Hijab and Western Discrimination

Do Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries face discrimination? They certainly do. The fact of the matter is theyIMG_4506 face discrimination in Muslim countries as well. Heck, women face discrimination for the mere fact that they are women in most countries of the world.

I ask you, nevertheless, this: Do Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries face discrimination wherever they go and from most everyone? Absolutely not. Neither do women generally.

The Huffington Post published an article a few days ago written by a young Muslim woman who wears the hijab. Because of the very cold weather in the U.S., she added a knit hat over her head and a scarf around her neck that virtually hid her hijab underneath. In the article, reprinted from her blog, she explains how differently she felt people treated her. The Muslim taxi drivers were “cold and dry”. She was not acknowledged by her fellow hijabis the way she was accustomed to. On the other end, [non-Muslim] women started talking to her as if she’d “known them forever.” And men looked at her as if she was “approachable”.

I had never realized that with my hijab, I am given less respect and love and am not as accepted. I had always thought that the type of treatment I am exposed to is just how the world is. I didn’t know that people could be nicer.

I have no desire to undermine this woman’s experiences or how she analysed them.  Her experiences are her own. My personal experiences, however, and thus my opinions on the matter, are very very different.

I am a woman who grew up in the U.S. and lived as an adult in Egypt while traveling around the world on business and working with a multitude of international colleagues from various regions and of many beliefs. More recently I have lived in Europe for prolonged periods of time. During all those years, I have been without the hijab, with the hijab, wearing a very long hijab (called a khimar), wearing a face veil (called a niqab), back to wearing a shorter hijab and finally, now, no hijab at all. I’ve done it all. I’ve seen all the reactions. The way I have dressed over the years may have been accepted by some in my inner circles and criticized by others; this is true. How a woman dresses is a highly contentious subject no matter where you are in the world. When I donned the face veil, my own father was against it. When I took off my hijab, I lost at least one good friend and was tsk tsked by many others. These are normal reactions and they are to be expected. I do not categorize these reactions as discrimination. Friends and family have definite ideas of how they expect me to live my life. They believe they know what is best for me. Excepting the one friend, however, all my friends and family have always managed to accept me the way I am.

What I would like to relate in this context is my experiences with the general non-Muslim public as a woman wearing the hijab and as a woman without.

Despite the fact that I have been a very frequent traveller for the past 15 years, I can name only two occasions when I was mistreated specifically because of the hijab. The first happened in Canada while I was walking in a park. An older man walked past me and yelled some obscenity at me. He was harmless. I suspected that because of his age he was not yet accustomed to how the world had changed so quickly around him. My second negative experience happened in Moscow, Russia. On several occasions while walking on the streets, groups of men sitting on the sides of the road would yell at me as I walked past them. A waiter also left me sitting in a restaurant on the Red Square without serving me. I got up and left. I understood that there were troubles between Russia and some of the Muslim-majority former-Soviet countries. These troubles created much mutual hate. Mine was not a nice experience but the real problem was much larger than people discriminating against me as a person because of what I was wearing.

Aside from these two very distinct experiences, I can truthfully say that I have never been treated any differently from others because of what I was wearing. When I took off my hijab and walked around in Europe for the first time, I kept expecting people to treat me differently. I was expecting to get “picked up” by men, for example. Or that I might get better service in shops or restaurants.  Neither happened. People just continued to treat me as a person. As a woman wearing the hijab, my experience was that people who came across me immediately saw beyond the headscarf I had on my head. As a woman not wearing the hijab, my experience has been that people deal with me based on the way I deal with them.

As a woman not wearing the hijab, I have struck up wonderful conversations with the Muslim taxi drivers in the UK, just as I had when I wore the hijab. When I notice they are probably from Pakistan, India, or an Arab country, I’ll immediately feel a sense of brotherhood with them and start asking them where they are from, how long they have lived abroad, and how their lives have been. We always talk together like long-lost brother and sister.

If I see a woman wearing the hijab in Europe, I’ll sometimes give her a huge smile and a “assalamu alaikum” (the Muslim hello). It is almost always reciprocated.

I have never been picked up by men since I’ve taken off my hijab. I haven’t invited it. They’ve clearly noticed.

I can be socially awkward among strangers at times. When I don’t approach people to talk to them, when I give my standoffish vibe, I am simply not approached. When I make more of an effort to be sociable, people notice and they approach me. People are generally good at reading others’ signals and they respond to them. When I am wary of them, they are wary of me. When I am open to them, they are open to me.

