Why Muslim Women Wear the Veil Matters for Their Emotional Well-being
Decades of research shows that doing things because we want to—rather than because we feel we have to—leads to better mental health. This is true for a broad range of behaviors, ranging from studying to losing weight to helping other people, and in different cultures and populations.
It is equally true for behaviors that are practically or actually mandatory, such as going to work or wearing a seatbelt. No matter what, when we do something for autonomous reasons (because we personally value it, think it’s important, or want to), we feel better doing it than when we do it because of controlled reasons (because of pressure from others or from ourselves, or because we’ll feel ashamed if we don’t). Simply put, motives matter. Why we do something matters for our well-being while we’re doing it and can even feed into our overall sense of well-being in our lives.
We examined this phenomenon in a unique context, studying why Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and Iran wear a veil, and specifically how their motives shape their experiences when they wear the veil. Many people in the Western world assume that Muslim women wear the veil because they feel like they have to or are forced to do it. We tested this assumption and found no support for it. In fact, in a study of 791 women living in Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries with laws requiring women to wear a veil, we found evidence that supported the opposite view. Women were more likely to wear the veil because they wanted to—because it reflected their values, they enjoyed wearing it, or it was an important part of their self-expression—than because they felt like they had to—because they felt no choice in the matter, they would feel bad about themselves if they didn’t, or worried they would be judged negatively.
In Saudi Arabia, women in public are required to wear the abaya, a garment that covers most of the face and body, but the culture is moving toward more liberal interpretations of modest dress. In Iran, women are required by law to wear the hijab, a loose-fitting headscarf. Given that women in countries with veiling laws generally said they wore the veil of their own volition, we might see even higher rates of women wearing a veil because they want to—versus because they feel like they have to—if we asked Muslim women who wear the veil in countries without veiling laws.
As expected, women who wore the veil for autonomous motives that reflected their personal values and self-expression consistently reported more positive, and fewer negative, emotions when wearing the veil. And because wearing a veil is such a large part of life in these countries, when women wore the veil for autonomous reasons, they reported greater life satisfaction.
On the flip side, when women wore the veil for controlled reasons—to avoid social disapproval, to avoid feeling ashamed for not wearing one, or because they feel they have no choice—our findings were less consistent with our expectations. Wearing the veil for controlled motives was sometimes associated with negative emotions, sometimes associated with positive emotions (which surprised us), and sometimes not related to the women’s emotions at all. And these motives did not tend to predict overall life satisfaction.
Although some people have assumptions about why Muslim women wear the veil and what it must feel like for them to wear one, our study suggests a more complicated picture. The experience of wearing a veil heavily depends on why women wear it. This study showed that more often than not, women wear the veil because they want to and find it an important part of their self-expression. And these autonomous motives are consistently related to positive emotional experiences when wearing the veil, as well as to overall life satisfaction. The takeaway conclusion is that a woman’s personal motives for wearing a veil matter a great deal for her experience when wearing it and for her overall life satisfaction. Many women find great value in the act of wearing a veil and benefit from it. And, even when women wear a veil for controlled reasons, the picture is more complicated then we might expect.
For Further Reading
Legate, N., Weinstein, N., Sendi, K., & Al-Khouja, M. (2020). Motives Behind the Veil: Women’s Affective Experiences Wearing a Veil Depend on their Reasons for Wearing One, 87, Journal of Research in Personality, 103969. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2020.103969
Nikki Legate is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology who studies prejudice, stigma, and motivation.
Netta Weinstein is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Reading who studies human motivation and well-being.