The propaganda led by some Western media combined with the extremist behaviors of some Muslims in non-Muslim societies has led to the creation of a somehow dark image of Islam and Muslims in the West. This has also affected Muslim women who want to practice hijab as their religion wants them to.
To find out more about the topic, IQNA has reached out to Rebecca Masterton, a British Islamic scholar, author and television presenter.
“In the last twenty years, one of the unexpected results of women with Hijab being in the media so much, is that people have got used to the image of the Muslim woman with hijab. They have seen Muslim women working in a variety of environments and so hijab has gradually become part of the social fabric of Western culture,” she said.
She converted to Islam in 1999 and became a Shia Muslim in 2003. She moved to London at the age of eighteen. She attended the School of Oriental and African Studies London, and received a BA in Japanese, an MA in Comparative East Asian and African Literature, and a PhD in francophone and Islamic mystical literature of West Africa.
Here is the full text of the interview:
IQNA: Considering that the hijab is one of the obligations of the Islamic religion, what effect does this issue have on the presence of Muslim women in non-Muslim Western societies?
Masterton: The hijab can become a focal point for social and political conflict. It makes Muslim women clearly visible in a non-Muslim Western society, so it can mean that they will not be selected for jobs. This can affect their chances for employment.
Often Muslim women say that they don’t want to alienate those around them, but the hijab can have that affect. Muslim women can also become the target of physical attacks, often by men, in the street, especially when Wahhabi groups have been active with bomb attacks on synagogues and churches.
This engenders hatred towards Islam, and Muslim women become the natural targets of that hatred. The hijab also confronts the secular West’s idea that it has moved away from religion and become ‘progressive’. The hijab is seen as backward and there is the assumption that Muslim women are forced to wear it and naturally want to remove it. French politicians have often said that the hijab is a symbol of ‘oppression’.
What we find with this issue is that Muslim women themselves are often not spoken to. They are spoken about by politicians, but their personal voice is rarely heard in the media.
At the same time, the secular West has become so accustomed to seeing women in hijab now, that slowly non-Muslims are getting used to it, seeing it as something normal, and feeling less threatened by it. In the last twenty years, one of the unexpected results of muhajjabeen being in the media so much, is that people have got used to the image of the Muslim woman with hijab.
They have seen Muslim women working in a variety of environments and so hijab has gradually become part of the social fabric of Western culture. Non-Muslims have learned how to interact with muhajjabeen and feel less uncomfortable.
Non-Muslim men often feel they can show traditional chivalry, such as opening a door for a Muslim woman, and that they won’t be attacked for it, because they know that a Muslim woman is most likely not a ‘woke feminist’ who will be angry with this traditional form of courtesy.
IQNA: Some believe that Islamic covering and hijab are restrictions for the social activities of Muslim women in non-Islamic societies. What is your take on this?
Masterton: There is still a variety of environments that would not like to have a woman in hijab working there. Job opportunities are still restricted for Muslim women because in a competitive job market, most companies will choose someone that is just easier to work with culturally. E.g they want a woman who will go out for after-work drinks; go out for non-halal company meals. They don’t want to have to accommodate for providing a place to pray, or to have to be careful about ordering halal food if there is a company event.
On the other hand, when it is in the interest of companies to utilize Muslim women for their own benefit, then they will make certain accommodations. Nowadays the police force has a uniform that includes hijab for women; hospitals are slowly making allowances for Muslim women to have long sleeves at work, whereas before they had to have short sleeves; hospitals understand that the hijab is not a ‘health and safety’ problem, since other staff have to cover their hair for health and safety reasons.
One good outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic is that now society has got used to people covering their faces! If a Muslim woman wants to wear niqab she can now just wear a black medical face mask and nobody has a problem with it. This is quite different from the hatred and hysteria that people used to have about the niqab.
IQNA: How can concepts like hijab be explained to the young generation of Muslims in the West?
Masterton: A lot of the time what puts women off wearing hijab is intense media propaganda against it, which makes them feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, and also the problems that they see going on in Muslim communities.
Maybe there are Muslim women with hijab whose actions contradict the teachings of Islam. There are cases of Muslim women coming to Western countries and practicing black magic, or engaging in scams, so this puts the younger generation off Islam.
It needs to be understood that one’s wearing of hijab should not be something that is affected by one’s environment. Rather, it is part of one’s own spiritual journey and personal dignity.
IQNA: What is the role of the media in promoting hijab?
Masterton: The media should focus on the spiritual and philosophical teachings of Islam; its raison d’être; its overall message and vision for the society; then people will understand the purpose of hijab better.
If the focus is always exclusively on hijab, but with no spiritual or philosophical content, then it just becomes a piece of cloth. Women should not be shamed into wearing it, but rather, Islam as a light and as a mercy should be conveyed. Hijab should be promoted in a way that respects women’s intelligence, and that shows understanding of the difficulties they may be having in wearing it.
IQNA: What are the biggest challenges of maintaining hijab in today's world?
Masterton: The restrictions on social and economic mobility by governments that are put on Muslim women. They are made to think that the only way to move forward and progress with their lives is by removing the hijab.
IQNA: How are veiled women treated in London and how are you treated (either positively or negatively) as a veiled woman? Have you faced discrimination because of hijab?
Masterton: The treatment of veiled women in London varies from area to area in London. In a predominantly non-Muslim area you might be stared at. People think that I don’t speak English, which is funny, considering English is my native language and I have taught English literature, as well as published academic articles and books.
However, Londoners are becoming much more educated about hijab-wearing women. When there was an incident of a mentally unstable Salafi killing a soldier here, I was apprehensive about going out, since after 9/11 there was a lot of tension on the streets. Many Muslim women even left London at that time.
However, after this latest incident, when I went out, I found Londoners treating me very normally. They can now discriminate between different kinds of Muslims and do not always connect the individual acts of unstable people with Islam as a whole. However, I was once approached by a film maker, Paul Schoolman, who wanted to make an anti-Israel film.
He wanted a Muslim woman in his film and wanted me to take part, but when he realized that I was not going allow him to depict me in indecent scenes, he suddenly stopped talking to me and dropped me from the project. I found this treatment to be quite disgusting really, and it reminded me of how women in the West can be exploited by different industries.
Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi