Culture: Women With Hijab in Western Countries

Introduction

The number of Muslims living in Western countries has increased dramatically over the past two decades. With this increase, Islam has become increasingly visible in countries that have a predominantly Christian population. With the prevalence of Muslims, many Islamic religious practices are being carried out in western nations. While some of these practices are unnoticed by the non-Muslim population, others call attention to differences between Muslims and the rest of society. One Islamic adaptation that causes controversial differences in western countries is the hijab. Rhys and Gira (2007) define the hijab as “the headscarf that covers a woman’s head, hair, neck, and ears” (p.270).

Many immigrant Muslim women, as well as second-generation young women living in western countries, are choosing to wear this veil in their everyday lives. This veil has some consequences on the lives of the women since it immediately identifies them as practicing Muslims. This paper will compare the situation of Muslim women who wear the hijab and those who do not wear hijab while living in western countries. It will demonstrate that the Muslim women who wear the hijab face significant difficulties compared to those who do not wear this cloth. The paper will show how the hijab-wearing women might face difficulties in their professional lives as a result of their clothing.

The situation for Muslim Women Wearing Hijab

The first difficulty that a Muslim woman wearing the hijab will face while living in a western country is that the veil will immediately identify her as belonging to a different religion from the one practiced by most people in the country. While belonging to a different religion is not a negative thing, history shows that societies have a tendency to discriminate against people with different religious practices. The level of bias against a certain group is dependent on the extent to which their religious practices differ from the mainstream.

Rhys and Gira (2007) declare that historically, the groups who have encountered the greatest discrimination in western countries have been “those with the most visibly different religious practices” (p.271). The hijab is a highly visible symbol, and it identifies the woman as a Muslim. This leads to discrimination since the Westerners construct the women as different and sinister.

Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab are perceived by westerners to be admitting to holding a second-class status in the society. The veil is seen as a symbol of the deep sexism of men as well as their objectification of women. In reality, this stereotype is true in some Middle East countries. In countries such as Yemen, patriarchal political and social structures exist, and women are objectified and treated as second class citizens. They lack economic equality and have to endure sexual harassment. In countries such as Iran, women are forced to wear a hijab, and the ones who refuse are victimized (Yazbeck, 2007).

For this reason, some westerners hold the view that the veil is a symbol of the oppression of women in the Arab world. A woman who chooses to continue wearing a hijab in the west is viewed as illogical for choosing to comply with a religion that is oppressive towards women. This veiled woman is, therefore discriminated against in the organizational setting (Rhys & Gira, 2007).

The woman wearing the hijab in a western country will face some difficulties since society will assume that she is judging the western culture. Salem (2013) observes that many westerners regard the hijab as a public critique of the western culture of materialism and individualism. Most Islamic nations frown upon individualism criticize these western values. In such societies, achievements of the community are valued over those of the individual. Family is held in high esteem, and the youth are brought up to value more than just their individual achievements. In this frame, the hijab is seen as a visible rejection of western culture. The hijab is a symbol of modesty in the face of cultural decadence, as articulated by the skimpy clothing that many western women wear. The woman wearing a hijab will, therefore, be discriminated against since westerners assume that she is criticizing their culture.

Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab face difficulties since the majority of the population immediately judges them as being non-assimilable to the mainstream western culture. Most westerns expect migrant communities to adopt mainstream Western culture after a while. They hope that these outsiders will adopt the cultural values of the majority and become assimilated into western culture. The hijab is seen as a symbol of unwillingness to adopt the popular culture. Even when a Muslim woman is a full citizen of the western country, she is regarded more like a Muslim than a citizen of the country if she wears the veil. Zahedi (2011) admits that wearing the hijab can serve as a symbol of cultural resistance against the West. Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab will, therefore, face difficulties in their professional lives since the general population assumes that they are unwilling to adopt western values.

The image of the hijab evokes feelings of fear and suspicion in many westerners, especially in the post 9/11 era. Zahedi (2011) acknowledges that the events of September 11 shattered Westerner’s sense of security and heightened their anxiety about the Muslim community. Most westerners developed hatred and anger against the Muslims living in their community. This rise in anti-Islamic sentiments was caused by the fact that the attack had been perpetrated by Muslim terrorists who were opposed to the West. All Muslims are, therefore, wrongly associated with terrorism and westerners blame the Islamic faith, calling it a “religion of violence and aggression” (Zahedi, 2011, p.187).

The frustration is often directed towards hijab-wearing women since they are easily recognizable. Zahedi (2011) observes that while the hijab is supposed to bring Muslim women anonymity, it has only brought them unwanted attention in the post 9/11 western world. The professional prospects of a Muslim woman are, therefore, negatively affected when she is wearing the hijab, which causes the westerners to react with fear and suspicion.

There is a stereotypical view that women who wear hijab are religious zealots. This stereotype arises from the fact that the veil has some strong religious connotations. In Arabic countries, women are encouraged to wear the hijab as a sign of their religious devotion (Salem, 2013). Many people in western countries, therefore, assume that the woman wearing a hijab does not identify with Western ideals and actually hates the secular culture. This condition is evident from the decision by the French government to ban the headscarf in public schools. Salem (2013) notes that this law was supposedly aimed at containing the spread of Muslim fundamentalism and promoting secularism in the country.

This statement explicitly linked Muslim fundamentalism with the hijab, meaning that only extremists or those associated with them wear them wear this veil. Women wearing the veil are therefore assumed to be religious zealots who might have links to terrorists. This assumption makes it difficult for them to obtain jobs, especially in professions that deal with national security.

