In the UK, Muslim women (and women perceived as Muslim) face disproportionate levels of discrimination due to their intersecting social identities and the related systems of oppression: they can be discriminated against on account of gender, ethnicity and/or religion. This discrimination impacts their daily lives and opportunities. In the world of work, for example, one in eight Pakistani women are asked about marriage and family aspirations in job interviews compared to one in thirty white women,
while 50% of women wearing the hijab feel they have ‘missed out on progression opportunities because of religious discrimination’.
They also face more street harassment: in 2018, Muslim women were targeted in 58% of Islamophobic incidents.
The verbal and physical violence women face includes insults, being spat at and/or having their hijab pulled off.
Muslim women are also targeted on account of the Islamophobic tropes in circulation. One of the most common tropes in circulation alleges that Muslim women are oppressed, need to be protected from Muslim men, and that Islam is a uniquely misogynistic and patriarchal religion. Tied into this trope is also the belief that Muslim women are submissive. While these ideas are not new – they have been in circulation since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century – the increased animosity towards Muslims and Islam, combined with constant media coverage and the widespread use of social media, means these ideas have gained further reach and prominence.
Moreover, in recent decades, many people have seized upon society’s greater awareness of gender discrimination and of feminism to critique Islam, attacking the religion in the name of gender inequality. As the lecturer and writer Naaz Rashid notes, ‘[e]veryone is a feminist when it comes to Muslim women’.
Rashid further explains,
The issue of gender rights notably brings together Islamophobia from across the political spectrum, including both its far-right and its liberal forms. Liberal Islamophobia assumes that Muslim communities and ‘culture’ are inherently against certain liberal values (which are frequently seen as the exclusive preserve of the ‘west’) such as democracy, human rights, free speech, and gender and sexual equality. This narrative is also reflected in far-right anti-Islam sentiments.
In the present day, a key part of the narrative concerning gendered oppression in Islam revolves around what women wear, notably the use of garments that include face veils, such as the niqab or the burqa, and head coverings, such as the hijab. These garments are seen as evidence that women are oppressed and/or submissive and, to some people, are symbols that Islam is a patriarchal and backward religion.
These religious garments are also regarded as evidence of the danger that Islam poses to Western society, both fuelling and feeding off the Islamophobic tropes that allege Muslims are trying to take over the West and trigger its Islamisation, and that Islam is culturally incompatible with liberal Western democracies.
As outlined in the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims’ report Islamophobia Defined: The inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia,
Muslim women are feared, and seen as the ‘enemy within’ because they are viewed as not in [line] with the western ideal of womanhood (Perry: 2014). Here, the symbolism of the veil (hijab and/or niqab) is crucial, as it is not only taken as a sign of submissiveness but also as a sign of Islamic aggression (Perry: 2014). Covered women are thus represented as ‘agents’ of terrorism (Perry: 2014) and as warrior terrorists alongside male counterparts who are ready to wage war on the West (Perry: 2014).
Women in these garments are subsequently depicted, and viewed, as a threat, while, somewhat contradictorily, being viewed as women who need to be saved.
As the European Network Against Racism (ENAR)’s report Forgotten Women: The Impact of Islamophobia on Muslim Women highlights
Media and public opinion often express stereotypical views of Muslim women, often depicted through a binary representation – oppressed or dangerous –, and do not consider Muslim women as active agents. News stories either refer to violations of women’s rights or use their image, especially when wearing religious clothing, to illustrate views framing Islam as a problem.
Often, stories about Muslims or Islam are accompanied by images of women wearing a full-face veil, whether such images are relevant or not. Images of Muslim women in religious clothing are also used for negative news stories, which was particularly evident at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The overuse of such images reinforces the trope that alleges Islam oppresses women in the minds of non-Muslims and singles out Muslims as different, ‘other’ and a group to be feared.
As Đermana Šeta, European research team coordinator for ENAR’s Forgotten Women project, notes, the negative attention Muslim women receive ‘contributes to creating a fertile ground for discriminatory practices and violence on the ground’.
Teaching students about the role that gender discrimination plays in the treatment of Muslim women and how Muslim women are targeted on account of their religious dress can help both tackle gender discrimination and challenge the limited views of Islamic dress in society.