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Finnish military hijab ban sparks debate

A Finnish-Somali woman is challenging the Finnish Defence Forces' ban on headscarves.

Fardowsa Mohamud said she has received both negative and positive comments for talking about the army's hijab ban. Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

Twenty-year-old Helsinki resident Fardowsa Mohamud has sparked a social media firestorm by calling attention to the Finnish military’s refusal to allow women service members to wear headscarves as part of their uniform.

Mohamud said her dreams to serve as a peacekeeper were dashed after learning that Finland’s Defence Forces don’t permit headscarves with uniforms.

Mohamud applied to volunteer for military service in January and was invited to interview with the Karelia Brigade. During the interview she inquired about wearing a headscarf. She later received an email saying that hijabs were not permitted for safety reasons and that all service members must have a uniform appearance.

"I was disappointed to learn this," she said, adding that the hijab is a part of her identity. "I wouldn’t have applied for service if I didn’t accept what they wear in the army, but the hijab is my choice and decision. It’s important to me."

Mohamud later shared her story on social media.

"I’ve received quite a lot of negative and aggressive feedback, including death threats from people currently completing or who have done their military service."

Online abuse has also been racist, according to Mohamud.

"I knew people might get angry, but I’m not taking it personally...I think society should be concerned about the wellbeing of people who want to send abusive messages."

Amending the dress policy to allow hijabs would bring more people—including women of colour—into military service, according to Mohamud.

"I don’t think that would be a bad thing for Finland," she said, adding that dress codes could be updated to reflect modern society. "I know many hijab-wearing women who would be interested in completing military service or doing police work, but if headscarves are ruled out, it’s not possible."

Defence Forces: Rules are rules

Marko Maaluoto, a major at the Defence Forces, said army dress codes are rooted in conscription law.

"It’s a pity that Fardowsa has had to come to this decision. It’s wonderful that she has considered the Defence Forces, and she has a great attitude towards military service," he told Yle.

He said that the Defence Forces respect different faiths by granting leave for religious holidays. Wearing a hijab is not forbidden for religious reasons, according to Maaluoto.

"It’s a general rule that only military headgear is permitted."

Maaluoto, however, said it’s not impossible that the rules could change in the future. "It's certainly possible if it’s seen as necessary [to allow headscarves]. All proposals are taken into consideration."

In 2012, Norway followed Sweden's example by allowing uniformed soldiers to wear religious headgear.

Maaluoto meanwhile said the Defence Forces want to make military service possible for anyone interested. But he pointed out that it didn't necessarily make sense to directly compare countries.

"Outsets are different and few things can be copied directly. You have to put forward your own national policy that’s generally accepted and thereby valued and respected," he explained.

This month Finland's National League offered players sports hijabs to encourage young players from diverse backgrounds to participate in football as well as other sports.