Case Study

The hijab – an IR and Gender Perspective

Hijab, meaning to cover, refers to the clothing worn by Islamic women such as the veil and a modest dress code. In Islamic culture this type of dress represents purity, privacy and morality and is a symbol of Islamic consciousness. Wearing the hijab is symbolic of Islamic culture and in this instance (as is often the case) women are the carriers or demonstrators of such culture.

Many academic debates, as well as policy and legislative activities, have been brought to the fore through the controversies of wearing the hijab. For example, to some scholars and commentators (feminist and otherwise) the hijab represents a form of female oppression tied to constraining Muslim women’s freedom and sexuality, and exemplifying their subordinate status within Islamic communities. On the other hand, counter-arguments from scholars of gender, race and ethnicity, such as some post-colonial feminists, suggest that the hijab offers a sense of identity and community for women. The wearing of the hijab, in this sense, is arguably enabling for Muslim women in order for them to signify their religion to other Muslims and to negotiate their identity within or in contrast to Western culture.

Internationally the wearing of the hijab is a particularly salient issue as it relates to matters of immigration and multiculturalism, also alluding to the relationship between nations. In some Western countries, such as France and parts of Germany, the wearing of the hijab has been banned in public educational and government spaces on the grounds that the state does not promote religious beliefs.

Overall, the wearing of the hijab has become, at least symbolically, an issue of international relations. Carried on women’s bodies, it is arguably an expression of difference between Islamic culture and non-Islamic cultures in a post-9/11 era, whereby Islam has been constructed as synonymous with terrorist threat.