My point, based on my experience, is this: There are the few people here or there that are clearly racist. Actually, they may be many more than just a few. Sometimes the best way to face racism or discrimination is to smile in its face. Some people are simply afraid of what they do not know. But generally, people just react to us based on how they expect us to want them to react. If we give off a cold vibe, we’ll get a cold reaction. If we give off a wary vibe, we’ll get a wary reaction. If we give off a warm, sociable, loveable, approachable vibe, we will be approached warmly. In more cases than not, people are able to see beyond the strange ways others dress sometimes, or the strange tattoos they have on their bodies, or the strange scars they have on their face, or the strange way they walk as soon as they feel that they have been invited to come closer to that strange world. And in almost milliseconds they discover that that strange person is not so strange after all.

My experience has been that many Muslim women who wear the hijab in non-Muslim countries are sometimes wary and standoffish. They also sometimes see everyone else as “an other”. The reactions they get from people are frequently based on the Muslim woman’s own attitude. If we, as Muslim women, want to feel more accepted and loved in our adoptive societies, we need to also be more accepting and loving.

We cannot fully place the blame on discriminatory societies and people that do, of course, exist and thrive. We need to also acknowledge that there are changes we can make in ourselves that can make things just that little bit better.

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18 comments

  1. Nadia, that is still confusing… what if others had different experience than urs?
    I know you declared this is YOUR experience but i mean that left us with being more confused
    what that ‘gurl’ did wrong or ‘even did right to feel the opposite of what she used to feel ?

    does that mean she was not trying hard to do the changes u were talking about by the end of ur article ?

    1. What I am saying, Salwa, is that, yes…we have our different experiences but we also have our different ways of interpreting them. Let me give you an example. I once was walking with a friend of mine in a European country. We were both wearing the hijab. Note that we were walking together. My friend kept saying that everyone was looking at us. I saw nothing of the sort. We had the same experience with very different perceptions. My interpretation of that is that my friend has a certain wariness about her. She is expecting people to treat her differently because she wears the hijab. She keeps looking around her with the wary look that I describe, and the result, in my opinion, is that people look at her warily as well. I, on the other hand, do not expect people to treat me differently. I have no reason to look around at people as I walk down the street, and thus people have no reason to look at me. Another experience I had was as a woman wearing the niqab (face veil) in Egypt. I started wearing it in the 80s at university when it caused much trouble for the person who wore it. What I discovered was that all it took for people to accept me with my face veil was to be myself. The minute I smiled at someone, even if it was under a face veil, it showed in my eyes and the other person dealt with me as a normal human being. Some people might have been wary of me before actually having any interaction with me. But once they interacted with me that all changed dramatically. It is because I have gone through all these different phases of wearing different kinds of clothing, it is because I have travelled and lived all over the world, it is because I have had work colleagues from every kind of country and belief that I believe these experiences I have had tell me something valid. And what I am reading from my experiences is that I acknowledge that there are people who will deal with someone they find “strange” differently. But we can also make ourselves appear “less strange” by showing the human side in us and by not being self-conscious about our differentness. That self-consciousness shows to people. They see it. And they react to it.

      1. One other thing that needs emphasis is that there is a big difference between a woman, on the one hand, who has been prevented from working somewhere because she wears the hijab or a woman being attacked on the street because she wears the hijab, and another woman, on the other hand, who feels that women are talking to her more and men are feeling she is more approachable because she is seemingly not wearing the hijab (as was described in the article I am responding to). It is the second that I am addressing. The second is about perceptions. It is also about the signals we send to people as we go about our daily business.

  2. Be sociable, smiling,,help the others without taking account of their race, religion,…..That’s are some of the qualities of the good Muslim woman wearing the hijab or not.

  3. Marhaba IW. And ssalamu alaikum! Was discussing the hijab with 55 year old Syrian female Muslim friend of mine today. She told me that as a University student in Damascus 35 odd years back – only 2 girls from a total of 30 wore the hijab. And there was absolutely no social pressure to do so. Now that percentage is almost exactly reversed she believes. Her friends daughter, university attending at present in Middle East, faces difficulties for not wearing the head scarf as she is now seen as one of the odd-ones-out. My friend is very saddened to see the ‘regression’ (as she sees it) since she was a young girl, where nowadays more fundamentalist & conformist forces (if thats the right description) are at work in the Middle East region and the girls who chose not to wear hijab as seen as religiously, socially & morally suspect. Very sad indeed.
    So now its perhaps true to say that girls choosing not wearing hijab in Middle East are facing far more discrimination in the Muslim world than those who do so in non-Muslim West. Funny old world we live in!

