Do Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries face discrimination? They certainly do. The fact of the matter is they 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.