Perceptions of the Head Scarf

Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi

As Reem pointed out yesterday, many see a connection between the beating death of Shaima Alawadi and the shooting of Trayvon Martin because both hate crimes are connected to the clothes the victims were wearing. In light of that connection, this is the first of two posts this week that will examine hijab and the various perceptions associated with it.

Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi is the author of The Color of Mehndi and a doctoral student of international psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Zaidi is studying the influence of the Muslim headscarf on perceptions of attractiveness, intelligence, and employability.

There is no argument among Muslim women that the headscarf is a necessary component of Islamic prayer; however, the incorporation of the hijab in public life continues to be an area of contention. Within the Muslim community, the hijab has often been used as a litmus test to determine the piety of Muslim women. Not surprisingly, women who wear the hijab are able to gain a higher level of social prestige within their Muslim communities, while the public display of their faith has made them more susceptible to discrimination in secular Western society. By publicly declaring their faith, those who adopt the hijab are often perceived as conveying a greater passion in their observation of Islamic practices than those who confine their religiosity to the private sphere. As a result, the decision to wear or not wear the hijab in public life has a profound influence on the identity and group affiliation of Muslim women.

Despite efforts to portray the hijab as a symbol of feminine strength that defies Western ideals of women as sexual commodities, the practice continues to symbolize oppression in the minds of many Americans. Muslim women often find this ironic as the notion of head covering is as much a representation of piety in the Judeo-Christian traditionas it is in Islam. Consequently, much of the discourse among women who choose to wear the hijab is the empowerment and liberation that the headscarf provides. It also begs the question: is hijab itself really the issue or is it just a reflection of the marginalization of Muslims in Western societies altogether?

Interestingly, according to one scholar, the negative perceptions of hijab in Western countries may be explained in part by its inability to be colonially modified into an acceptable form of attire by Western standards. Unlike the sari which was adapted to better fit with British expectations of dress, the hijab was worn by elite Muslim women who remained in “purdah” or seclusion, especially within the Mughal systems under British rule, so it had less opportunity to be molded to Western ideals. Of course, this acknowledges the criticism that Muslim practices are normed in relation to Western societies, thereby reaffirming Muslim “otherness” and highlighting the importance of power in defining acceptable behaviors.

The political and social implications of hijab have prompted researchers to explore this controversial phenomenon. One study published in 2010, for example, found that women wearing the hijab were rated by Muslim and non-Muslim men in Britain as less attractive and less intelligent than women not wearing hijab. Another study found that Muslim women in the US who wear hijab have lower expectations of receiving job offers, especially with jobs requiring high levels of public contact. My study addresses the influence of the hijab on Muslim women’s perceptions of attractiveness, intelligence, and employability in the US and the UAE.  As research on Islamic practices continues to grow, I think it’s important to uncover the perceptions that Muslim women hold regarding this topic, not just in Western countries, but in the Islamic world as well.

How does hijab influence your perception of a Muslim woman? Does your perception change depending upon where you see her? If you wear hijab, have you been treated noticeably differently than other Muslim women who do not wear hijab? Please share your thoughts below.

8 thoughts on “Perceptions of the Head Scarf

  1. Due to living in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin all my life, I have never seem a Muslin woman. I am glad for Wisconsin Public Radio for the education and inspiration to think about terrorism.

  2. What a great article on why women choose to wear hijab and how others perceive them! I would say that as a Christian, when I see someone wearing a hijab here in Northern New Jersey I would assume she is very pious and not interested in being friendly (or friends) with non-muslims. I see women wearing hijab as making a non-verbal statement that their lives are focused more on God and their Muslim beliefs than on blending with society. I’ve had several very good Muslim friends in my life, who practice their faith, but none of them wore a hijab.

  3. Having lived in the Middle East in a civilian role, I worked with and become friends with a number of Muslim women from a variety of countries, so my view may be a bit different than other Americans.

    I was fortunate enough to develop a close relationship with many Muslim women and discussed the hijab and other things of this nature. Out of this I have gained some perspective of what it meant to them, which has in turn shaped my perspective on the hijab through their definition.

    For me, it’s not so much that a woman wears a hijab, but how she wears the hijab. I learned from my female Muslim friends that how she wears her hijab (and the kind of hijab she wears) is a fairly good indicator of the how to make the initial approach as an American white Christian male.

    **Now before I get branded as a racist, anti Muslim bigot, please understand that this is not profiling in a negative sense. It is about knowing who you are speaking with and cultural sensitivity. In a lighthearted sense, think of it as when you first meet someone wearing a University of Michigan shirt, you know that jokes about Rich Rodriguez and bashing Ohio State are now acceptable. In the case of meeting a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, as a man it is helpful to know if you should shake her hand, as male/female physical contact is frowned upon by observant Muslim women and can lead to an uncomfortable moment.

    Outside of that, the hijab has become transparent to me and it seems that for many women it has not only a cultural/religious meaning, but has also become a fashion piece of their wardrobe, with the traditional black bedazzled with sparkly jewels, and others wearing a variety of colors and prints coordinated with the rest of their outfit.

