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Morocco: Hijab as a Choice

Much has been said about “the veil,” or hijab. Perhaps too much – mention it, and suddenly everyone – Muslim or not – is an expert. While in the West, hijab is often used to simply refer to the headscarf (veil), a more correct definition is any Islamically mandated dress for either gender, which for women includes, but is not limited to, covering the hair.

In Morocco, hijab is certainly a choice. Young and old alike don the headscarf, and in big cities, seeing it is as common as not seeing it. Although in rural areas it is more prevalent, all women have (legal) freedom of choice whether or not to wear it. Everything Morocco explains Moroccan dress accurately:

Veiling in Morocco is not a law, but a choice. Some women may wear it in submission to their husbands, but many women wear it as a sign of faith in and respect for the Islamic code. On the street, veiled women walk openly with their unveiled sisters and friends. Women in the same family may or may not choose to veil and it's nobody else's concern. Older women still wear the full veil, revealing only their eyes. I have even seen the occasional burqa like the Afghan women wear.

No doubt part of the choice to wear hijab is conformity to traditional customs and social rules, but even that is not necessarily so strong it prevents a woman's choice. It is much the same as when a Western woman didn't leave the house without a hat, coat and gloves. I remember when I lived in Nurnberg and a woman did not go into the city in pants or shorts. If you were inappropriately dressed, the sales clerks in the stores wouldn't even wait on you. So, most Moroccan women won't leave the house without putting on their djellaba and a scarf over their hair.

Elderly Moroccan women
Two elderly Moroccan women tie their scarves under their chins

Another excellent article, from the Washingtonpost.com, has Pamela Windo sharing her experience with hijab in Morocco:

Although [the scarves] are made of colorful fabrics with pretty clips at the back, what most struck me was the blatant dichotomy between the hijab and their other clothes. While a few women wear it with a subdued djellaba, and others with their everyday modern suits, skirts and coats, a startling number of young Moroccan women combine the hijab with figure-revealing blue or black jeans, elaborate glittering belts, modern sexy tops and designer sunglasses. Equally striking is the glossy-magazine-style make-up, heavy on the lipstick and black kohl eye-liner.

Traveling Mama offers a slightly humorous perspective in a post entitled “Advice for Grandma”:

There is a wide variety of interpretations of “modest” dress, but one rule that most women follow here is that the *ahem* buttocks must be covered. Many of the local women choose to do that with a jilaba, but there are others such as the woman crossing the street in the picture above who choose to simply wear a long shirt or jacket. You would also want to avoid anything particularly low cut, revealing or sleeveless.

The subject of hijab has apparently become so important among foreigners as to prompt a discussion on the subject at a Fez cafe, reports The View from Fez. The discussion, entitled The Role of the Hijab, takes place on March 7 at Cafe Clock, and is presented by Subul Assalam Centre.

For more on the subject of hijab, read Abdurahman Warsame's recent article, “Somalia: Can a hijab-wearing blogger get a respectable job in the US?”

Creative Commons-licensed photo by koffiemetkoek.

17 comments

  • Indeed, a pretty balanced view on the hijab in Morocco, largely voluntary (except perhaps in parts of the countryside, where it is customary and therefore less of an individual choice). It should however be underlined that the “conformity to social rules” aspect of the hijab should be qualified: in middle class urban areas, wearing the hijab goes against the grain as it were, or at least until very recently. And wearing a hijab is a definite handicap when looking for a non-manual or non-menial job.

  • Le foulard porté par ces deux femmes n’a pas de connotation religieuse. Ma grand mère en portait un comme cela. On peut dire qu’il fait partie de l’habit traditionnel et qu’il connaît des variantes régionales.
    Le problème se pose avec le foulard islamique importé d’Orient. Il peut correspondre à un choix mais il peut être porté par une jeune fille ou jeune femme sous la contrainte (voire la menace) de la famille.
    Du moment que le port du voile est librement consenti, ça ne me pose aucun problème. Mais quand il est synonyme d’obligation et de contrainte alors là je ne suis plus d’accord.

  • Thank you, Ibn Kafka. And you’re right – I wanted to mention the fact that hijab is often a barrier to employment, even in Morocco (I had two students who removed it in order to work at banks), but could not find any blog posts in English to support that fact (and didn’t want to express my own opinions to that extent).

  • Jillian,

    I’m a long-term resident of Morocco, having married into the culture. What is lacking from the above discussion is the reason WHY a hijab is a handicap for finding a job, even in Morocco, an Islamic country.

    The reason is that employers feel if someone is wearing a hijab, their need to pray during the working day interferes with work. Some employees take up to 45 minutes to prepare for praying, and actually do their prayers (especially for the 4:00 PM-approximate prayers). Also, if one is seriously wearing the hijab, their religious convictions will interfere with their work. For example, if you want to be a supermarket checker, you must accept to touch and handle wine bottles in the checkout aisles, which people wearing hijab often would refuse to do. These are just some of the possible examples.

    In factories which do hire workers wearing hijab, they often have shifts, where they stop for 15 minutes, and in that time, workers who wish to can wash and pray. But they only have 15 minutes, and a foreman watching. This way they can’t stretch it out any longer, or make any excuses for why they have to take a much longer time, or say extra repetitions of prayers over the time allowed.

    So you can see why banks and other white-collar occupations often do not want to employ workers in hijab–they are more difficult to “work around” than non-hijab workders.

