In gender-equality Sweden, a grassroots movement defending women’s right to wear hijab has split the nation, backed by politicians and celebrities, while critics say it supports a symbol of female “oppression.”
Hundreds of Swedish women have posted photographs of themselves wearing headscarves on social media sites to show solidarity with a heavily pregnant Muslim woman who says she was attacked outside Stockholm for wearing a veil.
Police are searching for witnesses to the incident, which is being treated as a hate crime, and has sparked a wave of online protest.
Left-wing politicians and celebrities were among those who lent their support to the movement, dubbed “The hijab appeal,” by tweeting pictures of themselves wearing the Islamic headscarf.
By Thursday, more than 2,000 people had posted pictures tagged with the “hijab appeal” hashtag on Instagram, mostly featuring women of different faiths wearing the veil.
A Facebook “event” page set up by the activists garnered 10,000 attendees, but had to be removed after the comments section was swamped with racist and sexist remarks.
“The number of hate crimes against Muslim women has increased lately,” said Foujan Rouzbeh, one of the organizers.
However, critics say the campaign trivializes the suffering of women forced or pressured into covering their heads.
“I support protesting against the treatment of the woman who was attacked, absolutely. Holding speeches, demonstrating,” said Sara Mohammad, the head of a charity for victims of honor crimes. “Not by wearing the veil, which is known around the world as an Islamic symbol for oppressing women. It’s not just being forced on women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, it has also become the flag for political Islam in the West.”
The Swedish politicians wearing the hijab last week rarely displayed the same support for those fighting for the right not to wear it, sometimes risking their lives in doing so, Mohammad said.
“This is an injudicious and populist measure designed to attract votes from the Muslim community,” she said.
Rouzbeh said critics of the Swedish hijab campaign had taken it out of context.
Muslim women were being used as scapegoats in the face of rising unemployment in Sweden and the rest of Europe, said Rouzbeh, who met the Swedish justice minister on Wednesday.
The group is demanding a commission be set up to investigate the problem of violence against veiled women, and also wants the government to ensure a ban on newsreaders for public broadcaster SVT wearing the garment is lifted.
Rouzbeh said the rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, which the latest polls indicate would be the third-largest party in an election, and a negative image of Muslims in the media had stoked violence and harassment of women wearing the hijab.
However, there is little data to support claims of a surge in the number of Islamophobic hate crimes.