    This is a nice piece and I firmly believe we need more discussion like this to educate Americans, especially those who learned of the religion beneath the shadow cast by 9/11.

  4. I think it’s great that we all have Inside Islam as a safe space to voice our opinions.

    Debra, thanks for your honesty. I can see where you’re coming from and appreciate the experiences that you’ve had in Northern New Jersey. I think it’s important for folks in the majority (white and/or Christian) [for the record, I’m white] to examine what energy we are bringing into a space as well. I’m sure that there have been Muslim women who wear hijab that have been unfriendly or seem uninterested in becoming friends. We won’t ever know what those reasons are, but it’s important to consider why that might be. For example, in your region of the US, the CIA and NYPD have teamed up to intentionally spy on hundreds of mosques throughout the Northeast with no other motivation than “Muslim people go to mosques.” It’s imperative that we understand the context where our experiences are occurring. So if I was a Muslim woman who wore hijab in Northern New Jersey, I know that the institutions around me are skeptical of me and impinging upon my basic rights as an American just because of the color of my skin and my faith. Should the US start going into country club golf locker rooms and spying on old white men because they might be committing tax evasion? Of course not. I think you get my point.

    Regarding your comment on piety. Clothing type is neither necessary nor sufficient for piety. I personally know women (and men) who dress very conservatively (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists), and they are FAR from pious in regards to how they treat others, and what their own beliefs are. Likewise, I know women (and men) who dress scantily (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists), and they are quite religious and treat others with love and respect.

    Both Muslims and non-Muslims place FAR too much focus upon the physical appearance of people (but more specifically, on women) than is necessary when speaking about piety etc.

    So in conclusion, I don’t think any one of us–whether in New Jersey, Saudi Arabia, Tokyo, wherever–can accurately judge someone’s internal intentions related to their clothing. It’s almost as inaccurate as saying that everyone who drives SUVs doesn’t care about the environment, doesn’t go camping, and is selfish. It’s a choice they made, and it MIGHT say something about their values, but it may have more to do with the circumstances (they need to haul a boat, their parents passed it down to them, it often snows and they need 4-wheel drive). Likewise, there are reasons why some Muslim women wear hijab: it’s cultural, they interpret it to be a religious obligation, they’re sick of men staring at them all the time, their family pressured them into wearing it, they think it’s fashionable, they think it will please God, it helps them take attention devoted to their outer appearance and re-focus it to their inner self. Some of these reasons have strong value-attachments, and may affect how someone treats others. Other aspects do not.

    People are people. Everywhere. Debra, given the correct setting and space, I encourage you to talk with your Muslim hijabi sisters and ask them about hijab and about the various reasons why they choose to wear it and what they think it says about them. You may be surprised about what answers you hear.

  5. I am a Muslim woman. I honestly can say that a woman who wears scarf is represented as a religious, strong, feminist who is empowered through knowledge. I personally do not wear scarf, however, my mother does and my sister does too. I wish that I could be as strong as them to put up with constant criticism and the racist/ discriminatory remarks that they receive. I agree in the sense that nuns are considered pious when wearing their outfits, however when Muslim women adorn hijab, they are looked at as oppressed. My mother chose to wear hijab, and so did my sister. They are both educated and literate. My sister is very active in sports as well, so I do not find that the hijab restrains her from these activities.

  6. I totally agree with Sumaiya Jiwan. Those who wear hijab or headscarf can do whatever they want to do and they are not oppressed!!I’m living in Indonesia, and so many mMslim women in my country get their PhD and they wear head scarves. They have a good image and position in Indonesia, among both Muslims and non-Muslims.

    Debra Mourad, it’s nice to have good Muslim friends, right? I bet you’ll make even more Muslim friends if you want to spare your time in introducing yourself to others. All the best for you!

  7. Personally, I associate the head scarf with any other vulgar display of religiousity such as a giant crucafix, turban, or I LOVE JESUS t shirt. It basically says that you allow your life to be governed by middle age superstitious nonsense, and deserve to be treated as such! Religion is a plague on humanity and the sooner it is eradicated, the sooner we can grow and prosper as a species!

  8. I am a proud muslim South African who only recently decided to wear the scarf/hijab. It has been about a month since I willingly decided to wear one. In my family most of the older aunts and mothers wear scarves and the young girls all chose to not wear a scarf. I have for a long time always admired the young girls I do see wearing the hijab and then one day was just brave enough to try it and surprisingly enough, i am starting to love it more and more. I am married but my husband has never asked or told me to wear it, it was a decision I made completely on my own. I do not feel that wearing a scarf should be seen as an oppressed women, I feel liberated, I am educated (currently studying for my 2nd degree), I am a mother, full time worker – I am like anyone else but chose to wear the hijab.

    I believe that we should all be allowed to practice whichever faith we believe in, all good religions teaches you about tolerance. There are good muslims and bad muslims and the bad ones should not be seen as the ways of all muslim people. I think the more we just learn to accept and live with each other and the more we learn about why other people do certain things and not stay ignorant, the world would be a much better place.

    I would love a non-muslim to come up to me and rather ask my why I am wearing the hijab than to stare and conjur up all kinds of silly thought and assumptions.