Muslim Women in America and the Hijab: A Study of Empowerment, Feminist Identity, and Body Image

ThinkstockPhotos-103577382Social work studies continue to grow in their understanding of people of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, and yet there is still a significant gap in the literature dealing with Muslim Americans. This knowledge deficit is crucial given the increased visibility and vulnerability of Muslims in U.S. society, especially since the events of 9/11. Cultural competency practices for social workers needs to include understanding the values and mores of all cultures making up the patchwork quilt of American society, including those of Muslims.

In the October 2015 issue of the journal Social Work (which is specifically dedicated to women’s issues), Anderson Beckmann Al Wazani, MSW, a community organizer from Raleigh, NC, has published the findings from a series of interviews with Muslim women regarding the wearing of the hijab, particularly in light of the values of empowered feminists in the U.S. Al Wazani notes from the beginning that the values of Western feminism and Muslim women wearing more traditional outfits seem to be at odds. Al Wazani points out that hijab simply means ‘a covering’ in Arabic, and for the purpose of his study the term refers to “a headscarf paired with clothing that covers the arms and legs.”

In the past, Western feminism has regarded hijab as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women by Muslim men and the imputed “patriarchy” of Islamic societies. Al Wazani, through  interviews with Muslim women, has arrived at a different interpretation: the hijab is seen as empowering. The interviewees point out that they have chosen to wear hijab, and that this choice is part of their self-determination and self-empowerment.

The article goes into detail about the questions asked (e.g., when did you start wearing hijab, why did you start wearing hijab, how does wearing hijab affect your body image, etc.). The results are fascinating: the women reported identifying as empowered Muslim women, and yet felt that Western feminists often misunderstood their empowerment. Furthermore, none of the participants in the study reported having a negative body image. They reported feeling less judged about their bodies by others in their social settings.

The women felt their decisions to wear hijab challenged Western feminists notions of women’s empowerment. And many participants felt that the oppression of women and hijab are two separate issues.

Social workers need to develop skills in cultural competency. This includes appreciating the values and mores of various cultures making up U.S. society. Realizing that a Muslim woman wearing hijab may view her clothing as a symbol of female empowerment rather than oppression can help social workers fine tune their approach to dealing with Muslim clients. It is crucial to the expanding knowledge of cultures in the U.S. that these values be examined and appreciated by social workers.

12 comments

  1. It was important for me to read this article in order to have a perspective. I had a personal experience, an acquaintance who was American born and upon her marriage to a muslim man, converted her religion and she eventually transitioned to wearing the hajib. After several years she stopped, the main issue for her seemed to me the struggle between her new adopted religion and life style as compared to her values, culture, and religious back ground being born and raised in America. There were many pressures from her work environment, family life, and perhaps other areas that created difficulty for her to found life style. She eventually stopped wearing her hijab. I am sure she made the right decision for herself, however, I found her to be particularly brave during that period of time to display her new life style on the “outside” despite the many judgements and societal pressures she experienced at the time.

  2. While this may be a choice in Muslim Americans, it is not so in Muslim countries and this really does give us a distorted view since the study is a subset of Muslim women-those who have the choice in America. I haven’t looked really closely yet, but want to explore and invite conversation about what feels to be an assimilation of repressive mores…very much like American women who fought the women’s movement saying that because they loved working in the home, that feminism or the women’s rights movement wasn’t necessary…or that because they liked attention from men, that cat calling was ok….

  3. I think even mainstream Western feminists like me forget how much our own culture subjects girls and women to constant objectification and criticism of our bodies, leading us to internalize pressures to conform to idealized body image. Wearing hijab can provide a respite from the constant objectification. In that sense, it is just an alternative approach that women have taken to defend ourselves against patriarchal attributions. Muslim feminists, especially in the Arab world, have been writing about this issue for at least 30 years.

  4. Also, another correction: her last name is spelled Al Wazni–not Al Wazani.

  5. I have mixed feelings about the whole HiJab issue. I believe Tim is correct, in many places it is not a choice but rather mandated.
    When this is the case it is another example of repression.

  6. Just a correction – Andy (that’s her nickname) is a woman, not a man as referenced in this article,

  7. The article does not examine the origins of the hijab. It’s not the same as me wearing my favorite baseball cap. In the Koran and the Hadith it’s mandated, not voluntary. So to say it’s a choice (religious or otherwise) borders on dissimulation. While a Muslim woman in the US may or may not choose to wear a hijab that choice is mostly non-existent in Muslim countries. Even in the US strong family pressures would induce a woman to wear a hijab to maintain family honor. Not exactly empowerment, but truly the sign of a misogynist culture. Which a social worker needs to understand.

  8. So glad to read this article. I am currently in Indonesia and, from the women I have spoken with, many wear hijabs as a choice, part of their identity -not because they feel oppressed. There are many layers to this, including the cultural mores. It will be interesting to know more :)

  9. Great article! The small qualitative study completed by Anderson Beckman Al Wazani has introduced us to an important cultural perspective from the stakeholders themselves. This opens the door to both qualitative and quantitative research into beliefs, customs, rituals, etc. of a variety of different people…exciting!

  10. As a Puerto Rican from the nyc public,housing project’s and a graduate from Yeshiva University 2003, MSW,surely embrace the need for cross cultural studies because throughout my work experiences I have encountered difficulties with management and staff persons …to just get my task and advocacy into compliance based on clients true needs as a result of lack of cultural diversity and common human needs. These obstacles have impact due process to help the familes and individual s I was hired to advocate for and prompt furthering derailment because spent more time in asserting the Ethical Codes to staff than getting the client (s) stabilized and into full compliance with monitoring agencies who also lacked adherence to and for cultural diversity; very difficult environments to try and get your job done adquately and safely to accomplish in. crisis work as I often worked: chapter 588 Adoption Expeditor, Childen Protective Services, HIV Administration (HASA), Domestic Violence only city Shelter and Florida’ G4S juvenile Institution.

    • You have my absolute respect and congratulations on completing a very important and modern cross-cultural study of cultural competencies . As a veteran who spent a considerable amount of time in the middle eastern regions I greatly appreciate it the more personal understanding of what we do now I’ll see you on TV as decorated .

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