Islamophobia and Women’s Hijab in Public Space!

Take the case of seven Muslim women in Hijab in Southern California that were escorted out of a restaurant by police officers for supposedly over-staying the 45-minute limit in the eatery. The seven Muslim women are suing Urth Caffe in Laguna Beach because of this action since they felt targeted due to a number of them wearing the headscarf. Supposedly, the manager was expecting a busy evening and asked the group to leave despite the place having a number of empty tables and no observable mad rush for pizza was underway.

Eating while Muslim is an  increasingly challenging event and more so when it involves Muslim women wearing the Hijab. The intense campaign directed at the personhood of the Muslim women in the U.S., Europe and even in some Muslim-majority states is increasingly taking a more aggressive and violent turn. In countries like France and Holland, the Hijab has been at the center of debates concerning European and secular identity. Increasingly, European identity is being defined by what it is not and what it should not be in the future. A European identity is being created that does include Muslims as part of the in-group and Muslim women are the symbols of not belonging to this society. The Muslim headscarf has become the rallying point for rightwing political elites who believe  themselves to be the protectors of Western and European identities, and Islam and Muslims, as a group, are the threat that must be confronted.

In more than one way, Islamophobic campaigns have been undertaken with the Muslim women being used as the foil to rally racist and xenophobic sentiments in European and American societies. At the same time, a similar campaign directed at the headscarf was underway for a long period of time in Turkey  and other Muslim-majority countries. In Muslim-majority countries, the Hijab — the traditional Muslim headscarf —  was the sign of anti-modernity and anti-secularity, thus the forceful removal of the piece of cloth was posited as a prerequisite to enter into “real” modernity and achieve progress. It is important to recall that modernity and secularity in Muslim-majority countries got introduced during the colonial period and Orientalists blamed Islam for the lack of material progress. The Muslim women in Hijab were problematized in the initial stages of the development of the modern Muslim nation-states which were for the most part informed by European and American experiences of state craft.

Colonial discourses and emerging Muslim-nation projects circularly reinforced each other in the move toward legitimacy, and ended up problematizing the Muslim women figure. Under colonial and distorted secular modernity, a woman wearing the Hijab was not a sign of piety but the epitome of backwardness and symbol of irrationality.   For those prescribing to this view, removing the Hijab was the sign of progress, modernity and rationality, while keeping or promoting it was treated with scorn and hostility. Modernity and secularity in the Muslim context were conceived in the colonial womb and given birth in a distorted nation-state project that lacked a formative social contract, a real conceptualization of citizenship and the fundamental rights to be enjoyed by everyone.

A Muslim woman in Hijab became the permanent target for the colonizer, the secular modernizer and currently the Islamophobic industry. Take the Hjiab off so as to modernize and secularize, but if you don’t then you will be forced to do it because according to this view, Muslim women lack the capacity to know what is good for themselves. This basic racist idea concerning the status of the Hijab informs most of the current Islamophobic and Orientalist discourses related to the Muslim woman subject who wears the head-covering cloth in public. The move from theorizing and conceptualizing modernity and secularity is swift, and a global project to civilize the Muslim woman by removing her headscarf is celebrated as the intellectual project of the age. All attacks against the woman wearing the Hijab become acceptable because it is undertaken to uphold civilization itself and bring the irrational and backward Muslim into enlightenment.

The litany of incidents involving Muslim women has no end and covers the spectrum from verbal assaults and physical intimidations to violations of personal space and snatching of the headscarf from women’s heads. Add to the list the more insane idea that a Muslim woman wearing the Hijab represents a form of passive terrorism, which must be challenged and controlled. More than any other symbol, Muslim women’s head dress garners the most extreme forms of Islamophobia from both the left and the right alike because they are defending civilization itself. Islamophobia in defense of civilization is not a vice but virtue is the moto for the racist and xenophobic crowd.

Islamophobia has many manifestations but one of its most persistent and increasingly aggressive is directed at the Muslim woman since the headscarf and clothing act as a visible marker. Existing data and research reports on Islamophobia point to increasing levels of hostilities directed at Muslim women with more violent incidents being experienced. Muslim women bear the brunt of attacks more than Muslim men who can melt into the society by wearing Western clothing and fitting into the crowd. Muslim men are the Clark Kent in Western society while Muslim women are visible markers of Islam in civil society.