The Symbolic Power of the Veil

September 22, 2023

This report exposes how Islamists have been permitted to dominate debate about religious clothing both in the United Kingdom, and abroad.

This vacuum can lead to women and girls effectively having the hijab imposed upon them by their community activists or school – despite the fact that throughout much of the Islamic world women are protesting the imposition of the hijab as an oppressive garment. In the latest development in the Iranian government’s war on women, Tehran has announced just yesterday that ‘repeated violations’ of its strict dress code can lead to imprisonment of up to ten years.

New research from Policy Exchange reveals that:

  • Events in Iran have shown not only that the Islamic veil may be used as an instrument for the oppression of women, but also that its symbolism is part of an ideology that undermines both diverse Islamic viewpoints and Western liberal democracy.
  • In 2018, the Foreign Office promoted ‘World Hijab Day’ with hijabs being distributed among civil servants.
  • Before its recent bankruptcy, Birmingham City Council funded the charity Legacy WM, which is building a sculpture of a woman in a hijab to be erected shortly in Smethwick in Sandwell. A grant for core activities of £68, 488 was awarded for the year ending 31 October 2022.
  • There is a lack of clear Governmental guidance for schools and the NHS on religious clothing; this may create a vacuum that is filled by Islamist groups.
  • Some Islamist groups in the United Kingdom have sought to normalise the contestable view that Muslim women should be entirely covered except for the face and hands.
  • Public fear of accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ can lead to Islamist groups shutting down debate on religious attire in the UK – despite their power being increasingly challenged in Iran.
  • The United Kingdom, contrary to the claim made by some Islamist activists that it is an Islamophobic country, has no blanket bans targeting the burqa or hijab, unlike some European countries, but there are some situations in which Islamic head dress may be restricted due to health and safety or identification purposes.

Recommendations in the Policy Exchange report include:

  1. The Government should ensure its guidance on school uniforms provides greater clarity on what schools can and cannot do vis-à-vis banning or requiring certain religious attire.
  2. The Government must ensure there are clear and consistent regulations for dress codes relating to religious attire across the NHS.
  3. The Government must resist any definition of ‘Islamophobia’ that inhibits public criticism of religious practices and traditions, including dress codes.
  4. The Government must refrain from publicly endorsing or promoting any specific religious attire, including events such as World Hijab Day: in 2018, the FCO reportedly distributed free hijabs to celebrate.

Related Publications


Sir John Jenkins

Senior Fellow

Dr Damon Perry

Senior Research Fellow (2021-2023)

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