Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The Muslim veil: a symbol of terror?

Is the Muslim veil a symbol of terror? Or is it simply an expression of religion? Irene Zempi from the Department of Criminology discusses the 'demonisation' of the Muslim veil. 

In a post 9/11 society, the Muslim veil has become demonised; a symbol of terror in Western Society. European countries have even begun to ban the veil. Former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy stated that the veil is; ‘not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity’. Tessa Jowell, former culture secretary, joined the Muslim veil debate by claiming that women who covered their faces were failing to take a ‘full place in society’, implying that the veil is a symbol of women's subjugation; ‘we fought for generations for the equality of women, for women to take their equal place in society. Women who are heavily veiled, whose identity is obscured to the world apart from their husband, cannot take their full place in society’.

Before the attacks in New York, it is fair to say that those who wore the Muslim veil were given stares and made to feel slightly out of place, but the veil was more a sign of difference, of religion, and did not evoke the negative connotations it does today. The veil itself, however, predated Islam and was practiced by women of several religions. It also was largely linked to class position; wealthy women could afford to veil their bodies completely, whereas poor women who had to work either modified their veils or did not wear them at all.

Now, over ten years after 9/11, it seems that an unexplained link has been made between the terrorist attacks in 2001, and the women who walk our streets wearing the Muslim veil. They are to be feared, to be scared of; perhaps they even ought to be attacked.

‘You don’t belong in our country’, ‘Osama Bin Laden’s wife’, ‘suicide bomber’ and ‘terrorist’ are only a few of the racial slurs hurled at these women in Leicester. People have spat at them, thrown stones at them, even torn their veils off. Surprising, given that Leicester is known to be a multi-cultural city. However, an alarming amount of prejudice suffered by veiled Muslim women is being uncovered and it is time to challenge these prejudices by helping to increase an understanding of this problem.

The veil ban policy is a clear manifestation of Islamophobia; it is not a ‘religious-blind' piece of legislation; rather it attacks ‘Islam' through the religious code of dress for Muslim women. The veil bans in Europe are events that have led to increased levels of anti-Muslim hostility and women, who are more visible as Muslims because of the veil, bear the brunt of this misaligned anger.

Long-term effects of the abuse have made Muslim women feel so scared of imminent attacks and abuse on the streets that they have felt the need to deny their Muslim identity by removing the veil. Those who wear the veil in France are now seen as criminals and many have had to move away from France because the banning of the veil has stripped them of their identity and their place in society.

Is the Muslim veil a symbol of terror? Or is it simply an expression of religion? And do these women deserve the abuse they receive, when all they do to provoke it is wear a different piece of clothing?

Irene Zempi

Research interests

  • Islamophobia

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