A leading team of University of Oxford sociologists has published a paper arguing that Muslim women veil “because they are engaging with a modern, secular world”, arguing that bans “deprive them of a means… for integration”.
The paper, published in the European Sociological Review this month, is thought to be the first empirical study into “why wearing the veil should increase in line with modernisation”, according to Oxford’s website.
The team, which included a fellow of the British Academy and the European Academy of Sociology, drew on data from Belgium, Turkey, and 25 Muslim countries. They looked at women who were forced to wear the garment, as well as those who claimed to have chosen it.
They observe that “there is anecdotal evidence that since the late 20th century young, educated, and urban Muslim women veil more frequently and strictly”. This goes against trends in other religions, where people are becoming more relaxed in their dress.
The study found that more highly educated women in Turkey were more likely to veil. In Belgium, highly religious Muslim women who mixed with non-Muslims used the veil more than highly religious Muslim women who did not have as much contact with the native population.
The thrust of their argument, therefore, is that Muslim women are increasingly veiling to mark themselves out as strictly Islamic to their own community – ‘piety signalling’ – and so protect themselves from attacks and shame from fellow Muslims, as they break other Islamic taboos such as leaving the house without men and talking to non-Muslims.
“… For highly religious women modernizing factors raise the risk and temptation in women’s environments that imperil their reputation for modesty: veiling would then be a strategic response, a form either of commitment to prevent the breach of religious norms or of signalling women’s piety to their communities,” the authors write.
The most prominent author, Diego Gambetta, is an Italian-born social scientist. He is a professor of social theory at the European University Institute in Florence and an official fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He said:
“Contrary to the populist cant that seems now dominant in Europe, veiling could be a sign of more rather than less integration. Banning or shunning veiling would deprive them of a means that allow them more opportunity for integration rather than marking their differences.”
Study author Dr. Ozan Aksoy from the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said: “There are important implications for policymakers as if the option of wearing a veil is taken away from Muslim women, they fall on costlier ways of proving their piety.
“A veil is seen as a genuine expression of a woman’s religiosity. Paradoxically, it is the women who are engaging with the modern world who appear to rely on the veil to signal to others that they will not succumb to the temptations of modern urban life.”