Thesis: Hijab empowers women
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)
Thanks Lorenz for sharing this amazing thesis with us. Also, thanks for Siham to research about this topic. I was happy that her thesis is open accessed and I did downloaded and reading it now. I like the title of this post “Hijab empowers women", which you created from the context of her work, yet the usage of the word “empower” in meant to be from a positive connotation. This is because these women have power already. I thing the usage of empowering is debatable and some writers write a note in their books stating that the empowering usage is meant of positive meaning, which is un-portraying the informants as de-powered. Got me?
And, I like Siham’s conclusion: “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”
Thanks again for such interesting and important post : )
Comment from: [Member]
Hi Sara, thanks for your comment. Do you mean the term “empowering” can be misunderstood as it implies that the women normally are without power?
Comment from: Siham Ouazzif [Visitor]
Thank you Sara for your comments and Lorenz for your presentation of my thesis.I do agree that the term can be misunderstood, negative or positive connotation. For me the hijab is an identity marker that bears complex symbols. However the empowerment can be present and will depend on the individual woman. There are women that wear the hijab as a result of social pressure; therefore the term empowerment is strongly conditioned by the motives women choose from.
Comment from: Zuzsa [Visitor]
Thank you for sharing your thesis, first!
I dont think that “empowerment” leads to misunderstanding. Doesn´t the prefix em- intend in this case an increase of power? That doesnt mean that you start from a zero power situation.
whether we talk about the hijab or about wearing sexually explicit clothing, a similar argument gets invoked by women: this item empowers us, it allows us to advance and to get what we want. of course, there’s also a significant difference here: one hides away markers of female sexuality, the other is making them more explicit. one is connected to religion, the other to secular neoliberal post-feminism.
but aren’t both actually ways of coping with a pre-existing order in which women are meant to occupy a sexualized (and thus heavily regulated) place provided to them (and not necessarily of their own making)?
i am wary of ‘empowerment’. may i suggest a look at de certeau’s work on strategies and tactics as a possible way of reconceptualizing the interviews?
Modern hijab wearing women dont “hide away markers of female sexuality". This is my experience as both an inhabitant of a big city and as an outsider to muslim world. Sure, they cover their hair and their skin, but they dont resist to wear clothings who fit tightly, make up, big earings, hjabs, who attract attention … etc. There seem to be no intention to look less female … but maybe as a special kind of woman, with a special set of values (which maybe give them more power …)
Thank you for sharing counter-stereotypical perspectives on the veil. I am interested to know if the women felt that they are choosing to wear the hijab, or that it was dictated by Islam? I also agree with Zuzsa’s comment that in many societies modern hijab does not block women from being feminine and attractive. It rather serves as a recognizable symbol. It seems that all religions evolve/adapt and when they don’t - conflict arises.
Comment from: zahra [Visitor]
i enjoyed this research. as a phd candidate in australia and woman who wears hijab, it was a great piece to read and wonderful to see it from an anthropology perspective. ofcourse alot of the themes covered here as hit home with me. i also found that my feelings about it become much more clear to me when i began wearing it in my workplace as i started off not wearing hijab.
i wondering why many people see the moslem clothes like an invasion to their country? just look to the woman use a veil she’s just like other woman, loved their kids, work at office, have good education, and they don’t do anything wrong, i hope muslim women can use their muslim clothes everywhere because it a choice, in my country Indonesia many muslm woman not use vail aor hijab, and no one ask them for it because it a choice not an identity.
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