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“Like Batman”, The Status of Hijab in the West

In her rather provocative article Setting Themselves Apart, Dutch Somalian journalist Hirsi Ali says that women who decide to wear the hijab in Western countries look “like Batman”.

And sadly enough, many secular Westerners still believe that the veil manifests division of the sexes, submission of women and sometimes radicalism. Above all, it prevents Muslim women from integrating into the West.

Media vs. the Veil

The role played by the media in intensifying hate towards the veil and all what it represents cannot be underestimated.

In many Hollywood productions, the same stereotypes are presented: veiled women can be hostile and dangerous- especially if their veil’s color is black, they are mostly Arabic speakers, and their husbands have them wrapped around their fingers.

Also in photographs of the Middle East, women are six times more likely to be portrayed as victims than are men.

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In politics, some western governments are equally not very welcoming of religious clothing in general, and the hijab in particular.

The so-called “Quebec values charter” introduced in 2013 by a Parti Quebecois government has sought to ban religious clothing at public work places.

This move is taking the footsteps of France back in 2004, when in the name of secularism, people had to ditch the cross, turban, hijab, and kippah, just to name a few.

At work and public spheres, many Muslim women have reported that they felt they were treated differently, if not culturally reduced to fit into the molds made by Western media.

Some have felt burdened by being held accountable for all that is going on in the Islamic world just because of the scarf on their heads, and have taken it off to liberate themselves from any judgments.

Others are struggling with social anxiety when exposed to unfamiliar situations with non-Muslims, and take chances trying to explain themselves to them.

And some other women huddle up in their own ethnic community bubbles. But there are a few who have chosen to speak up, refuse the status quo, and go beyond the boundaries that are ceaselessly imposed by Western media run by dominant groups. Most importantly, they are doing it with the veil on their heads.

Challenging Stereotypes

Mainstream media and political parties seem oblivious to the fact that many Muslim women hold PhDs and are successful and productive members of western societies in all walks of life, the educational, artistic, and social.

Women like Mona Haidar, Haifa Besisso and Dalia Mogahed are speaking up about this, and are challenging existing stereotypes about Arab Muslim women.

In her book Who Speaks for Islam, Mogahed addresses the silenced majority of Muslims. With the random sampling method of Gallup’s World Poll, she surveyed a sample representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims making this the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done.

Among the insights produced by this poll was that Muslim women want equal rights in their societies, and that Muslims around the world say that the one thing the West can do to improve relations with their societies is to moderate their views toward Muslims and respect Islam and whatever represents it, including the veil.

Here are some tips for veiled women who feel challenged or vulnerable and want to change this present scenario we are living in:

Improve Your Languages

The more languages you can speak, especially English, the less the barriers you’ll have with the society you choose to live in. You will feel included, and you’ll be better able to speak about Islam in a way that defies any stereotypes. Above all, you will get a better job, which can also make you feel better represented.

 Improve Your Credentials

Pursue a higher degree, preferably at a western university. Knowledge is power, and it will definitely help you feel better represented, more empowered and better able to contribute to society. This will also crush any stereotypes about Muslim women being submissive and only good for home.

Be Ready For The Debate

The debates I had with my American friends after 9/11 blew my mind. In Texas, my neighbors wanted to hold a debate about the status of Jesus Christ in the Bible versus the Quran. But what saddened me was the fact that I wasn’t ready for such debates. I realized that a degree or even free special classes in Islamic Studies are indispensable for Muslims in the west.

Check out or Many western universities also offer degrees in Islamic studies.

 Look Good, Feel Good

Being veiled does not necessarily mean we shouldn’t be well groomed or look scruffy. Pick your colors carefully, change the way you wrap the veil, use accessories, and garments that suit your body shape. Change your body posture and maintain your body weight and shape.

Stay in the Loop

What is everyone talking about? Step out of your comfort zone and get ahead of the game. Read newspapers, watch the news, borrow more books from the library and attend workshops. Volunteer. Act as one of the members of this community, not an outsider. Take your place.

Show a Peaceful Yet Dignified Attitude

Accept nothing but respect and fair treatment. Take an action if treated otherwise. The veil should by no means be anyone’s excuse to treat you any less. Islam teaches us compassion, but also pride and dignity.

Avoid Sounding Pushy About Islam

This is a trap many Muslims fall into. Do not volunteer to talk about Islam or your religious practices unless the listener shows some interest first. Such discussions have special protocols. If you’ll do so, make sure that you clarify and simplify what you are talking about. Remember this is a person who has never grown up in an Islamic culture.

Invest in Some Publicity Work

For those who have charisma, why not use it to better represent Muslims? You can pursue politics as a career, or radio broadcasting and journalism. You can simply set up your own YouTube channel and upload videos about special issues pertaining to Muslims.

Avoid Living In Ghettos Or Isolated Islamic Communities

It is much better to face your fears rather than hide from them. In addition, the research shows that when people seek people from their homelands, they start to feel more resentful towards the West and they start to act in a biased way.

If nearly one quarter of Americans say they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor, the best thing to do is be their neighbors and challenge their stereotypes.

Challenge Misogynistic Attitudes and Show them the Way out of Your Life

The Quran explicitly addresses women as well as men and emphasizes the absolute moral and spiritual equality of the sexes, unlike other scriptures.

However, male domination has been trying to hijack Islam for so long, and we must be aware of this. Your Islamic studies will also come in to help here. It might also be a good idea to encourage your spouse, brother and father to improve their Islamic knowledge and check the source of any Islamic teaching.

Whatever Anyone Thinks of you is THEIR Problem, Not YOURS:

Read self-help books about self-esteem, how to deal with criticism and judgment. Learn to avoid negative people. And always remember, you are not to be blamed for all Muslims’ mistakes or the theories of political Islam or the clash between Islam and the West just because you are wearing the veil. Whoever thinks otherwise has got a serious issue. I wish there were doctors for that!

Finally, I wish to bring Hirsi Ali’s attention to the fact that Batman “is the hero Gotham deserves” because he epitomizes the ideals direly needed by his society. Let me put it right: Muslim women who veil in Western societies are heroes, just “like Batman”.

About Sara Hassanien
Sara Hassanien is a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) professional, freelance editor, translator and CABC (Canada Arabic Broadcast Corporation) radio announcer. She is originally from Egypt, and lives in Montreal, Canada.