Muslim women who wear the veil to cover their heads often do so because they are engaging with a modern, secular world, according to a new study of thousands of women in Belgium, Turkey and 25 Muslim countries.
Researchers at the University of Oxford and the European University Institute studied why young, highly educated Muslim women who live in modern urban environments may be choosing to wear the veil – and uncovered a paradox.
The study said that in social situations in which they mix with non-Muslim friends, work outside the home or interact with strangers, the women may wear the veil as a signal to others in their community that mixing with others does not compromise their religious piety.
The veil may also be used to strengthen their own sense of commitment to their faith and its values in a secular world, the paper said.
The study, published in the journal European Sociological Review, is said to be the first empirical study into why wearing the veil should increase in line with modernisation, a statement from the University of Oxford said.
The researchers tested earlier mathematical models to see how the intensity of wearing the veil varied according to the women’s education, employment, urbanisation and contact with non-Muslims.
Through statistical modelling, researchers found that the tendency for veil-wearing decreased among young, highly educated women when they were exposed to modern influences if they were “averagely religious” Muslim women.
“However, Muslim women who are 'highly religious' tend to increase their wearing of religious head coverings and use more conservative styles as the level of modernisation, or 'risks' they are exposed to, increase,” the statement added.
Study author 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.”