The Simplistic Way We In Which View Muslim Women And The Hijab Is Missing The Point

The reasons why Muslim women chose to wear the Hijab - or not - are as varied are they are. So why are we so reductive?

Muslim Women And The Hijab

by Natasha Wynarczyk |

Last month, the European Court of Justice passed a ruling that stated employers were able to ban their employees from wearing the Islamic headscarf to work, though only as part of a general policy barring all visible religious and political symbols. This followed high-profile court cases brought by Belgian and French Muslim women who were dismissed from their jobs after refusing to remove their headscarfs.

Unsurprisingly, the right wing in Europe have welcomed the decision. Germany’s populist party Alternative für Deutschland said the ruling ‘sent out the right signal’, while François Fillon, a conservative candidate in the upcoming French presidential election –and the driving politician behind France’s controversial 2011 niqab ban –called it an ‘immense relief…not just for the thousands of companies, but also for their workers.’

For Muslim women, however, it’s unsurprising that this looks like yet another discriminatory ruling in a long line of attempts to police the ways they outwardly express themselves. From France’s nationwide ban on burqas, as well as on Muslim ‘burkini swimwear’ in seaside towns such as Cannes, to Angela Merkal’s 2016 endorsement of a partial barring of the niqab, it’s clear that there’s a movement in Europe specifically targeting Islamic women’s headwear. Muslim women, it seems, are the ones who first have to pay the price in the face of rising Islamophobia in the Western world.

‘When I saw the news about the EU ruling, I just saw it as another facet of the anti-Islamic sentiment happening at the moment,’ Abla, a 23-year-old from Eastbourne who wears the hijab, tells me. ‘It’s the same narrative being played over and over again and has been deliberately done to undermine us as a minority. I find it shameful and disgraceful coming from an organisation which is meant to be a standard bearer for democracy.’

‘I think it’s absolutely disgusting,’ 27-year-old Naija says. ‘I don’t understand how wearing a hijab stops a woman from doing her job properly. I can’t imagine taking off my headscarf in work, or in public for that matter – it would make me feel like I was naked.’

Many groups have condemned the ECJ ruling, expressing concern that it will alienate Muslim women from the workplace, stop them from being economically independent and legitimise prejudice against them. The Open Society Justice Initiative also noted that while national laws in many of the EU member states will still recognise that banning religious headscarves at work does count as discrimination, in countries where national law is weak many Muslim women will be ‘excluded’ from the workplace. In the UK, Muslim women are already disadvantaged in this area, with the Woman and Equalities Committee recently revealing that they are three times as likely to be unemployed and looking for a job than women generally.

‘If my manager told me I couldn’t wear my hijab at work, I really don’t know what I would do,’ Naija explains. ‘At the end of the day, I need to make a living. My options would be to either stay at home or rely on my family for money, therefore taking away my financial freedom, or turning my back on my religious beliefs.’

She tells me that although Islam states an individual can follow the law of the land they are in, meaning there would be no religious repercussions of her not wearing the hijab, she can’t imagine the ‘personal turmoil’ of having to remove it. ‘It goes beyond whether or not there will be religious ramifications – it’s how you feel as a person, your wellbeing and your right to choose how you dress,’ she adds.

There’s a certain irony in the way the West looks down on countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran for enforcing laws on compulsory religious dress for women, yet it’s seemingly fine for us to tell women they can’t wear the religious clothing they have chosen to as part of their Muslim faith. ‘Islam doesn’t say anything about women having to wear the hijab, on the contrary it’s a choice out of your duty to God and however you identify with that – and everybody is different,’ Abla explains. ‘There’s a great misunderstanding, especially in the media, about what is choice and what is repression. Wearing the headscarf is my choice, and being stripped of what I consider my dignity is a form of oppression.’

Janahara, a 22-year-old student from London says it’s clear discrimination against a massive group of people who want to follow their personal religion and culture. ‘Westerners say they are the more advanced, liberal and free societies, then impose sanctions against us like France did with the burqa ban. It’s crazy,’ she explains. ‘How can you say you’re a liberal society then do something like this because of the actions of a few radicalists. Every religion has fundamentalists.’

