A View from Sweden: Covering as a Health Risk for Girls and Women

girl-hijabThis comment came to me from Maria Gellert, a Swedish reader, in response to The Problem with Putting Veils on Little Girls.

I also found this article from Scientific American outlining the issues surrounding autism and Vitamin D (link no longer active). If the theory that lack of Vitamin is related to a rise in autism among populations who cover, I want to emphasize that the issue is Vitamin D deficiency during the mother’s pregnancy, not in childhood.

Muslim girls in Sweden usually don’t cover their faces. When it has happened, the social authorities ALWAYS intervene. What I wanted to point out was that when girls dress according to strict modesty, and cover everything except their hands (which are sometimes covered as well) and face. Neck and arms are always covered. Of course the are not allowed to go sunbathing in the summer, even though I’ve seen some do it with a burkini. But of course a burkini also covers the body very well from the sun’s rays.

I can see this for myself because I work in a primary school. Because Sweden strictly follows principles of religious freedom, this has never been a subject of controversy. But the last two years has seen debate in the newspapers. In Sweden a doctor and nurse follow every pupil throughout their school years, and recent studies have shown an alarming rate in different diseases related to the lack of vitamin D. Studies have also shown that grown women who cover have the same diseases, but in a milder version. Rheumatoid arthritis is one, and there is also an epidemic in autism and other diseases among the children of this community. All of this is now being linked to lack of vitamin D, and sun exposure.

In Iran the authorities are giving advice about how much young girls should be exposed to the sun to prevent this kind of problem, so this issue is well known there too. Now Sweden is a country which lies in darkness four months of the year, and this of course makes things much worse. This is not the case in Israel. If you follow regular tzniut customs, and only cover to the elbow and stay outside in the sun for some time every day you probably won’t be affected at all. But if you, like the cults you have been reporting about, cover every inch of the body whenever you are outdoors the medical consequences must be disastrous. I’m amazed that social workers have not confronted the parents who are doing this. And the adult women have a responsibility for the children they give birth to.

Photo credit: Rikie Rizza


  1. I follow ‘regular’ tzniut costoms and i tested really low for vitamin D…..

  2. Likewise, Tikva. Most people test low for vitamin D and should be taking a supplement.

    • As Leah says, many people today suffer from Low vitamin D

      In fact, this is not routintly tested for at youngish ages and when you do go to a doctor and they see low Vitamin D they say, “well everyone has got it, there is a lot of it around” and really take it very lightly (their attitude seems to be that there is something wrong with the way it is measured).

      As long as this is the attitude of Israeli doctors to Vitamin D deficiency, it is not likely that this reason for not covering the face will have much influence.

      (oops, I have to go and take my supplement….)

      If you do google Vitamin D deficiency, you will see that it is connected to an amazing amount of things and is very important.
      One of these things is eastrogen absorbance, and how this hormone works, which can be connected to previous blog posts about bc, as lack of Vitamin D probably messes this all up too.

      In fact, after you google vit D and your doctor has never tested you for vitamin D deficiency, please do go and ask for it, as it is sometimes a symptom of a much more serious endochrine disfunction.

  3. If you follow most Haredi dress code you’ll have the same problem. Long sleeves instead of 3/4 and stocking covering the entire legs. Also necklines are very high. So it isn’t a problem with Muslim covering but with any extreme body covering in any religion.

    I guess the answer is to sat that Hashem created the world where people must leave some part of the body uncovered, but I’m sure that answer will not fly well in certain circles đŸ™‚

  4. The article doesn’t mention it, but the problem is exacerbated for a lot of Muslim women here in Sweden by the fact that they are dark-skinned, being immigrants from Africa (mostly Somalia).

  5. So, maybe we should all eat lots of vitamin-D fortified dairy products.

  6. Anecdotally, the good skin care regiment we have started teaching like a skin protecting mantra IE wear sunscreen everyday or buy cosmetics already containing it, has exacerbated these deficiencies.

    Additionally in Israel babies are given Vitamin D as a matter of habit and national health procedure (because who lets babies sunbathe)but in the US one of the national organizations of pediatricians worried that telling young mothers breastmilk was not fortified with vitamin D would discourage breastfeeding and cause a trend towards perceiving formula as a superior option and so it is policy of many doctors to not prescribe this supplement to infants.

    Thanks for publishing this response from Sweden physical health wellbeing should be a component of the decisions we make for ourselves and our children.

