Hijab in the Middle East: From the university to the workplace

So many connotations

Back in 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 implications.”

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 headscarf.”

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 that judgment.

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.

Nathalie 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 www.commongroundnews.org.

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