Naomi Thompson, Lecturer in Youth and Community Work, Goldsmiths, University of London
and Stephen Pihlaja, Reader in Stylistics, Newman University, Birmingham
Women’s choices about what they wear have caused controversy through time. When the mini-skirt gained popularity in the 1960s, it met negative reactions from designers, society, the media, and was banned in some countries including the Netherlands.
More recently, we have seen a similar yet different controversy in relation to the dress choices of Muslim women in the Western world. Calls to ban women covering their heads and/or faces in public were realised in 2016 when France banned the wearing of the Burkini – an item of modest swimwear for Muslim women – in summer 2016. Women were even ordered to remove them by officials on beaches during the time the ban remained in force.
This controversy about how Muslim women dress has also emerged in academic research, including our own with young Muslim women in England. In 2016, we spoke with young Muslim women in London and Birmingham about their lives – and the wearing of the headscarf and how this leads to discrimination and exclusion in the public sphere emerged as a significant theme for our participants.
Their experiences reflect, in my opinion, an ongoing scrutiny of women – in that snap judgements and perceptions are formed of women by how they dress rather than how they act or what they say. Whilst, women in mini-skirts are judged for their exposure of their bodies, young Muslim women are judged harshly and problematically for covering theirs. These young women are not just judged but feared. This reflects how women who deviate are seen as a threat.
When reflecting on how others perceive them, the young women often made a direct correlation between wearing the Hijab and being seen as problematic.
“Hijab – terrorist – Muslim – extremist… Some people have that view because of influences like the media, because obviously I wear a headscarf, the long clothes. Some people might think my get up is sort of one [laughs]that makes me an extremist.”
In another example, a young Black African woman working in a department store explained how she had been labelled a ‘racist’ by another Black woman for giving a perfume blotter to a Pakistani Muslim woman first.
“So, it is quite interesting to see that even though I am black and she is black, she doesn’t see us as alike, she saw me as different, [a] Muslim and favouring a Muslim lady over her. If anything, I could identify more with her because we are black, and I feel like I am black, you know.”
This affected her sense of identity as a Black woman because she had been perceived as different by someone she related to. Simply by wearing a headscarf, this young woman was excluded from a shared Black identity and her actions judged as racist.
The young women also experienced exclusion in the streets and often on public transport. One young woman described having the word ‘terrorist’ shouted at her out of a car window as it passed her. On public transport in particular, there was a sense of being feared as well as accused. A young woman in London described how people avoided sitting close to her on the tube.
“I’ve noticed that like several times there is a seat next to me but people don’t want to sit down, and I’m like I always think like maybe I am exaggerating and then I see sometimes people picking up their bag and try and like excuse themselves and it’s like in a place they can’t even fit and I’m like ‘ok, why is this?’ And when someone else gets up from a place then everyone rushes to it and I’m like ‘there’s a seat right next to me!’”
Another young woman in Birmingham described how her friend had been refused a seat on the bus by another passenger who had a bag on an unoccupied chair – and who then directly accused her of causing the 2015 Paris attacks, stating that ‘it was because of her this had all happened’. These public situations support my point that young Muslim women are wrongly and harshly judged by how they dress without being given the opportunity to speak or act.
The young women also sensed that that their career choices were restricted by how they chose to dress and felt there was a lack of a diverse representation of Islam in public life.
“I think it would be very strange if you saw a man in a beard with a hat or like what I am wearing on the BBC … Like for example my friend with the face-veil, I think in terms of employment she is, there is a lot of barriers to where she can work… I think like how you dress and your views will definitely obstruct you from entering certain places or accessing certain kind of careers.”
These experiences contribute to the overall sense of exclusion in the public sphere for young women who choose to wear the Hijab or other forms of Muslim dress and demonstrate how aware they are of how they are judged and feared.
A recent report from the Social Mobility Commission in England found that young Muslims face economic disadvantage in comparison to their peers and that educational attainment doesn’t necessarily translate into career outcomes. This is a direct outcome of such judgement and scrutiny.
Our research demonstrates how young Muslim women are excluded and discriminated against based on how they dress. These young women need to be protected by national, local and organisational policy that doesn’t tolerate such exclusion and that celebrates diversity. The fear of visible Muslim identity needs to be tackled. At present it is reinforced by policy designed to prevent extremism as well as by media vitriol that present Muslims as a problematic group. These representations lack nuance, creating moral panics that are out of proportion with reality and that cause more hate than they prevent.
For further reading on this research, please see:
Thompson, N. and Pihlaja, S. (2018) Temporary liberties and uncertain futures: young female Muslim perceptions of life in England. Journal of Youth Studies.https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2018.1468021