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Cultural issue

The headscarf, fear and Islamophobia in the heart of America

By Zainab Salbi on November 22, 2016

If you want to understand the rise of Islamophobia in America, just talk to a Muslim woman. Those who choose to wear the headscarf, also known as a hijab, often face verbal insults and threats, and even physical intimidation and violence.  

For many Americans, the hijab has become a stark physical reminder of “difference” and otherness.

Of course, not all Muslim women choose to wear the hijab. But for those who do, they are often assumed to be oppressed, or even “forced” to wear it. And many have been the target of physical attacks in the heart of America.

In reality, there is no correlation between the hijab and the oppression of women. As a matter of fact, American Muslim women who wear the hijab choose to do that as a statement of identity.  

They are making the point that they can be independent, strong and free and choose to wear the hijab as part of their freedom of choice as an American.

Decisions to wear the hijab vary from one woman to the other and from one culture and country to the other. Immigrants such as myself who grew up in Iraq, did not think of the hijab at all in our upbringings. Friends who wore it later in life chose to do that for various reasons: some as a reflection of piety, some as a measurement of security when the streets of Iraq turned into a battleground, and some as a fashion statement or solidarity with other friends, among other reasons.

Those who wore it and those who didn’t coexisted in the same families and social circles. Yes, there were some judgments between them, but not enough to get in the way of any social relationships.   

Out of the 49 Muslim majority countries worldwide, only two force women to wear the headscarf by law ? Iran and Saudi Arabia. In countries such as Afghanistan they are indeed still dealing with the cultural consequences of years of Taliban ruling and its impact on the wearing of Burqa and the fear that was implanted in women’s hearts. We cannot generalize these countries as the entire Muslim population of 1.6 billion people ? whose drive for decision-making differs from one culture to the other and one country to the other.

Indeed, the wearing of hijab has increased significantly in the past two decades. That is due to many reasons around the world, including an expression of political opposition in countries like France, social norms in countries like Somalia, and economic and security reasons in countries like Iraq. Women in America who chose to wear the hijab have their own reasons as well.

Needless to say, oppression of women does take place in many countries. But oppression of women is a cultural issue and a family oriented. To say that Muslims oppress women is to deprive every Muslim family of their integrity, their dignity and their love. Women’s issues are only one of the disconnects between Muslims and non-Muslim assumptions of Islam.

During my journey to explore women and Islamophobia in Minnesota, I asked every single Muslim about how they define Islam. All the answers I got were related to human behavior: be good to your neighbors; be good to the animals, to Earth; be kind; be clean.

When I asked them about the role sharia played in their understanding of Islam (as many outside of Islam fear the term), Haji, a Somali store owner explained that “sharia simply means law, and to think the sharia is only about the death penalty is like thinking that the U.S. constitution is only about the death penalty, which it is simply not correct.”  

Zainab Salbi talks to Muslim women about their experiences living in Minnesota during an episode of The Zainab Salbi Project. (Nick Hernandez)
Zainab Salbi talks to Muslim women about their experiences living in Minnesota during an episode of The Zainab Salbi Project. (Nick Hernandez)

Haji is right. Sharia is a diversity of laws that are interpreted differently from one sect of Islam to the other, from one country to the other, and even and from historical time to the other. It has never meant one thing in Islamic history in any one time, nor to all individuals or communities. Sharia is a fluid interpretation, not a solid document.

Indeed, the term has been corrupted and co-opted by terrorist groups such as ISIS, and transformed to equate with threats of extreme violence. But that “corruption” is neither embraced, nor does it apply to the majority of Muslims who are fighting these terrorist groups themselves. It is definitely not part of the consciousness or daily practice of the vast majority of Muslims whose drive in life is to simply be good, like any other person of any other religion.

The gap between what Islam is and how the vast majority of Muslims practice it, and between stereotypes, projection and fear of the religion from non-Muslims is vast. The only ones who benefit from the divide are the very people that everyone really fears: terrorist groups who thrive on division and discrimination to legitimize their use of terror for their desire for power. 

Across America, women who wear the hijab face consistent harassment. They hear phrases like “go back home,” get called “terrorists,” and hear wishes that “ISIS would gang rape them.”

This is especially the case in Minnesota, and is happening to American-born Muslims and immigrants alike.  While fending off verbal and physical attacks directed towards them, almost all are worried about the impact of bullying on their kids.  

In this episode of The Zainab Salbi Project, I witnessed a lot of pain and fear in amongst American Muslim women. They worry for their families’ safety, feel ostracized and are even suspected as terrorists, just for practicing their religion ? a basic American right. President-elect Trump’s talks about Muslim deportations have unleashed a wave of attacks on American citizens and legal immigrants who happened to be Muslims, leaving many to live in fear.

Zainab Salbi is an Iraqi-American author, women’s rights activist, humanitarian, social entrepreneur, and media commentator who is the founder and former CEO of Washington-based Women for Women. Salbi is also an editor-at-large for Women In The World, in association with The NY Times, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. Find out more on how Zainab Salbi uses the power of storytelling to trigger change on Red UK.