Challenging times for veiled women in the West

Gihan Shahine , Friday 12 Jan 2018

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

Islamophobia Protest
Muslims gather to accuse the UK Government of racism and scapegoating Muslims Islamophobia Protest in Whitehall street in Westminster, Central London (Photo: AP)

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.

Vigil in Washington
People hold up signs during a vigil in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday 20 June, 2017 for Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year old Muslim girl (Photo: AFP)

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.

Namee Barakat
Namee Barakat (center) mourns the death of his son, Deah Shaddy Barakat, during funeral services Thursday in Wendell, North Carolina (Photo: AP)

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.”

vigil for Nabra Hassanen
A girl is seen above praying near flowers after a vigil for Nabra Hassanen in Washington, DC, on Tuesday 20 June, 2017 (Photo: AFP)

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.”


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.”

Marwa El-Sherbini
Flowers in front of Marwa El-Sherbini photo at the commemorative ceremony of her death in Dresden, July 2009

“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.”


It has been particularly in France where an estimated eight per cent of the population is Muslim that the veil has provoked intense public debate.

France has passed two laws on the veil, one in 2004 banning the wearing of the veil in public elementary and secondary schools, and another in 2011 banning the wearing of full-face veils in public places, even though these are worn by only a tiny portion of the population. Many countries followed suite, including Holland, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Austria, where prohibitions on religious symbols and full or partial bans on full-face veils were implemented.

The recent ECJ ruling allowing employers in the EU to oblige veiled women to take off their veils at work has been met with wide public acceptance in many European countries, including France where “83 per cent of French people” were in favour of the law, according to the UK Independent newspaper.

In an article entitled “French Muslims Say Veil Bans Gives Cover to Bias”, the New York Times said that in France “the head coverings of observant Muslim women, from colourful silk scarves to black chadors, have become one of the most potent flash points in the nation’s tense relations with its vibrant and growing Muslim population,” adding that “mainstream politicians continue to push for new measures to deny veiled women access to jobs, educational institutions and community life.”

“They often say they are doing so for the benefit of public order or in the name of laïcité, the French term for the separation of church and state,” the report went on. “But critics say these efforts, rather than promoting a sense of secular inclusion, have encouraged rampant discrimination against Muslims in general and veiled women in particular.”

Lean argues that the ECJ decision also “enforces conformity to so-called “Western values”. “But ‘Western’ values include religious freedom and individual civil liberties, which would mean that religious expressions of this sort should be encouraged, not discouraged,” Lean told the Weekly.

Critics of the law also wonder why politicians in France focus on the hijab when other issues related to women’s rights do not get the same level of public attention. According to a report published in the UK Independent newspaper entitled “Why is the Right of Muslim Women to Wear the Veil still so Controversial in France”, “in France, one woman dies every three days because of domestic violence, a woman is raped every eight minutes, the difference in pay between men and women is still 27 per cent, and some political parties would rather pay a fine than abide by the rule of gender parity in elections.”

“Why then waste all this energy on the hijab, a piece of fabric, a personal choice, that doesn’t harm or affect anyone,” the report queried. For Bleich, banning the wearing of the veil by women is a “risky step” because it “may increase integration in some instances, but it will increase feelings of isolation in others.”

Many veiled women living in Europe say that the focus on the hijab and the widening trend of enshrining anti-hijab sentiments into law on the part of politicians has not only affected them economically by denying them jobs, but has also made them targets of abuse by the public, ranging from looks of disdain, to being spat at, to incidents of hijab-pulling and even hate crimes.

The 2009 murder of veiled Egyptian pharmacist Marwa Al-Sherbini, who lost her life for no other reason than her religion in Dresden, Germany, at the hands of a Russian-German racist, will always be remembered as one of the most tragic hate crimes directed against veiled women in Europe. But these crimes seem to have increased since then.

“Following the terrorist atrocity in Paris on 13 November 2015, media outlets reported that the number of hate crimes against perceived Muslims had skyrocketed, particularly in France and Britain,” said a report by the United Nations University (UNU), the academic and research arm of the United Nations. “According to these media articles, the majority of victims were ‘visible’ Muslim women, particularly those wearing the veil.”

Tell Mama, an NGO which documents incidents of Islamophobia across the UK by collecting data independently and in collaboration with 15 police forces, also recorded a 326 per cent increase in anti-Muslim incidents on the streets of Britain in 2015. The organisation received direct reports of verbal and online harassment and abuse from more than 1,100 Muslims in the same year and collected details of a further 1,400 incidents recorded by the police.

Tell Mama said the greatest impact of anti-Muslim hatred was being felt by women, making up 61 per cent of all incidents recorded by the organisation. “75 per cent of all female victims had been easily identifiable as Muslims by wearing the hijab or the niqab,” it said.


Although there is no anti-hijab legislation in the US and freedom is deeply enshrined in the US constitution, Abdel-Sattar Ghazali, editor of the Journal America online magazine, says that anti-hijab sentiments are also on the rise in the US.

“No doubt the veil/hijab is provoking animosity against Muslim women,” Ghazali, who is also the author of Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America (2014) and Islam & Muslims in the 21st Century (2017), said. “This animosity sometimes becomes violent.”

