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Muslim women show individuality, not religious subjugation

By Erenia T. Michell.

What does the hijab mean to you as a Muslim, and as an American? “An exercise of my freedom of expression.”

In the paper “The downside of religious attire: The Muslim headscarf and expectations of obtaining employment,” conducted by Professor Sonia Ghumman of the University of Hawaii at Manoa with Professor Linda A. Jackson of Michigan State University, some open-ended questions were asked as part of their study to better gain an understanding of the Hijabi perspective.

In the paper, 219 American Muslim women who wear the hijab were surveyed on their job-seeking experiences and their expectations for future employment opportunities.

The study found that 10 percent of women who wear hijabs were concerned about applying for work, and 88 percent said they were not willing to take off their hijabs when applying for work.

“I found that the women who do wear it, the majority of them are unwilling to take it off,” said Ghumman. “It’s not something that can be compromised; it’s not something you can ask them to take off.”

Even though the main focus of Ghumman’s study was to look at the stigma of wearing a headscarf and how it affects Muslim women applying to jobs, Ghumman also used the chance to gather some questions to learn more about why Muslim women wear the hijab and how they feel about it. Ghumann noted that the open-ended questions were generated on interest and not any particular theory.

When discussing her paper, Ghumman was shocked to learn that women wore the hijab not just for religious reasons, a common misconception for many of us today, but for personal reasons.

Americans and many western world people view the hijab as subjugation for Muslim women, and a form of cultural degrading on the part of its male leadership. However, Ghumman says that several women from her study reported that the hijab was a way to reject social expectations of how women should look and dress.

In addition, many women even started to wear the hijab or continued to wear the hijab after 9/11, even with all the negative thoughts that surrounded it. Many were hoping to break the notions people had established about the hijab. In Ghumman’s study, Muslim women were asked “Why do you choose to wear the hijab even after 9/11?”

One answered, “After 9/11 many people had questions about Islam. Wearing the hijab, I gave them someone to approach to ask those questions. I consider myself highly educated, and am therefore wiling to answer those questions in a calm manner and hopefully enlightened.”

While in another response it was simply put, “Because it is a command from Allah (God).”

For some, wearing the hijab was a way of following God’s will and showing commitment to their religion. As an American Muslim, however, it was to show one’s identity, individuality, and serve as a form of freedom.

When asked, one participant answered by saying, “It’s a symbol of my religion, gives me a sense of identity, and allows me to observe modesty. Also it’s a great conversation opener with people who may not know much about Islam.”

When asked if they would consider taking off the hijab to apply for work, or if specifically asked too or required to in order to work, two hundred and two Hijabis responded. The overwhelming majority stated that they would not take off the hijab for work if asked.

“No. The hijab is a part of me,” one respondent said. “That’s like asking me to take my arm off to work for you. You must accept it as a part of me,” she answered.

What stands out in Ghumman’s research is that women have low job expectations  because of the stigma that comes with wearing the headscarf. Also, the knowledge that women do not wear it just for religious purposes, but for themselves, is important.

There are many existing misconceptions about the Islamic world, and many see the hijab as a form of old world tradition that has yet to be taken away. But here, we see that the majority of women do enjoy it, and wear it because they want too.

“For many of this it’s very interesting because it’s not just about religion, it’s not just about saying that the Koran asks me to do it or I do it for god,” says Ghumman. “For some of them it’s beyond that, it’s an expression of their own freedom.”

While Ghumman was looking for one thing in her research, she stumbled upon something westerners think we know a lot about, but in actuality know very little about.

“I wear the headscarf for a variety of reasons,” Ghumman said. “As a feminist, it struck me as the single strongest means to reject the exploitation of women’s bodies and sexuality by the industry, advertisers and the beauty industry.”