6 Sep 2017

The politics of the hijab

The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation received massive complaints when they selected hijab-clad Faten Mahdi Al-Hussaini to feature in the coverage of the Norwegian parliamentary election. - Debates about women wearing hijabs are rarely really about the hijab, says CMI-researcher Sarah A. Tobin.

According to our new senior researcher Sarah A. Tobin, hot-tempered debates about hijabs that make women a target of hateful speech increase division. The outcome of the debate is exactly the opposite of what many discussants claim that they want. 

- The discussion does not promote gender equity, says Tobin, but exclusion of Muslims. And women have to bear the brunt of the politics of exclusion. If governments say that the hijab is not welcome, they are effectively saying that Muslim women are not welcome either. How can Muslim women be expected to integrate if they are not welcome?

France banned the use of religious symbols, including Islamic veils and headscarves, at public schools in 2004. Norwegian politicians have discussed a similar ban. Debates about Muslim women wearing headscarves feeds directly into debates about preserving culture, the role of religion, and about gender equality. The hijab seems to touch a nerve in societies heated by terrorist attacks and an influx of refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. NRK was accused of contributing to Islamization by featuring Faten Mahdi Al-Hussaini.

The book ‘The politics of the headscarf in the United States’ by Sarah A. Tobin, Bozena C. Welborne, Aubrey L. Westfall and Ozge Celik-Russell is forthcoming. This book features the stories and experiences of Muslim women in the U.S. which is also a hot topic in Europe.

Exerting their rights as American citizens
The American Muslim women featured in Tobin’s book feel proud to wear the hijab and feel that using it simply is a matter of exercising their right as an American citizen.

-In public places, they sometimes even feel that wearing a hijab earns them respect, says Tobin.

In the U.S., wearing religious garb is seen as consistent with the freedom of speech, and there is not any kind of regulation or even popular sentiment against it according to Tobin. Sometimes it is even in a person’s interest to wear religious garb.

-The hijab is seen as an expression of religion, and religious people are often considered to be more trustworthy, she says.

The Mosque as an unexplored potential for integration
Tobin and her research partners have found that American women wearing a hijab tend to form friendships within Muslim networks. This potentially decreases the likelihood of political participation. But once women start going to the mosque, participation grows. In fact, the research demonstrated that the indirect result of women wearing the hijab was an increase in political participation and integration.

-In Europe, there is widespread concern that going to the mosque is connected to radicalization and isolation from the rest of society. The mosque is perceived as an element of risk. The European debate stands in strong contrast to our findings from the U.S. where the mosque is an arena that furthers integration and participation, says Tobin.

In countries with a strong link between the state and religious life, the mosque can be a focal point for integration. The U.S. has prided itself on a separation of church and state. In countries where religious institutions, such as mosques, are funded by the state, there is a direct connection between going to the mosque and participating in local and national politics. This is where integration could become possible.

-There is a potential there that needs to be capitalized on, says Tobin.

Sarah moved to Bergen to start working at CMI in early August, and will, amongst other projects, continue her research on this topic. She hopes to be able to reproduce the methodology they have used in the U.S. in European countries, as well as in Turkey and the Middle East. She will also continue her research on the connections between Islam and the market place, currently focusing on how Syrian refugees create a market place, jobs and ways of preserving their identity in the refugee camps Za`atari, Azraq and Cyber City in Jordan.

Welcome to CMI, Sarah!

Name: Sarah A. Tobin

Discipline: Social anthropologist

Research interests: Islam, economic life, and identity construction. Gender, Islamic authority, normative Islam, and Islamic authenticity.

Geographic orientation: The Middle East