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The social costs of wearing a headscarf

20/05/2013 A.D 10/07/1434 H

By: Bayynat editor

A research conducted by Professor Yasir Suleiman, Project Leader and Founding Director of Prince Al waleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, examined the cases of 50 British women who have converted to Islam. Published by the University of Cambridge, the research constitutes an inclusive assessment and analysis of the status of British Muslim women who are from different ethnicities, nationalities, and faiths. The research tackles the dress code converts have to commit themselves to, the relationship between the convert, the heritage Muslim communities and wider society.

The following is an edited excerpt that discusses the issue of Hijab as described by British Muslim Converts.

The hijab is not a matter of display of identity nor is it a veil or a barrier. The female convert wearing the hijab in this spirit sets out to dilute its public visibility through engaged action that enables others, Muslim and non-Muslim, to go past it to issues of substance and shared interest that are common to all: those of doing good in the world. For converts of this persuasion, especially, the hijab signals modesty (this is the purpose of it anyway), but it is not intended to hide beauty: being modest is not the same thing as being ‘frumpy’. And the obsession with it on all sides is considered to be unhealthy because it directs people’s attention onto appearances, while in fact the hijab precisely aims to downgrade the heightened attention paid to appearances. It was reported that women experience varying forms of discrimination from wider society if they choose to wear a headscarf in a traditionally Islamic style. Some Muslim converts asserted that it has never posed problems and that there are instances when it has worked to their advantage.

One Participant recalled first wearing her headscarf to work, and how the attitudes of her male colleagues changed markedly. Her male colleagues became more respectful, would no longer swear or read the erotic “Page 3” in a British tabloid newspaper in front of her and, instead, enquired about her faith. ‘This gave them the opportunity to be human beings, rather than reactionary Islamophobes,’she said. Converts set high store by integrating Islam into all aspects of their lives, including their work. However, it is also a sad fact that female converts, whether or not they wear the headscarf, but especially if they do, end up paying a heavy price in their careers. Some participants lost their jobs when it was discovered that they had converted to Islam.

Dressing in the variety of forms that constitute ‘Islamic dress’ frequently leads the non-Muslim family, friends, colleagues, and the wider society to impose a set of assumptions on the wearer. It is often presumed that converts have adopted a style of dress that reflects a barbaric and oppressive set of beliefs that serves to subjugate women and deny them their freewill and freedom, making them less than equal to men. This way of thinking serves to segregate Muslim women from other women. Muslim women are perceived as oppressed, servile and subjugated, while Western non-Muslim women are perceived as the epitome of emancipation. Current is the idea that such forms of dress have been imposed by a patronistic, if not mysogynistic Muslim society, which stamps its cultural authority on the female convert. Converts are even perceived as having become ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Arab.’ It is not uncommon for White converts to be subjected to verbal abuse, for example, by being called ‘White Pakis.’ Conversely, negative perceptions of White female converts, accused of having loose moral values, exist among some members of the heritage Muslim communities who retain a cultural view of them as ‘White slags’.

A number of participants had chosen not to wear a headscarf, or had abandoned it after previously wearing it. There has been less interest in female converts who choose not to wear a headscarf and there is, therefore, less commentary available on this subject. While removing the headscarf was perceived by some as providing space in which an intensifying spirituality could flourish, other participants achieved the same spiritual state by wearing the headscarf.

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