The newly elected President of Austria has called on all women to wear the hijab to show solidarity with Muslims who he claims face “rampant Islamophobia.”
Speaking to an audience of students, President Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party leader who took office in January after a narrow victory against a conservative opponent, advised women to take up the headdress to defend the “freedom of expression” of Muslim women. He claims all Muslim women wear the hijab by choice.
According to reports including one from The Independent, Van der Bellen made his comments in March, but they only surfaced this week after being broadcast on Austrian news networks.
“It is every woman’s right to dress how she wants, that is my opinion on the matter,” he said.
The headdress is often regarded as a symbol of women’s oppression due to its enforcement by religious authorities in the Middle East and South Asia on women. Not wearing a form of headdress (hijab, niqab, or burka) is considered immodest—almost the same as wearing a thong or a see-through shirt in public.
Women who refuse to wear the hijab are typically subject to brutal physical punishment by their male siblings, fathers, and husbands for their immodesty. This isn’t the case in more moderate communities, but the hijab’s association with women’s oppression is undeniable.
“And it is not only Muslim women, all women can wear a headscarf, and if this real and rampant Islamaphobia continues, there will come a day where we must ask all women to wear a headscarf – all – out of solidarity to those who do it for religious reasons,” continued Van der Bellen.
The President made his comments in response to a question from a schoolgirl who asserted that a headscarf ban, which has been proposed in Austria, would “reduce women to their appearance, rather than accomplishments, and shut some out of the labor market.”
Despite Van der Bellen’s comments, the Austrian government is going ahead with policies to ban full-face Islamic veils like the niqab and burka in public places. The hijab, which only covers the neck and hair, will be permitted.