Hijab in the
university to the workplace
across the Middle East face two struggles: reserving the right to choose
whether to wear hijab or not, and - whatever their choice - facing the
judgment of others.
Nahas, March 20, 2008
February, 411 out of 550 members of the Turkish parliament voted in support of
the reform for a constitutional reform that would relax the ban on wearing
headscarves – or hijab – in Turkish universities, and to amend the constitution.
The amendment states "that the state will treat everyone equally when it
provides services such as university courses and that no one can be barred from
education for reasons not clearly laid down by law."
This recent event created controversy over whether wearing the headscarf should
be a state decision or a personal one. Yet, what is rarely debated in the
media, but is perhaps equally important to young Muslim women, is the effect
the hijab has on ambitious university graduates who are eager to find their
place in the working world. Muslim women across the Middle East face two
struggles: reserving the right to choose whether to wear hijab or not, and
whatever their choice, facing the judgment of others.
When I entered one of my classes last Tuesday at the American University of
Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon, I looked around for my friend, Nadine. I didn't spot
her pink headscarf, so I thought that she hadn't arrived yet and took my seat.
A minute later, I was surprised to hear her calling my name. I was stunned to
see that she had removed her headscarf. "Hey, you removed it", I
said, gesturing towards my hair. She chuckled nervously and said, "Yes,
I'm trying to become a social scientist and wearing the hijab carries too many
It is true that nowadays, the headscarf has become a symbol charged with
religious, political and social connotations. Yet, the reasons women choose to
wear it, or not to wear it, are often diverse. The image of a woman wearing a
headscarf as oppressed and dominated by the patriarchal Arab society in which
she lives is no longer assumed, for in Lebanon at least, most young women are
actively involved in deciding whether to wear a headscarf.
People usually perceive AUB as a place where extremes meet: some young women
dress conservatively while others reveal a lot of skin. Consequently, some
young women wear the headscarf as a way to socially distance themselves from a
very liberal extreme. Anthropologists like Robert Murphy have further analysed
the veil's role in social interactions. In Social Distance and the Veil,
he writes, "Interaction is threatening by definition, and reserve, here
seen as an aspect of distance, serves to provide partial and temporary
protection to the self."
So, in a society where physical appearance is given so much attention, and
where sexual identities are somewhat in an ambiguous transitional phase, the
headscarf is often referred to as a means of protection – and even affirmation
– of one's own identity.
Some young women choose not to wear the headscarf because they could be
categorised in ways that may limit their job opportunities. One student
ironically asked me, "Have you ever seen sales representatives who are not
tall and beautiful with perfect hair? With my marketing skills I could sell
just as much as those other girls" she said shrugging, "but if I wear
a hijab, my skills will just vanish into thin air."
This, I think, is the most unfair aspect. The real motivation leading Nadine to
remove her headscarf had been pressure and fear of being rejected or perceived
differently, not as a religious person, but as a professional. "Imagine if
one day I have to conduct a survey on the causes of divorce rates and conduct
in-depth interviews with 'modern' women" she said. "Somehow I doubt that
they would not have a pre-conceived notion about me when they see that I wear a
Nadine thinks interviewees would assume that she was too much of a
traditionalist to accept something different. As a social scientist she will be
exposed to many situations in which she will want to be evaluated on the basis
of her competence; and somehow feels that her headscarf would interfere with
Although there is no law in Lebanon that prohibits wearing the headscarf, some
women recognise that the headscarf may hinder them from pursuing certain job
opportunities or prevent them from progressing in certain professions. When a
woman feels that her skills and competencies are judged according to the value
that a headscarf conveys, then that becomes a form of discrimination in the
workplace, just like any other.
Some women wear the headscarf as a visible sign of their Muslim identity or
because they believe it to be a religious obligation. Some women wear it
because they feel it gives them an air of respectability. Nevertheless, the hijab
has nothing to do with one's professional abilities. To assume otherwise would
indeed be unjust.
Nahas is a graduate student at the American University of Beirut (AUB) majoring
in anthropology. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service
(CGNews) and can be accessed at http://www.commongroundnews.org.