Hate and Hijab
by Tayyibah Taylor
by Tayyibah Taylor
Two important research papers concerning Muslims in America were released at the end of November 2012. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) published The Muslim ‘Veil’ Post-9/11: Rethinking Women’s Rights and Leadership, which looked at the quandary of Muslim women in America who cover their heads. (ISPU is an independent think tank centered on research and analysis of Muslim issues.)
The second paper is titled “The Fringe Effect: Civil Society Organization and the Evolution of Media Discourse about Islam since the September 11th Attacks.” Written by Christopher Bail, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina and published by the American Sociological Review, the study outlined the increase of messages from organizations focused on anti-Muslim rhetoric and how they have moved from the fringe of society to the mainstream, enabled by mass media. One worrisome conclusion is that their success is so great, these organizations have managed to typecast mainstream Muslim organizations as radical extremists.
The other paper, of particular interest to Muslim women, was written by Sahar Aziz, an Associate Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University of Law. It posits that, “The debate no longer centers on whether the pejorative ‘veil’ serves to oppress women by controlling their sexuality and, by extension, their personal freedoms and life choices; or if it symbolizes choice, freedom, and empowerment. Rather, it now marks them as representatives of the suspicious, inherently violent, and forever foreign ‘terrorist other’ in our midst.”
We are quite familiar with the common disparate images of the Muslim woman as the oppressed non-entity and the stone-hearted terrorist. In a society where the image of a woman whose head is uncovered is equated with freedom, modernity and progression, it is interesting to see how it treats women who covered their bodies. Especially those who cover their bodies and their hair. This paper lends us a glimpse.
When taken together, the findings of these two papers give us pause and accentuate the need for more work: greater civil rights advocacy, more social and interfaith dialogue, the re-shaping of the image of the Muslim community and increased empowerment for Muslim women. We have faith these challenges can be met.
Here Dr. Aziz speaks with Azizah about her findings.
Azizah: What is the most surprising thing you learned from your study?
Dr. Aziz: As I read the literature on intersectionality theory in the context of the civil rights movement, I was surprised to discover the similarities in experience of African American women with those of Muslim women post-9/11. Both sought to counter discrimination and stereotypes of Blacks and Muslims respectively, and yet they faced unique forms of discrimination arising from their gender plus racial or religious minority status.
Such unique forms of discrimination at the intersection of race, religion, and gender were often overlooked by mainstream civil rights groups because leadership was primarily male. Although well-meaning, the male leaders believed intersectionally-based discrimination was not a priority, or overlooked it completely. This put women in the awkward position of having to counter discrimination from both mainstream society and from within their communities; discrimination that relegated gender issues to the bottom of the agenda. It is no easy feat to effectively address intracommunity gender subordination without being labeled a self-hater who perpetuates the agenda of external groups seeking to subordinate your community. In the end, I learned that Muslim women have much to learn from the experiences and writings of African American women active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s to 1970s, as well as those engaged in current civil rights campaigns.
Azizah: Given your findings, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the reversal of the association of terrorism with the Muslim woman in a headscarf?
Dr. Aziz: The past eleven years prove that anti-Muslim discrimination, manifested in the conflation of Islam with terrorism, has become entrenched in America's racial history. Increasing discrimination by private actors in employment, schools, and public accommodations, legitimized by selective government counterterrorism enforcement, proves that anti-Muslim discrimination is no longer merely backlash arising from a traumatic national crisis.
So long as Muslims en masse are racialized as the ‘Terrorist Other,’ then Muslim women wearing headscarves will experience discrimination based on stereotypes that they sympathize, conspire, or engage in terrorism. Thus, those concerned with defending individual rights must incorporate combating anti-Muslim prejudice in their civil rights agendas, and that includes the unique impact such prejudice has on Muslim women, especially those who are easily identifiable as Muslims by their headscarves.
Another layer of complexity to the association of terrorism with the headscarf is the deeply rooted American misperception that Muslim women are oppressed and subjugated as women. This pre-9/11 stereotype infantilizes Muslim women, resulting in women's rights agendas that deny agency to Muslim women. I believe the most effective means of addressing these issues is to expand the representation of Muslim women in leadership in Muslim civil rights, civil liberties, and women's rights organizations. Meanwhile, such efforts must be mindful of the risk of ‘essentializing’ an otherwise diverse group of women who do not all share the same life experiences, levels of religiosity, and political viewpoints. Thus, a diversity of Muslim women should be incorporated into the leadership ranks of these organizations.
Azizah: Anti-Muslim bias is often dismissed as the necessary growing pains of a new religious/ethnic community in America. Do you agree?
Dr. Aziz: In 2009, I published an article focused on anti-Muslim bias in the workplace, “Sticks and Stones, The Words that Hurt: Entrenched Stereotypes Eight Years After 9/11”, which argues that anti-Muslim bias has become deeply entrenched into the American-psyche. One need only look to the acceptability of politicians expressing suspicion of Muslims writ large as a means of garnering votes. Similarly, law enforcement brags about profiling Muslims in its efforts to keep Americans safe, as I examine in my article, “Caught in a Preventive Dragnet: Selective Counterterrorism in a Post-9/11 America”. This causes courts to hesitate in interpreting anti-Muslim slurs in the workplace as actionable discrimination, but instead determines it is protected political speech. In combination, these expressions of bias evince that anti-Muslim bias has become a permanent fixture in American racial politics, thereby demanding a long-term strategy to protect future generations of Muslims from discrimination on account of their religion.
Read Dr. Aziz’s entire paper here: ispu.org