Though Janahara used to wear the hijab as a pre-teen, she’s since stopped. ‘For me, I removed it as I felt I was doing it in a half-hearted way and messing about as a teenager, and for me personally you have to do it completely or not at all.’ She says this is also why this EU ruling is problematic, for a lot of Muslim women the hijab is something they’ve completely devoted themselves to doing, and wearing it is not like just throwing on your favourite jumper or a pair of heels before you head to work.

However, Janahara says she can’t see a lot of companies enforcing the rule. ‘It won’t help them in the long run, and they know that,’ she says. ‘I actually can see why some people will keep their hijabs on to make a point, I actually hope there will be an increase in people wearing it [the hijab] because of this in European countries.’

‘The hijab for me is now also more of a political thing, and a symbol of my pride in being a Muslim as well,’ Abla says. ‘Through wearing it, my message is “this is my identity and this is how I’m going to be”. It’s become more and more an act of resistance.’

The Muslim women I spoke to said they’ve noticed people treat them, or other women they know, differently because they wear the hijab. Fahmida, a 25-year-old from Romford, explained that although she’s never really worn it, only to visit certain, more religious members of her family, she’s seen people act differently around her when she spends time with her hijabi friends. ‘People expect you to not be having fun,’ she says. ‘If I’m in a coffee shop with them [my friends], laughing and being whimsical, people stare at you and you get the impression they’re thinking “are you supposed to be having fun like that?” –I think people have this idea of Muslims as these fun-hating, fundamentalists and it’s completely wrong.’

She says there’s an idea a lot of people have that Muslim women are ‘repressed’, and that’s false. ‘In terms of wearing the hijab, there’s a general assumption that you’re doing it because you’ve got no choice, you’re subservient and you’re not smart,’ she explains. ‘The fact is, many women choose to do this and it doesn’t make them any less intelligent, it’s their own personal decision to wear it.’

Worryingly, Fahmida says she’s found a few people view the fact that she doesn’t wear the headscarf as a sign that she is ‘safe’. ‘I’ve had people say to me “you’re ok, you’re an alright Muslim” because I’m not wearing the hijab. It’s like they see you as the “good” kind,’ she says. ‘I find it awkward first off – it’s the kind of thing you don’t know how to react to, but it’s upsetting.’

‘I am now in a position of privilege where I am not visibly Muslim – I recognise that that gives me an advantage and I need to be there to support those who wear the hijab,’ Janahara says. ‘I will defend Islam to the day I die because it is my culture and who I am, but it’s tiring. If someone like me is always getting tired about having to back it, imagine how the people who actually practise it are feeling. They have to wake up every day and choose between their culture and their way of life.’

The rise of the far right in Europe, as well as Trump’s travel ban, have left many Muslims feeling alienated and scared. ‘So many people are ignorant – they don’t educate themselves about who they hate, they just hate,’ Janahara says. ‘I think the whole rise of Islamophobia is due to fear, people don’t want to feel like their way of life is under attack. However, the vocal minority have now become the majority – just look at the popularity of Trump. It’s definitely scary.’

‘As somebody who doesn’t wear the hijab, I’ve had instances where I’ve wondered if I should start wearing it. Then you think about the Islamophobic rhetoric and ideas and you think “maybe I won’t be promoted, maybe I’ll be overlooked, maybe people will see me differently”, it all feeds into that,’ Fahmida admits.

Abla tells me that as a woman who wears the hijab, and with a sister who has started wearing it too, it does scare her. ‘You never know if you’re going to run into a person who has developed Islamophobic views, whether it’s via the media or their friends,’ she says. ‘I mean, we are the ‘enemy’ right now. But in a weird way, it has reinforced our pride and Muslims shouldn’t feel afraid – and we shouldn’t be removing our hijabs because we feel threatened, it’s our right to wear them.’

‘At the end of the day, I feel like women who wear the hijab are criticised no matter what we do,’ Naija says. ‘If we stay at home, we are oppressed, but if we choose to go to work then we might not be able to wear our headscarfs. There is a real contradiction in how the media portray Muslim women. They want us to integrate – but it seems that can only be done if we shed all visible attire linking us to Islam and portray a Western identity for social acceptance.’

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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