Al Ahram - January 4-11-2018


Challenging times for veiled women in Europe & U.S.

Wearing the Islamic veil has become increasingly challenging for many women in Western societies, where a piece of fabric can be used to exacerbate already rising Islamophobia, writes Gihan Shahine 

By Gihan Shahine

Many veiled women living in the West may have found great comfort in the heartening call of President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen for all women to wear headscarves in solidarity with Muslims and fight what he described as “rampant Islamophobia”. For the left-wing former Austrian Green Party leader, the veil is a matter of “freedom of expression”, which is “a fundamental right”.

“It is every woman’s right to always dress how she wants. That is my opinion on the matter,” he told an audience of school pupils last May.

But not everybody in the West thinks the same way, especially in the light of the rise of right-wing groups. Many observers say that right-wing politicians in Western societies have been using the Muslim veil as a rallying point, claiming that they are protecting secularism and Western identity from the threat of the “Islamisation of Europe”, for example.

They may use the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, as a trigger to rally racist or anti-Muslim sentiments across Europe and America. Many women may be judged, sometimes even misjudged, for what they choose to wear.

“Whenever I open the drawer where I keep my scarves, I look at them and say to myself, what a loss, what a loss that I ever took off my hijab.”  

Thus said 33-year-old Ibtisam Al-Zahir with tears in her eyes, as she expressed her regrets at taking off the Islamic headscarf (hijab) or veil in order to be sure to get a job in Spain where she lives.

An emotionally charged interview with Al-Zahir was part of a documentary filmed by the UK website following a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in March 2017 that allows employers to ban religious symbols in the workplace. The decision is part of a ruling on the issue of women wearing Islamic headscarves at work in the EU, allowing employers to ban religious clothing.

Although the ECJ insists that the ruling “does not constitute direct discrimination” against Muslims, many Muslims and non-Muslims think otherwise. There is almost a consensus among Western Muslims that the decision was part of a wave of Islamophobia that has been sweeping Europe and the West in general.

“I hope that I can wear them again,” Al-Zahir said as she passed her fingers over a set of colourful scarves neatly folded in her bedroom drawer.

Al-Zahir may not be the only one feeling pressured by the ECJ decision. As the documentary shows, many Muslim women now face “a stark choice: lose their hijab or their job.”

At least for Al-Zahir, losing the hijab was forced upon her after having spent three years looking for a job. As a divorced and single mother of two kids, she desperately needed a job in order to survive, rent a house and feed her kids.

“I applied to work in a restaurant,” Al-Zahir said. “It was a cleaning job — nothing to do with a hijab. In the end, I said, ok I will take it off, just give me work.”

But not all veiled women living in Europe were equally unlucky. Ayan Baudouin from London told the documentary that she had “never had any issues” getting a job in the UK, but that she was “quite fortunate because not everybody’s experience is like that”.

“We’ve had mixed reactions here: some women like myself will never give up the hijab for the sake of Allah, and we are determined to fight for it,” 44-year-old Dalia, an Egyptian-British woman, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Some have been deterred and have got scared, so they’ve either changed the way they wear their hijab through hats or Spanish-style hijabs and some have taken it off. But only a minority have taken off the veil altogether, as more often than not those wearing classic abayas and khimars [robes] tend to downgrade their veil by wearing normal clothes or adapting them,” she said.

Dalia does not work at the moment, but says she has ‘“definitely heard of jobs being harder to attain for a hijabi, and yes some have had verbal and physical abuse.” Dalia said she personally had suffered from abuse in the form of “dirty looks mainly by white men” in the street. “Usually they get a piece of my mind if the persist,” she added.

Baudouin similarly lamented how many people in Europe may still tend to stereotype a veiled woman as “illiterate, uneducated and probably not able to speak their language.”

Many Muslims living in the West seem to have had this feeling of disrespect if recent research by the US-based Gallup research firm is anything to go by. “Specifically, 52 per cent of Americans and 48 per cent of Canadians say the West does not respect Muslim societies,” Gallup said. “Smaller percentages of Italian, French, German and British respondents agree.” 

The veil and Islamophobia

According to the Gallup studies, “researchers and policy groups define Islamophobia in differing detail, but the term’s essence is essentially the same, no matter the source: an exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination and the marginalisation and exclusion of Muslims from social, political and civic life.”

Although Islamophobia is manifested in different ways, many observers suggest it is becoming more aggressively directed towards veiled Muslim women because the veil acts as a visible sign of Muslim identity. Recent research reports on Islamophobia in the West suggest increasing levels of hostility directed towards Muslim women who seem to be bearing the brunt of attacks against Muslims, with many suggesting that the veil has been used or abused by right-wing politicians and the architects of what they call the “industry” of Islamophobia in the West.

Those talking to the Weekly referred to the many recent hostile attacks on veiled women in the UK and the US as cases in point. In one case a veiled woman was pushed into the path of an oncoming underground train apparently for no other reason than her wearing the veil.

 “For Muslim women, Britain’s streets are more hostile than ever” was the headline of a story in the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph last week. “In 2017, we continued to worry a lot about what women wear,” it wrote.

The incident where a veiled Muslim woman seemingly miraculously survived being hit by a London Underground train went viral on social media, showing how she slammed into the train and rebounded onto the platform. The man who pushed her was held on charges of attempted murder, but many insist the attack is only one of many other manifestations of how veiled women have been at the heart of Islamophobic attacks.

US author Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry, told the Weekly that “the veil is simply a visible symbol around which anti-Muslim agitators unite.” In Lean’s view, the veil “is not provoking Islamophobia itself, but rather offers people who already hold negative views of Islam an object at which to direct their ire and angst.”

“The Islamophobia industry uses whatever objects and symbols it can to suggest that Muslims are frightening,” Lean elaborated via e-mail. “It may seem that the veil is the symbol most often referenced today, but there have been instances of prejudice directed at mosques, minarets, and other Islamic cultural signifiers” in the West as well.

Erik Bleich, a professor of political science at Middlebury College in the US, similarly noted that “the hijab is one factor among many that Islamophobes use to identify and stigmatise Muslims.” The hijab has always been a controversial issue in both the West and in some Muslim-majority countries, he said. It is largely seen by Muslims as a religious obligation and as such many women choose to don it as an act of piety.

Many in the West, however, also tend to see the veil as a political symbol, a manifestation of a “different” identity, and, perhaps, a refusal to integrate. Politicians designing anti-hijab laws in the West may claim they are doing so in order to emancipate women from “the shackles of veil” and help them better integrate.

 “The veil is viewed differently in Europe compared to the United States,” Bleich elaborated. “In many European countries, it has become a symbol for religious fundamentalism and a refusal (or at least a reluctance) to integrate. This is even more true when it comes to niqabs or burqas,” he said, referring to the full-face veil.

 In the United States, according to Bleich, although the veil is of less prominent concern because Americans are generally more open to the public expression of religion, it still “functions as a marker of ‘Muslimness’, which is increasingly seen in the United States as a threatening identity to many.”

Lean said that in some cases veiled Muslim women “must feel hurt by the way in which a pious symbol of their religious identity has become politicised and subjected to such unnecessary prejudice”.

“Some of those who welcomed the ECJ ruling said the headscarf was a ‘political statement of oppression’. I find that deeply offensive,” 33-year-old Fayza Hassan, a European Muslim, wrote on the UK newspaper the Guardian’s blog.

“To me, it’s an act of worship, a choice I made, that it has no impact on anyone other than myself. I don’t expect others to understand my reasoning, but I find it strange that people who have very little understanding of my faith feel they have a right to tell me how to interpret it or what to do.”

Continued on page two

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