with other obligations it has made the protection of human rights one of its top priorities; therefore over the years, it has adopted many proclamations which not only protect and define human rights but also promotes them. The wearing of hijab as religious, cultural, traditional and as a self-expression is supported on many accounts throughout the instruments as followed:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…to manifest his religion or belief teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…”

Convention on the Rights of the Child

Article 8: 1. “States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.”

2. “Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.”

Article 13: “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek…”

Article 30: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.”

Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Article: 5 “…the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights…”

Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities

Article 1: 1. “States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.”

2.  “Persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life.”

Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention

Article 5: 2. “Any Member may, after consultation with representative employers’ and workers’ organisations, where such exist, determine that other special measures designed to meet the particular requirements of persons who, for reasons such as sex, age, disablement, family responsibilities or social or cultural status, are generally recognised to require special protection or assistance, shall not be deemed to be discrimination.”

Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

Article 1: 1. “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” 2. “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.”

3. “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Article 2: 1. “No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or other belief.”

Article 6: (c) “To make, acquire and use to an adequate extent the necessary articles and materials related to the rites or customs of a religion or belief.”

Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity

Article 6: “While ensuring the free flow of ideas by word and image, care should be exercised so that all cultures can express themselves and make themselves known. Freedom of expression, media pluralism, multilingualism, equal access to art and to scientific and technological knowledge, including in digital form, and the possibility for all cultures to have access to the means of expression and dissemination are the guarantees of cultural diversity.”

Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

Article 2: 1. “Each State has a prime responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms, inter alia, by adopting such steps as may be necessary to create all conditions necessary in the social, economic, political and other fields, as well as the legal guarantees required to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction, individually and in association with others, are able to enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice.”

The Ban in Turkey

In summary, all of the articles cited from various conventions defend, permit, and respect hijab by acknowledging the fact it might be cultural or religious. Yet there are countries which legally ban hijab in the public spheres, ultimately impinging on one’s human right to choose to wear the hijab. Turkey, with the population of 96% of Muslims, is one such country which has prohibited Muslims women to wear hijab. Turkey was founded, in 1923, as a secular state and its founder considered hijab to be old fashioned and against modernization; therefore outlawed hijab. After the revival of Islam in the 1970s, more and more women began to wear hijab, which resulted in restricted implication of the ban. The prohibition extends to all state spheres and violates many human rights. For instance, universities students are prohibited to wear headscarves and if they go against the law, they can be expelled from the universities. To ensure that the universities’ polices corresponds with the states’, the universities are given the choice to either expel the students in hijab or lose its accreditation. As a result of this ban, many female students either had to stop their pursuit of education or find alternative methods   of the hijiab such as hats and wigs. This ban is not just a violation of religious freedom but also of preventing one from gaining an education and also forcing one to resort to an undesired behavior.

Furthermore, other state employees such as military personal, judges, school teachers and medical teams are deeply affected by the ban as well. Military personals are pressured to prevent their wives and daughters from wearing hijab. The dress code for public institutions and organizations is as followed: “Women: Dress should be cleaned, ironed…the head should be uncovered in the work area, hair should be well combed and gathered together.” How can one state consider itself to be secular, yet be so much involved in its citizens’ personal choices? In 2007, there was an attempt to lift the ban from public institutions however the amendment was annulled because it was considered unconstitutional and against the founding beliefs. Turkey promotes the violation of human rights on a daily basis, hijab or any other form of expression should be a personal choice and not a states’ decision for its citizens.

The Ban in Tunisia

Another predominately Muslim country Tunisia has prohibited hijab from the public institutions as well. After gaining independence from France in 1956, Tunisia too became a secular nation. The first leader, Habib Bourguiba, ruled Tunisia for decades in an attempt to liberate the society and especially the women from tradition. Bourguiba encouraged women to dress modestly concurring to Tunisian customs; he also named hijab an “odious rag” and considered it be unwelcomed in Tunisia.

However, the recent ban had been in place since 1986, and was originally intended to minimize the spread of Islamic radicalism stemming from the Iranian revolution. Like Turkey, Muslim women in state offices are discouraged to cover their heads and the one who are covered are harassed by the police. Again a question that arises is that how can the police, the protector/enforcer of the rights, harass the citizens because of their personal choice? This must be labeled as a “lawful” discrimination against religion and culture.

The Ban in France

In addition to some Muslim countries banning hijab, there are non-Muslim countries like France and Germany and other European states which have taken action against hijab; thus against human rights. Again these actions have been developed in the name of promoting and sustaining secularism. However, that can be argued that these discriminatory laws are only against religious minority in these nations; and that these states are not as secular as they might believe to be, therefore secularism is a front set forth to ensure a  fight for a singular national identity and culture.

In 2004, France introduced a new “secularity” law with a main goal to keep religion and state separate and to promote secularism. This was achieved by prohibiting the large display of Christian crosses or crucifixes in schools and banning school students from wearing Sikh’s head coverings, the Jewish Kippa and the hijab. The idea was to eliminate immediate signs or symbols which make a person’s faith known to others. The ban is contradictory in itself because it permitted small discrete religious jewelry such as the small Christian cross or the Star of David around the neck; which also is worn to display a person’s religion. The law is not just visibly discriminatory to different religious minorities but it clearly targets the young Muslim girls. Religious jewelry is considered a respected ornament but hijab on the other hand is considered a mandatory piece of attire by many Muslim women. For this reason, forcing one to discard something mandatory and imposing restrictions is in no way promoting equality and freedom.