    Madame Monet

  • I Love Your Veil

    What’s all this tale about the veil?
    Fred and Gail shout and hail
    Straw as hero
    For his hail of fire on Aïsha’s attire.
    Did Straw want Aïsha to show
    Herself from head to toe?
    Let Gail wear a mini-skirt
    For her flirt.
    And let Aïsha wear on her face
    Or on her hair
    Whatever piece
    That would bring her peace
    Vis-à-vis God and vis-à-vis Man.
    Oh, man!
    Why d’you wish her to disclose
    Her beautiful eyes and nice nose
    Or her lips or her hips
    If that belongs to her?
    Come on, Sir!
    That body you want her to show
    Is a diamond dearer than the glow
    Of the face of Marilyn Monroe!

  • Well, Madame Monet, married in to the culture you may be, but your justifications for discriminating those wearing the hijab remind me of a French saying: “qui veut noyer son chien l’accuse d’avoir la rage” – he who wants to drown his dog will say it’s got rabies.

    1- Not all those wearing hijab will pray, or pray on time, while on the other hand you may not be wearing the hijab while still praying on time, as does my wife. So if praying is such an issue, you’d have to address it head on. And one small detail: how do you propose to handle male employees, since only a tiny minority of them tend to wear the hijab?

    2- Moroccan employment law gives the employer the right to adopt a “réglement du travail”, or “work regulations”, which may specify workers’ duties as regards pauses and working hours.

    3- As for your example with supermarket checkers, you might have noticed that there are specific counters for alcoholic beverages.

    4- As for your allegation that female workers in hijab are “more difficult to work around than non-hijab workers”, surely you jest? Workers can be “difficult” or “obedient” from the employer’s perspective quite irrespective of their headgear, wouldn’t you say? Unless the employer really is bothered with the hijab in itself, a strange reaction for a Moroccan to have as most of us have relatives, colleagues or friends wearing it…

  • Thank you for your insight, Madame Monet. I have heard that (among others) as a reason before, which I find terribly disappointing, as it assumes that a woman who wears hijab is more apt to be dishonest (while of course plenty who pray take advantage of this downtime at work – just look at Royal Air Maroc’s policies – there are more who do not).

  • Dear Ibn Kafka,

    I am not an employer, therefore I do not discriminate among employees. I base my comments above upon many of the comments I’ve heard from others over the years.

    Regarding male employees, it’s my understanding that if someone were to apply for work wearing a long beard, the same assumptions would be made. It’s not the praying that is the issue, it’s the “in your face” attitude that some flaunt toward employers that makes employers wary of employing those who would dress as those with the “in your face attitude.” Do you not recall that the taxi drivers were all made to shave off their beards and wear western dress as of a couple years ago? (This does not prohibit them from praying if they want to, but gets rid of the “in your face” impression that some/many were giving to tourists.)

    Regarding supermarket checkers, when we buy alcohol, my Moroccan husband refuses to go through the two Marjane lanes that are marked for alcohol. He tells me those are for the people who are buying ONLY alcohol. We are always getting groceries, and he insists on going through the other grocery lines. But none of them have ever told us to go back to the alcohol line. Once or twice when we had groceries, and were going through the alcohol line (because we also had alcohol), those checkers did tell us we should actually be going through the regular grocery lines. Therefore checkers in any line have to handle alcohol. Furthermore, having known someone who has a family member employed at Marjane, I was informed by them that no one wearing a foulard is permitted to be a supermarket checker (but I haven’t gotten a clear answer on the reason for that).

    Madame Monet

  • Dear Jillian,

    Regarding the fact that some perceive a woman wearing a hijab to be dishonest, there are some Moroccans who do think that.

    No one thinks that every woman wearing a hijab is dishonest. But many of them are, indeed, hypocrites. Unfortunately, it is the probably few dishonest ones that give a bad name to the many. I’ll just give a few examples.

    Many young women take to wearing the hijab for “fashion” reasons, pressure from friends and/or neighbors (especially in poorer neighborhoods, there is pressure from neighbors, and if you don’t wear it the neighbors don’t respect you); and also because some parents give their daughters more leniency to “go out” if they are dressed in a conservative hijab.

    Aside from that, a number of young women (our maid is an example) wear a hijab that is a “fashion statement” over tight clothes, makeup, and eyeliner, which more or less defeats the purpose!

    Ibn Kafka makes a good point that a worker’s lack of headgear doesn’t make him/her a good worker, any more than wearing a hijab/beard makes her/him a good worker. But employers also have another issue, which is their public presentation. I THINK the reason checkers in hijab are not allowed at Marjane is because Marjane wants to present a “modern” image, especially to foreign tourists. There are other supermarkets which don’t sell alcohol (Askwk Salam, for example, where I understand all the checkers are in hijab. But I’ve only been there once, and it was a long time ago, so I couldn’t be 100 percent certain.) I think an employer DOES have a right to hire people who will represent the company image as the employer desires. Some will choose hijabed employees; some will not. More will not, for these reasons, and the others I have given in my comments above.

    Madame Monet

  • R.S.Hersh

    While walking in the Negev a few years back my girlfriend and I met a young beduin girl covered from head to toe (long skirt, combat boots, long-sleeved top, camo veil and baseball cap). We asked her (in hebrew) “Makarah? At lo cham?” (Aren’t you hot?)

    Her reply “La, la! Shemesh.” (no, it’s (because of) the sun) which goes a long way to explain why is it we Middle-Eastern types dress the way we do – for practical purposes. Any survivalist guide will tell you to be covered in the sun, esp. in the desert.

    Along the way cultural and religious stamps were placed on top of this common sense; and things are the way they are today – both religious Jews and Muslims cover themselves in public.

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