  4. I enjoyed this article. I believe that the only thing you have control over in your life is how you react to others, and how you perceive the actions of others. By understanding that some people will hate , discriminate and continue to be ignorant of the fact that we are all human beings deserving of respect. That our journey in life is noone else’s but our own, and that to have an opinion and to go as far as to kill someone over what they believe, or what path their lifes journey has taken them, is in a way deeming yourself equal to God,Allah, Yahweh whoever you believe in. That is by far one of the most blasphemous things to do. We are all part of the same family, the human family. One day we will be enlightened and realize this bigger picture. I am refreshed by your ability to understand and accept other peoples shortfalls as separate from you and for you to be able to smile in the face of that discrimination. assalamu alaikum sister

  5. So true that when you radiate confidence and friendliness it helps make you approachable. But I also really relate to what the Huffington Post blogger wrote about. It’s not the case that you are discriminated against because you wear the hijab. But like it or not most people have preconceived notions and sometimes subconscious prejudices about people in hijab. Just like people have prejudices based on race, color of skin, weight, etc. For women who wear hijab in Western countries, it is something that we have learned to live with. It doesn’t constrain our lives or hold us back, but we know it’s there. Ask 100 Muslim women in Western countries if they’ve ever received seemingly innocent comments like “Where are you from” or “Oh wow, your English is so good”, etc and I’m pretty sure about 95 of them will say that they’ve heard that at least once. It depends on where you are too. I do get many more stares in the American South than I do in more metropolitan areas. And you know what, it’s something that my non-Muslim friends (especially guys) agree is happening too. They concede that for many people a Muslim woman in hijab is considered not approachable. I think the more visible Muslim women in hijab are in societies, workplaces, etc, the more these notions start to fade away. But it will take time.

  6. Thanks for your experiences. “My experience has been that many Muslim women who wear the hijab in non-Muslim countries are sometimes wary and standoffish. They also sometimes see everyone else as “an other”. The reactions they get from people are frequently based on the Muslim woman’s own attitude. If we, as Muslim women, want to feel more accepted and loved in our adoptive societies, we need to also be more accepting and loving.”

    I have been good friends with a conservative Mennonite woman, my age for over 15 yrs. here in Canada. I met her via both of us employed by a national discount store for a few years. She wears a white cap over bun and always dresses with dark pantyhose and low shoes.

    There is some truth that one must smile in the face ..if it feels safe to smile to strangers. Better in a public space/area.

    I wonder from the standpoint of employment in Canada if a woman wore also a face veil, she may get a different reaction if she were looking for employment. Canadians over all can be quite polite and distant but you really find out later what they might say.

    The City of Calgary is a prairie city approx. now 1.3 million people and is Canada’s oil and gas economic engine. Northern part of Alberta is where the oil tar sands located.

    Our mayor is North American educated, single and …Muslim: http://blog.calgarymayor.ca/p/biography.html He is of East Indian descent. Very recently he spoke out by observing that the senior management ranks in municipal govn’t were primarily dominated by white guys.

    And it’s true but a lot of locals started off saying he was racist and a whole pile of other stuff. Not understanding the sheer evidence in front of them and how the old boys’ networks work.

    And yes, did you notice : he has a natural huge smile and is highly articulate, personable.

    I don’t entirely agree that people aren’t influenced visually by what they see in strangers, crowds of people who they don’t know at all: because if you are non-white there is more often than not, the assumption there are a lot of ‘immigrants” or “foreigners”….when it may well be just 2nd, 3rd-generation non-white North Americans now increasing in some major North American cities.

  7. I totally agree with your point of view. In my travels abroad I have found no hostility towards me. And people are as nice as I am to them. In London, girls wearing hijab work in major stores. I don’t believe there is any discrimination against them.

  8. Hi Nadia:

    I stumbled upon your blog and I really enjoyed reading this. After living in Egypt for a year and travelling around the world, it really opened my mind about a lot of things about the Muslim/Arab culture that I didn’t think much before. I learned why they wear hijab etc.

    So sorry to know that one of your bad experience was in Canada, where I’m from.

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