During Ramadan last June, veiled 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen of northern Virginia in the US was assaulted and killed as she walked home after prayers at a mosque near Washington. Police have charged 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres with her murder, but once again the murder shocked the local Muslim community which was still getting over the Chapel Hill hate crime in 2015 that claimed the lives of 23-year-old American-Syrian Muslim Deah Shaddy and his veiled bride 21-year-old Yusor Mohamed Abu Salha, together with Yusor’s veiled sister 19-year-old Razan. The three were shot dead in a “dispute over parking”, but their family has insisted that the murder was a hate crime motivated by the religious identity of the victims.

“The veil is rarely used by American Muslim women, but simply using the headscarf makes them the target of hate attacks,” Ghazali noted.

Ghazali further referred to another tragic incident occurring last May when two men were murdered while trying to stop a white supremacist from abusing two young Muslim women, one of them wearing a headscarf, in Portland, Oregon, as a case in point. He also referred to a series of chilling incidents of scarf-snatching across the US in public places and in schools.

According to the Pew Research Centre, a US public-opinion survey organisation, “rates of physical attacks on Muslims reached post-9/11 levels” in 2015 in the US, which it said were “spurred at least in part by the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who called for a ban on Muslim immigrants and tapped into a current of Islamophobia running throughout the country.”

A 2016 report by the newspaper USA Today revealed how over one week three women in one location in the US had been targeted because they were wearing the veil. “To protect themselves, some women are uncovering their hair,” the report said. “Others are buying pepper spray, applying for concealed carry permits, or taking self-defense classes.”


According to the second annual European Islamophobia Report for 2016, a survey across the continent, “Muslims are seen as the enemy ‘within’. Thus, physical attacks and political restrictions can often be carried out and even defended in an atmosphere of wide distrust and enmity” in Europe.

Analysts mention the rise of terror attacks carried out by the Islamic State (IS) group in Europe and the US and the recent influx of immigrants from war-torn countries like Syria into Europe following the Arab Spring as reasons behind the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments. Others blame the rise of the right-wing groups in Europe and US President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric for boosting anti-Muslim sentiments.

Some observers stand in the middle, suggesting that extremism is generally on the rise and is turning bloody. It can be blamed on both some Muslims and some non-Muslims who are turning to the right, and in both cases ignorance serves as the greatest enemy. Whereas non-Muslims may have misconceptions about Islam, some Muslims, mainly jihadists, also misinterpret Islamic teachings in their own way.

Religious scholars insist that militant jihad, for instance, has strict conditions in Islam and should take place only on the battlefield or in the case of a country that has been militarily invaded. But jihadists, they say, have violated that strict condition when they have expanded the battlefield to include the streets of Europe and the US.

The terrorist attacks committed by the Islamic State (IS) group across Europe, particularly in France, Germany and Turkey, have provided an excuse for right-wing politicians to exacerbate their anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The Western media, for its part, has tended to focus on terror attacks in order to portray Muslims as the “enemy”, ignoring the fact that these terror attacks are carried out by small groups and are rejected by mainstream Muslims. The Western media also often only mentions Islam in the context of negative news.

“Islamophobia is on the rise because of a variety of factors, but chief among them today is the degree to which politicians in the United States and Europe have intentionally represented Islam and Muslims as an enemy ‘other’ in the service of advancing their political agendas,” Lean said.

According to Bleich, “Islamophobia rises in times of uncertainty, feelings that core national identities are being challenged, and in the light of political leaders taking advantage of these situations.”

“Politicians like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen in France (among many others) are tapping into a sense that the world is changing in ways that make some individuals and voters in Europe and North America vulnerable,” Bleich elaborated. “Organising Islamophobia is a way for those leaders to gain power, and for their followers to feel more powerful, too.”

Ghazali quotes US journalist Reed Richardson as saying that “fuelled by the president’s nativist agenda and a new alliance with the alt-right, the professional anti-Muslim industry has never been stronger or more dangerous” in the US. Ghazali agrees with Richardson that “like the US military-industrial complex, which wields influence and makes money under the banner of ‘national security’,” there is now also an “anti-Islam industrial complex” at work in the US.

“The Islamophobia industry likewise exhibits interwoven subsidiaries, joint ventures and lobbying groups, which enrich themselves while ostensibly promoting ideals like freedom of expression, women’s rights and national security,” Ghazali told the Weekly.

One recent report by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) has highlighted “how ‘big money’ is channelled to the ‘industry of Islamophobia’ in the West, which revolves around a fear-mongering demonisation of Arabs and Muslims intended to legitimise both US and Israeli bellicose machinations in a region with highly coveted resources.”

“But the problem of Islamophobia is not a Muslim problem only,” Lean said. “It is not the responsibility of Muslims to solve it. It requires everyone’s efforts, and all people who value equality and peace should stand up and reject such bigotry anywhere and everywhere it is present.”

Muslims can also do their bit to fight bigotry. “Muslim communities and individuals can respond effectively by making their case that veiling is an act of piety, not an act of rejection of European values,” Bleich suggested. “They can certainly organise politically and pursue legal cases where needed. The more Muslims can show they are committed to other values that Europeans (and North Americans) recognise as common values, the less veiling can be used as a symbol that Muslims have diametrically opposed values. Building bridges with other faith communities and with non-faith based organisations will help as well,” he said.

  *This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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