What is it like being veiled and working in Australian companies? Anthropologist Siham Ouazzif sent me her thesis “Veiled Muslim Women in Australian Public Space: How do Veiled Women Express their Presence and Interact in the Workplace?”
Siham Ouazzif conducted 16 in-depth interviews with Australian veiled women. They were well educated and held different professions from professors, psychologists, teachers to marketing managers.
Hijab and veiling are highly polarized issues today. So maybe it was no big surprise that her potential informants were sceptical in the beginning:
In the beginning of my research I soon realized that among my informants there was a feeling of scepticism at being part of a study that explored Muslim women’s issues. However as they came to know that I too was from a Muslim background I sensed they felt more at ease. Nearly all of the women expressed a sense of frustration at having been misrepresented in both the media and in other academic studies. They did not want to be part of a study that reinforced an image of veiled Muslim women as oppressed, backwards or limited.
The anthropologist concludes:
In general they understood the hijab to be empowering and many concluded that being veiled and an active professional proved that wearing the hijab did not hinder women from achieving what they want.
The veil signified respect and control over public space. Most women gave the impression that the veil made them feel stronger as feminists in public, she writes.
Hadda who worked at a Microsoft company said:
When I started wearing the veil, I felt more in control and protected, men didn’t look at me in a sexual way, I felt respected and that made me feel more comfortable working with men.
But their muslim identity at the same time limited their relationships with their colleagues - especially outside the work place:
The women emphasized that their Islamic commitment was incompatible with non-Muslims way of socializing, especially because it involved alcohol. However, most of the women felt that co-workers treated them with respect and inclusion.
(M)ost women simply explained that, “In Islam I am not allowed to shake the hand of a man I am not related to,” although a few avoided explaining this to their male colleagues for fear of being impolite. In this way the veil transformed into a physical separation between male co-workers and the women. But most of the women also said they felt more comfortable in their interaction with men, because the hijab restrained sexual flirtation or the sharing of inappropriate jokes.
Of course, stereotypes about suppressed muslim women in the media that were also shared by some colleagues, made the women frustrated and angry. However the majority of women believed strongly that positive changes would appear in time:
Most believed that the increasing number of Muslim women actively interacting and engaging in the Australian society would change people’s stereotypes.
For the women, wearing a hijab is like bearing the flag of islam:
Amongst my informants veiling was far from extremism or an experience of oppression but rather a public statement and as some women confirmed explicitly, wearing the veil is like bearing the flag of Islam, an identity they wished to preserve.
Motivations for veiling seemed to transform in meaning: sometimes it was related to religious identity, sometimes to a gendered political resistance. The interesting response was not so much their explicit answer for why they veiled or what the veil signified to them in a non-Muslim society, but rather how they understood the concept of veiling in Australia where they constitute a minority.
Veiling as a form of protest or resistance was present in the women statements. For some of these women veiling was used as a symbol to make a public statement to support the Muslim world. However most women seemed to think that it is was not political but more as an identity.
Interestingly, of all the fifteen women she spoke with only three knew which verses in the Koran mentions the head cover. Nevertheless all confirmed that the veil was compulsory in Islam.
Siham Ouazzif has also written the article (Norwegian only) Hijab i vesten og de mange motiver (Kvinner sammen 2/2007)