Additionally, France also banned the burqa, a full face veil in public space. A woman wearing burqa on a street can be fined for breaking the law.  The ban on burqa and especially on hijab in schools has resulted in negative experiences for many and has caused many to be confined to home. Unlike Turkey, where few alternative ways for hijab were allowed, in France a Muslim student cannot even wear a bandana to cover some part of her head. Other students were allowed to wear bandana, but a Muslim student is not because she wears it as a religious motive. Unfortunately, it is not just the students that are affected but also some Muslim teachers who wear hijab. They were also told to cast off their hijabs or lose their jobs. On many accounts the Muslim teachers had to leave their jobs and became unemployed.

Reasons for Banning Hijab

Furthermore, it is important to detail the rationales and justifications that are presented by the states which are or have already passed regulations prohibiting hijab. The first premise is based on that the secular state heads, who are not Muslims themselves decided to conclude that Islamic dress or hijab is merely a religious symbol or a sign and not a practicing religious duty. The counterargument to this basis is that first and foremost only a person or a religious group has any right to decide what can be considered a religious duty. Anyone outside of that group center their opinions and decisions on either unawareness of the subject matter or on biased notes. Secondly, for many Muslims across the globe, Islamic dress and hijab is one of the most physical parts of their religion and for them it must be observed not as a symbol but as a duty. Therefore it is not only immoral to decide what religious practices a group can observe, it is also abusive and dehumanizing to actually ban those practices.

Secondly, the principle that was put forward to establish the ban on hijab was that hijab in the shape of burqa or niqab can be disruptive to the way of health and safety of the community. This is the most impractical reason and it has no basis. It is easy to perceive that this statement was added to defend the restrictions because the human rights declarations proclaimed that state can only interfere with religious matters if some practices are disrupting individual and public safety and peace. Again, the state helped itself in assuming that hijab is a sign of oppression and persons in hijab are oppressed by their families or religion; thus state plays a savior which liberates the oppressed and provides them with individualism. Also Islamic dress in no way poses any threat to public safety, order or morals and it in no way jeopardizes anyone else’s fundamental rights or freedoms. However, the ban violates many rights and freedoms.

Thirdly, the foundation behind banning hijab was because the  hijab negatively impacts schools and pressurizes non-hijab students. As stated above, hijab as a head garment does not pose any harm to public safety, same way it does not challenge a school’s educational functions. It is also argued that students in hijab or teachers in hijab would be imposing stress on others because they would be different. However, there is no evidence of anyone being pressured by the teachers or by fellow students to adopt the hijab practice. In fact, expressions like this whether it be religious or cultural, promote diversity in a school setting. This accusation of pressuring is entirely wrong and in reality it is demonstrated that the state exactly did what it set forth to prevent; it exerted pressure. It exerted secular pressure on women and violated their rights.

Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan

Moreover, the exerted pressure on women and the violation of rights are not primarily taking place in the secular states, but also in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. The main difference between these countries and their policies is that some impose ban on hijab and some impose hijab as a law or requirement by the state. Saudi Arabia and the Taliban in Afghanistan have been criticized for violating women rights’ on various grounds, for instance: unequal educational and work opportunities, marital, political and legal rights. The choice to wear or not to wear hijab based on ones’ own religious interpretation becomes a right and in these two cultures this right is violated.

On the contrary to secular states, where hijab is discouraged and the consequences of wearing one is a fine, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, punish individuals for not wearing the hijab.. In countries, like Pakistan, which is predominately populated with Muslims, there is no law requiring hijab. Pakistani women include hijab in their attires; they wear it because of their beliefs, and personal interpretation of what is required of them by their religions. Pakistani women, who do not wear hijab, do so because they too have their own interpretations of religious beliefs. However, in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan all young girls and women have to follow the rule. Although, almost everyone coincides with the law, there are women who believe that they are being forced, and in that case the state is violating their personal choices and rights.

Rights, Interference and Discrimination

In conclusion, the countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan infringe many human rights in the name of religion and impose their interpretation of Islam on its citizens. Whereas secular countries like, Turkey, Tunisia, Germany and France ban hijab and thus they too violate human rights by interpreting Islam by their way. The bans and regulations against hijab have denied many girls and women access to schools and to higher education and to a biased free employment. Growing up in a “secular” state, which violates basic human rights, instead of discovering her own identity, a young Muslim girl is directed as to what she should wear by the state.

Furthermore, the banning of hijab and forcing girls and women to abandon their cultural and religious practices does not promote secularism, it promotes discrimination; discrimination in the public realms and in personal choice. Such legal laws can open the door to outspoken biased toward diversity in religions, in cultures and traditions. Similar discrimination can be seen at the airports, where for security reasons women in hijab are “randomly” chosen for extra security measures. Hijab ban is a violation of human rights and religious freedom and has no legal logic; it is not only prejudice toward the minorities but it also illustrates the hypocrisy faces of some of the secular states which interfere with citizens’ personal choices.

Hijab Rights


Hijab Ban in Turkey

Effects of Hijab Ban in Turkey:

Female students are required to take off their hijabs before entering the universities.

Hijab Ban in France

The effects on Students:

Hijab: An American Story