The Hijab in the West: A Negotiation of Identity


The Hijab in the West: A Negotiation of Identity, exclusion/inclusion for refugee Muslim Women in Australia

A handful of researchers have tried to understand the dramatic challenges to gender presentation of self of veiled or Hijabi migrant Muslim women in western society. The Hijab is a headscarf worn by Muslim women and it is the visible identifier of their Muslim identity). A report published in 2003 by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Office and the Institute for Social Research (Keuzenkamp and Merens, 2006) revealed that Muslim immigrant women perform more poorly on key indicators of integration such as labor participation, educational attainment, gender roles and leisure activities compared to Muslim men and Christian immigrant women. It is important to point out that; on the one hand, there is great variation among immigrant Muslim women in western societies in terms of their religiosity levels, the meaning they attribute to Islam and the ways in which they utilize Islamic resources in their daily lives and the social integration with their host countries on the other hand.

Religion and its role in the immigrant women’s adaptation process to the host country are important issues that have remained dormant until recently. McMichael (2002) explored the role of Islam in the lives of veiled Somali Muslim refugee women in Melbourne, Australia. As refugees, these women are dislocated from familiar life-worlds in Somalia. Yet Islam provides an enduring ‘home’ that is carried throughout displacement and resettlement.

To any non-Muslim eyes, the clearest signifiers of Islam amongst Muslim migrant women are in practice and use of space.

Islam is articulated through women’s use and construction of space, daily practice, forms of interaction, and modes of thinking about their lives. Further, Islam offers a meaningful framework of practice and ideology that sustains women during the hardship of exile, displacement and resettlement and in times of emotional distress. The expression of Islam is immediately apparent through material practices of women, which identify them as different. For example women attend mosques, buy their meat at Halal butchers, wear Hijab, fast and feast during Ramadan; children are sent to Islamic weekend schools to learn Qur’an and Arabic language and people’s homes are transformed into Muslim spaces. For these women, wearing Hijab arises from the multiplicity of personal interpretations of religious faith within Islamic tradition, cultural pride, modesty, and resistance to Western influences.

Further diversity was found in daily Islamic practice and interpretation of the Qur’an. Some women followed the prescribed five daily prayers, while others prayed only when it was convenient. Over these practices, Islam was made visibly apparent through the material practices of women’s clothing, practice, and choice of food. These practices contend that there is a complex link between the production of identity, the presentation of bodies, and the transformation of the physical and social spaces of the life-world   (Bhatt,1997, p. 43). Shared Islamic practices and the visual signifiers of being Muslim can lead to a vision of a unified and authentic Islam. When illustrated as a concrete and continuous form, Islam operates as the concept of ‘race’ in that it builds an image of a different, essentialised and homogeneous social group (Abu-Lughod, 1990, p.9). This can create boundaries that provide a forum for new racisms focusing on immigration laws; alien-ness and policing of difference (Malkki, 1995, p.14).

Many women, for example, talked of feeling that people regard them as passive adherents to an oppressive religion, and of staring eyes seeing their veils as the regulation of all women.

Since the events 9/11, women’s experiences of discrimination have been more explicit; Muslim schools have been received bomb threats and the local mosque has been spoiled by racist graffiti (McMichael, 2002).

Asmar’s survey of Muslim student experiences in Australian universities explore show Muslims, as a student group, display a strong commitment toward academic achievement and, especially in the case of women, toward their faith ( Asmar, 2005).Significantly, though, this body of work, which is based on a broader study done by Proud and Inge, noted how some Muslim students, especially Hijab wearing Muslim women, felt excluded and alienated from the campus drinking culture and experienced some discriminatory attitudes (Asmar et. al. 2004).

Speck (1997) reported, in a study exploring the experiences of Muslim college students in the United States, that cultural differences and bias based on religious practice negatively influence Muslim students’ educational experience. Due primarily to misrepresentations and lack of respect from professors and peers, Muslim students often viewed their academic integration as alienated.

A Muslim woman wearing Hijab, for instance reported that some of her peers and faculty members held negative misconceptions about veiled women. She also expressed being perceived as quiet, oppressed, and as having limited English-speaking skills because of her veil.

When I first attended classes at Monash in 2009, I felt that there are cultural differences between the Australian tertiary culture and that of Iraq. Examples of differences exist in equity between lecturers and students; class centered student, management and organization of study, in and out of class extensive freedom of student’s behavior, unacceptable dress, and lack of understanding of other cultures as Islamic culture. Even with these overwhelming concerns, my feelings were positive and negative. For example, I found an area to speak who I am and my colleagues and lecturers were friendly and helpful to listen to me. However, It was difficult to cope with some situations in academic settings such as shaking hands with men, which is not suitable in my understanding as Hijabi woman.

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