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In Western societies, veiling has been stigmatized, reaching a point where France implemented a complete ban on headscarves in schools in 2004, followed by the prohibition of full-face veils in public in 2010. These laws were implemented without any scientific basis, despite the fact that veiling has been shown to offer significant mental health benefits.

Modesty is a shared practice in various religions. There is often an expected dress code in many religious institutions, becoming more stringent with increased religiosity. One religion where modesty is emphasized is Islam. According to professors Shirazi and Mishra, “Islam calls upon both men and women to dress modestly.” In fact, modesty is mentioned in the Qur’an, the central religious text of Islam. Psychologists Dunkel et.al explain that “traditional Muslim dress is associated with the teachings of the Qur’an, that men and women should be separate as a means for a pure and modest society. In order to promote the societal separation of men and women, the Qur’an provides guidelines that require women to wear loose-fitting garments that cover their entire bodies.” In addition to covering from shoulders to ankles, some women cover their heads, parts of the face, or their entire face by wearing different types of veils, which include the hijab, niqab, shayla, among others.

There are differing interpretations of enforced modesty from a religious institution. While some feminist scholars argue that veiling is repressive to self-expression, numerous studies indicate improved body satisfaction among women who veil compared to non-veiling Muslims and non-Muslim women. This suggests that veiling in Islam enhances self-confidence, promotes body positivity, and benefits mental health.

There are varying motivations for why an individual chooses to veil. Idler, a scholar in the intersection of religion and health, explains that:

“For some women, veiling is a devoted, public, expression of religious faith. For others, it also is the symbolic essence of feminine modesty, simplicity, and discretion- a “portable seclusion” and an expression of dedication to a “moral way of life in which families are paramount... and the home is associated with the sanctity of women.”[...] For others, the veil is such a casual form of dress that it provokes little reflection on its meaning for the wearer.”

In other words, some women veil to demonstrate pride in their religious affiliation and exemplify holiness and purity within Islam. Others veil out of personal desire, while another common reason is to challenge societal norms about attractiveness and combat stereotypes. Bullock, a former editor of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, emphasizes that veiling is an empowering tool of resistance, providing a sense of self-worth independent of physical appearance. Veiling is, in essence, an act of rebellion against societal criticism and objectification of the female body, transforming it into a blank canvas perceived only by the individual."

Dunkel et al. support Bullock's findings, noting that “by wearing traditional dress, Muslim women said that they felt protected from sexual objectification and exploitation. This was the strongest point of agreement among the younger women in Droogsma’s (2007) study. As one participant stated, ‘‘(The) hijab is telling men that they don’t have a right to look at my body and to judge my beauty.’’ In fact, some of the women in Droogsma’s study reported that wearing the hijab freed them from pressure to dress proactively.” In essence, loose-fitting clothing eliminates the need to consider external perceptions. Physical appearance thus becomes extraneous to daily life, allowing individuals to center their attention on who they are and not how they appear.

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Notably, some studies demonstrate that women who veil are considered less attractive than those who do not. Mahmud and Swami, professors of psychology, reveal that “women wearing the hijab [were] given significantly lower attractiveness ratings than women not wearing the hijab[...] On the other hand, non-Muslim men gave significantly higher ratings to women not wearing the hijab compared with Muslim men.” Initially counterintuitive, this highlights the modern-day emphasis on physical attractiveness, which can be restrictive for those outside the standard beauty norms. This often leads to attempts to conform and, subsequently, poor body image and insecurity. Avoiding these negative impacts on mental health is crucial. Ideally, changing the mindset that ties attraction to a specific body shape would be the solution, but this is unlikely in the near future. Therefore, removing the vehicle of objectification, such as a woman's body, becomes a crucial alternative.

Mahmud and Swami suggest that being viewed as less attractive externally leads to reduced overall external critique and contributes to an improved self-image. Professors Kertechian and Swami reference a study that explore the relationship between body coverage through the use of a Hijab and body positivity in a sample of Muslim women in the US which demonstrates that:

“Conservativeness of the hijab (measured in terms of greater frequency of use and greater body coverage) was associated with lower sexual objectification, which in turn was associated with lower body surveillance, body shape concerns, and eating pathology. Likewise, [...] those who wore the hijab had more positive body appreciation, lower weight discrepancy, lower indices of disordered eating, lower internalization of and pressure from societal messages about beauty standards, and placed less importance on appearance than those who did not wear the hijab.”

Kertechian and Swami highlight that reduced external pressure to meet beauty standards correlates with diminished internal pressure. Women who veil and adopt modest dressing feel less obligated to focus on appearance. The absence of extrinsic comparisons allows their bodies to become a private space for personal enjoyment. Additionally, veiling contributes to a lower likelihood of developing eating disorders as it lessens external expectations and fluctuations in eating habits and weight.

In Islam, modesty is strongly encouraged, with many women wearing various head coverings for personal reasons but sharing positive effects. Due to the erasure of the visible form, Veiling reduces societal critique of body image, relieving individuals from the burden of conforming to beauty standards. This fosters increased self-confidence and minimizes the risk of eating disorders, ultimately promoting body positivity and benefiting mental health. Based on the findings of this research, it is advisable not to stigmatize or discourage veiling, given the ample evidence that highlights its positive effects.

Livia Berman is a senior at American University in Washington DC studying international relations. Her area of focus is conflict resolution and sustainable development.

 

Works Cited

Bullock, Katherine. 2013. “Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes.” Implicit Religion 16 (4): 515–18. doi:10.1558/imre.v16i4.512.

Dunkel, T. M., Davidson, D., & Qurashi, S. (2010). Body satisfaction and pressure to be thin in younger and older Muslim and non-Muslim women: The role of Western and non-Western dress preferences. Body Image, 7, 56–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2009.10.003.

Golnaraghi, Golnaz, and Kelly Dye. “Discourses of Contradiction: A Postcolonial Analysis of Muslim Women and the Veil.” International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 2016. 

Idler, Ellen L. Religion as a Social Determinant of Public Health. Oxford University Press, 2014. 

Kertechian, S., & Swami, V. (2016). “The Hijab as a protective factor for body image and disordered eating: A replication in French Muslim women.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 19, 1056–1068. https:// doi.org/10.1111/evo.13257.

Mahmud, Y., & Swami, V. (2010). The influence of the hijab (Islamic head-cover) on perceptions of women’s attractiveness and intelligence. Body Image, 7, 90–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2009. 09.003

Shirazi, Faegheh, and Smeeta Mishra. 2010. “Young Muslim Women on the Face Veil (Niqab): A Tool of Resistance in Europe but Rejected in the United States.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 13 (1): 43–62. doi:10.1177/1367877909348538.

 

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