Last Friday night, a pregnant woman was beaten up by an unknown man on the outskirts of the Swedish capital of Stockholm. The aggressor grabbed the woman’s head, and while shouting racist insults, he hit it hard against a car, with the result that she fell unconscious. Her only crime was that she was wearing a Muslim headscarf, a hijab. The event sparked great resentment among many Swedes, and became the starting point for what has become known as the "Hijab Outcry".
The initiators of the hijab outcry demand "that measures to be taken in order to ensure that Swedish Muslim women are guaranteed the right to personal security and freedom of religion, without being exposed to verbal and physical attacks". During the last few days, the outcry has received international attention, and the initiators have met with the Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask. However, the initiative remains as controversial as the hijab itself, and it exposes discords within the Swedish society that do not necessarily comply with traditional political divides.
Many Swedish women, men and children have shown support for the outcry on Twitter and Instagram, where they have posted pictures of themselves wearing headscarves under the hashtag #hijabuppropet. Among the most well-known supporters of the initiative are politicians and TV hosts. The supporters refer to the growing numbers of reported hate crimes against Muslims, and claim to protect the freedom of religion. Gudrun Schyman, spokesperson for the Feminist Initiative party and former leader of the Swedish Left Party, says that she supports the outcry on the basis that a woman should have the right to dress how she likes – in a short skirt or a veil – without fear of assault. She calls the current situation a gigantic security political issue. Journalist Mona Masri, another feminist and supporter of the hijab outcry, states in Dagens Nyheter that being a feminist means standing up for everybody’s right to make their own decisions. However, it is also within the feminist movement that we find some of the most outspoken opponents to the hijab outcry.
Among the latter is Hanna Gabden, feminist debater and Muslim. Her first reaction when she heard about the hijab outcry was anger. "I regard the headscarf as a cultural, religious, sexual and political symbol. Of course we should have religious freedom, but how many women do actually choose to veil themselves? This consolidates racism, and benefits those who already oppose Islam and the veil", she says. One of the initiators of the hijab outcry, debater Bilan Osman, said in an interview that "the headscarf should be normalized", a statement that received immediate criticism from journalist Maria Haldesten in Göteborgsposten. Haldesten questions whether or not normalizing the headscarf would imply a normalization of the oppression of women, since that is what the headscarf symbolizes for millions of women all over the world. She further pointed to the fact that the original intent of the headscarf hardly was to liberate women, but to confine them, and that the whole idea behind the hijab outcry is tremendously naive.
In recent years, few things have been as fervently debated in Europe as the headscarf. In France, Belgium and the Netherlands, face-covering veils are now prohibited in public places, despite the fact that only a tiny number of women within those countries ever wore face-covering veils. The law thus affects a very limited number of individuals, but has still received a huge amount of attention. Are such laws the right way forward? Opponents argue that they violate freedom of religion, whereas supporters claim that they protect women from oppression. An expression of the latter view is the French law which requires anybody who force a woman to wear a veil to pay a fine. The French legislators apparently established that existing laws were not sufficient in order to protect women from such constraint, and that a law was needed which specifically targets Muslims.
The Swedish debate revolves more or less around the same lines as in France, although it has matured to a certain extent over the last few years. Many people realized that it was somewhat contradictory to argue that the state should tell the women who actually chose themselves to wear headscarves, not to do so, in order to liberate the unknown number of women who were forced to wear veils. While Muslim men were described by the extreme right as ruthless oppressors
of women, moderate debaters also became more careful not to generalize and
target the entire group. However, the
extreme right claims to care about the rights of women is laughable; it is
a known fact that their ideology only values one sort of strength: the
masculine. Let us just hope that their
tendency to reduce women to child producers constitutes yet another obstacle in
their search for further influence in Europe.
Moreover, it is interesting
to note that both France and Sweden are among the least religious countries in
the world. The fact that so many people of both countries primarily seem to
regard religious symbols, such as the Muslim headscarf, as signs of oppression
may depend at least to some extent on tradition. During much of the history of
Europe, religion was something that was employed by rulers in order to control
their subjects. The church had enormous power. Wars were fought over religion,
killing thousands of people. Heresy was punished harshly, and witch hunts brought
death upon hundreds of innocent women. With history books full of such stories,
it is no wonder that many Europeans today have difficulties to see the
liberating qualities of religion. In most of Europe, religion has never been
the liberating force that it became in America, perhaps with the exception of
parts of Eastern Europe under communist rule.
However, irrespective of our personal views on religion, it is our task to find a way to respect both freedom of religion and individual freedom. As long as women are beaten up in the streets for wearing hijabs, all we know is that we are in desperate need of change.