A woman can suffer from legally sanctioned restrictions to her professional growth when she chooses to wear the hijab. The Muslim culture is seen as a threat to western cultures, and many governments are therefore more restrictive in the acceptance of practicing Muslims (Salem, 2013). Some Western countries have already instituted laws that place hijab-wearing women at a professional disadvantage. In Germany, the regional government imposed a ban on wearing any religious symbols by civil servants. Salem (2013) notes that Muslim women were targeted when some local governments in Germany prohibited teachers from wearing hijab. Using such measures, Muslim women who wear hijab are denied employment opportunities. The ones who choose not to wear the headscarf are able to take advantage of the employment opportunities and, therefore, better their lives.

The situation for Muslim Women not Wearing the Hijab

One the other hand, the women who do not wear the headscarf are not easily identified since they do not have this highly visible religious article. They are, therefore easily integrated into mainstream society since they are not construed as different and alien. Such women are more likely to succeed in the western world due to their easy integration into society. Falguni (2006) admits that the hijab has become the focus of suspicion and fear for many citizens in the West. Removing the hijab leads to an immediate alleviation of these unfounded fears by the western community. Rhys and Gira (2007) admit that the western society is more accepting of people who do not have very visibly different religious practices.

Muslim women who do not wear the hijab are praised for embracing equality since the headscarf symbolizes gender inequality in the eyes of many westerners. Most Westerners see the hijab as a manifestation of inequality. In their minds, they have created a strong association between the hijab and gender inequality (Yazbeck, 2007). For most of them, this veil is a means through which Muslim men demonstrate their power over the women. Women who put down the hijab are considered to be empowered since they refuse to wear the hijab, which is assumed to be a symbol of male domination. Such women therefore face fewer difficulties since they are considered to be rational women who recognize their equal status with men in the society.

Removing the hijab immediately marks the Muslim woman as a liberal person who accepts western practices. Falguni (2006) documents that the hijab is seen as a symbol of Islam’s affront to liberalism. When a woman chooses not to wear the headscarf, the western society considers her to be a liberal person. She is welcome into the society due to her assumed acceptance of its general values. In the professional setting, a liberal outlook on life is appreciated while conservative outlooks are not welcome. An organization might therefore give preference to women not wearing the hijab than to the hijab wearing women.

Women who remove the hijab are deemed as ready to become members of the western country since they have abandoned their religious and cultural markings.

Yazbeck (2007) reveals that in Western countries such as the US, the integration and assimilation of second and third generation Muslims was supposed to proceed according to the same pattern noted among previous immigrant groups. These children would become Americanized by shedding the religious and cultural markings of their parents. Removing the hijab is a visible mark of a willingness to assimilate. Such an action is rewarded by being provided with the same opportunities as the majority population in the country. The professional life of the woman without a hijab is therefore likely to be better than that of the woman who continues to wear the headscarf.

A Muslim woman who removes the hijab in a western country is assumed to hold liberal religious views. She is considered to be an open-minded person who can hold rational positions on various issues including religion. In modern times, governments engage in racial profiling, which isolates Muslim women with veils (Falguni, 2006). Through racial profiling, the women are considered security risks and hence prevented from working in sensitive areas. Women who do not wear the headscarf escape this racial profiling since they are presumed to be liberal Muslims. Their employment prospects are therefore better than those of the veiled Muslims.

Discussion

Whether or not to wear a hijab should be a matter of personal choice. A Muslim woman must not be obligated to wear the veil and she should only do so if she desires to. However, our current society is full of stereotypes and biases based on cultural incompetence. The reality is that many people in the western world do not understand the hijab. To them, the headscarf is a representation of their hidden fears and anxiety about the entire Muslim world. Many westerners do not understand the cultural value that the hijab holds for some Muslim women (Zahedi, 2011). They automatically associate this veil with the many negative stereotypes they hold about the Muslim world. Considering this current state of affairs, it would be more beneficial for the Muslim woman not to wear the hijab in public. In recognition of the negative impacts of wearing a hijab in western countries, Muslim leaders issued a religious decree that allowed women to remove their hijab when in public. This shows that Muslim leaders understand that women may be discriminated against for wearing this religious attire.

Conclusion

The paper has shown that the hijab does limit the opportunities of its wearer. The paper began by noting that the number of Muslims living in western countries has been on the increase. However, Muslim women living in western countries find themselves practicing a minority religion in a society that does not understand it and in fact views the religion with some suspicion. The paper defined the hijab, which is the headscarf worn by Muslim women.

It noted that Muslim women who wear this headscarf face some significant difficulties in their everyday lives. Due to the misconception that many westerners have about this clothing, they behave in a biased manner towards hijab-wearing women. It is therefore harder for the women to improve their professional prospects in the western country. The paper concludes by stating that while it is the right of Muslim women to wear a hijab if they wish, people in western countries hold negative stereotypes concerning this attire. It would therefore be better for the woman to take off her hijab in the western world in order to increase her chances of succeeding.

References

Falguni, S. (2006). Unruly Muslim Women and Threats to Liberal Culture. Peace Review, 18(4), 455-463. Web.

Rhys, W., & Gira, V. (2007). Hijab and American Muslim Women: Creating the Space for Autonomous Selves. Sociology of Religion, 68(3), 269-287. Web.

Salem, J. (2013). Citizenship and Religious Expression in the West: A Comparative Analysis of Experiences of Muslims in France, Germany, and the USA. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 33(1), 77-92. Web.

Yazbeck, Y. (2007). The Post-9/11 Hijab as Icon. Sociology of Religion, 68(3), 253-267. Web.

Zahedi, A. (2011). Muslim American Women in the Post-11 September Era. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 13(2), 183-203. Web.