Does Discussing Hijab Prevent or Perpetuate Islamophobia?

The traditional head-covering worn by some Muslim women is heatedly debated. Is it oppressive and isolating for women, or freeing and liberating? In Europe, countries including France have banned women from wearing the veil in schools, courts, and other public buildings. Personally, I think religion is a deeply spiritual and personal experience that no other person is able to understand or dictate. If wearing a head-covering makes a women feel closer to or more a part of her particular strain of Islam she should feel free, safe, and supported in that decision.

This lingerie commercial was disparaged as “capitaliz[ing] on the idea that preparing oneself for the male gaze is, in fact, liberating (even if no man will see you)” on Sociological Images.

Personally, I found it surprisingly powerful.

I recently walked close enough by two women in the New York City subway that I could overhear their conversation. Both women were covered head to toe, even wearing the full-face veils that leave only slits for the eyes called niqabs. Their young voices played off each other in some of the heaviest Brooklyn accents I’ve ever heard. Ever since, this powerful, personal, and even feminist version of the woman behind the hijab has made more sense to me.

As a country, we are still too uncomfortable talking about religion. We waver between wanting to allow everyone to practice her own beliefs and not knowing how to accept those beliefs when they differ from our own. It is probably more rare than I ever would think that five of my closest friends–all non-Jews, one a practicing Hindu–were so glad to attend my Chanukah party.

But holding a simple dinner party that happens to consist of potato latkes is nowhere near as outwardly religious as covering oneself in perhaps the most argued-over piece of religious garb there is.

A 2009 study of the influence of dressing in hijab peeked my interested. Researchers examined the effects of wearing a hijab on men’s perceptions of women, in terms of intelligence and attractiveness.

Of the 98 British men surveyed, 57 were non-Muslims and 41 were Muslims. They were shown a series of pictures of 10 women. Each woman had been photographed wearing a hijab, and without. As the images appeared in random order on a computer screen, the participants rated the woman on a scale of 1 to 7 for attractiveness and intelligence.

Examples of the images shown to participants

Women wearing the hijab received significantly lower scores for attractiveness than those without the hijab, and as may be expected, non-Muslim men rated women without the veil even higher than Muslim men.

Women with the hijab were also rated significantly lower in terms of intelligence, and once again, non-Muslim men rated intelligence higher for women without the hijab than Muslim men.

“These results indicate that visual markers of religious affiliation can result in more negative perceptions among Western observers,” write the authors. “This is important because such perceptions may serve to perpetuate the prejudice and discrimination that Muslims in the West face in the current climate of Islamophobia, and thus damage efforts to promote culture diversity.”

There are some suggestions that the climate is changing, however. Another 2009 study set out to recreate the results of a 2008 study that examined the effects of wearing the hijab on American respondants. The participants rated women in hijab as being friendlier, more beautiful, and more welcome in their community than just a year before.

But a deeper problem may lie in this reduction of Muslim women to simply an issue of head-coverings. “Talking only of women’s dress…ignore[s] the many challenges Muslim women face,” writes Carla Power, for Time, “such as polygamy, early marriage, honor killings or the legalized sexism of family laws across the Muslim world.”

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