  7. Also this: Channel 2 ran a program on what they still call the “Ema Taliban” phenomenon. Here’s the link for Hebrew speakers http://reshet.ynet.co.il/Shows/360/videomarklist,179562/

    It visits a meeting of women learning to wash with modesty, a girls school that requires the wearing of shawls and sites about 10,000 women that have taken to this trend already. Have a look even if your Hebrew is a bit shaky, the report uses fairly basic Hebrew with subtitles. There is also a surprising interview with the original “Ema Taliban” who has chosen to no longer be heard with her own voice and instead writes to the reporter.

    I’m still processing this in my mind.

    • Sara, I saw it, thanks for providing the link. That was only a fragment of the interview with Keren, they’re showing the rest next week. I was hoping for more info on the veiled “cult,” but there was relatively little. I’ll give a summary tomorrow be”H.

      • I also thought it gave very little information. But I think a lot of secular people who don’t live in/near communities with these “Taliban” women don’t really know about the phenomenom. All I knew (as one of these secular people) is what I’ve read in these blogs (so thanks Hannah and everyone for keeping me well informed)

  8. Ms. Krieger says

    The problem with Vitamin D is that:
    1.Absorption through the skin is much more effective than dietary exposure, and
    2. How much time in the sun varies a lot with the intensity of the sun where you live and the color of your skin.

    Here in the US the guidelines are generally made for whites, and the guidelines prescribe too little time in the sun for most people with olive or darker complexions (the standard guide is 15 minutes without sunscreen every day.)

    But the bright line is the latitude of Boston: essentially if you live north of Boston, no matter what your skin color, it is very hard to spend enough time out of doors to make enough Vitamin D because of the shortness of the season during which the sun is strong enough.
    Israel is somewhat south of the Boston line of latitude, but not extremely so – most of Europe is north of it. Considering that, it is probably difficult to get enough sun exposure if one covers in extreme versions of tzniut or Muslim-style burka/niqqab etc.

    • Ms. Krieger says

      by which to say – sunbathing in sex-segregated areas “a few times a year” isn’t going to make nearly enough Vitamin D for the average woman.

  9. I heard a lecture on Vitamin D several months ago, where the doctor said 1/2 hour of full body sun exposure provides 10,000 IUs of Vit D (by comparison most supplements provide 400 to 1,000 IUs a day).

    So sunbathing for a short while at a segregated beach or open pool several times a year might be a good idea for people that otherwise dress modestly.

    • I’d look like a fried lobster (and probably be fighting off suspicious skin growths for years) if I spent that much time without sunblock!

  10. I wasn’t sure what all the big deal was about, and then last night we saw two of these veiled women yesterday in meah shearim. Extremely spooky! I’d never seen them before. I’m looking forward to reading your previous posts explaining who these people are…

  11. I’m hopefully going grocery shopping in Mea Shearim tomorrow and I’m planning on taking my camera along in hopes of getting photos of the veiled types. It’s just so strange to me.
    I’m eagerly awaiting the redux from the video!

  12. Anyone who manages to achieve a vitamin D deficiency in the sun-drenched Mideast has got to be a real horse’s ass! Don’t tell me I have to “respect” the customs of other cultures! All cultures are . human. Therefore, they are flawed; and can, and should be criticized. Just like America, and other Western cultures should be criticized. All humans are flawed. Respect has to be earned, deserved, merited.Stupidity deserves no respect. The Hebrews, and other ancient Middle Easterners, had no vitamin D capsules, vitamin D fortified milk, cod liver(shark liver) oil. Oily fish was only available near the seacoast. They therefore had to obtain Vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. Ancient Middle Easterners, like anyone else, spent most of their time outdoors. They probably did not wear much clothes in warm weather; they worked in the fields naked, or almost naked. They didn’t think the human body was dirty; they weren’t Irish Catholics. (I’m Irish, and I can say whatever the hell I like about them! All of the don’t think that.) If they covered themselves like haredi or fundamentalist Muslims, they wouldn’t have survived. I ain’t saying they have to go around naked like the French and other Europeans! But surely they can set aside some areas where, in privacy, they can expose enough of themselves to avoid bad bones ,breast, colon, prostate cancer. Many people have trouble absorbing vitamin D from dietary sources; this sometimes becomes a problem as you get older.

  13. Do people who follow modesty rules ever think; ‘i just want to put on something comfy and pretty and go”? Does it feel limiting?