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The Veil: Two-Way Discrimination

Missing out on employment and advancement opportunities is evidenced by discrimination that has been documented against veiled Muslim women in various countries including Arab countries. In some cases, women’s careers have suffered due to bias which goes beyond the inequities that other women usually face.22 Such discrimination is done irrespective of the perpetrator’s religion. Sometimes the person involved in discrimination is— surprisingly to some—a Muslim. Bias is not a phenomenon enacted by Christians or secular forces against Muslim women. In many, though not all cases, discrimination is initiated by Muslims themselves against each other.

How some Muslim employers and legislators may be culprits in discrimination could be bewildering. One explanation is that some Muslim employers may be secular in perspective and have ideological reservations against the veil. That was the case, for example, in Tunisia where the legislator between the years 1955 to 2013 imposed restrictions on veiled females in schools and in the workplace. In a series oftestimonies, collected by the International Center for Transitional Justice2 about 140 Tunisian women talked about their experiences with religious discrimination triggered by the restrictions imposed on the veil. One woman, Khadija, reported how the police used to summon her, during the era of the late president Bourguiba24 (1903-2000), pressuring her to lift her veil:

I went to the police summons without telling my family. I did not want to put more pressure on them to remove the hijab. I was already under great pressure, because they needed my job. They wanted to be proud of me as an engineer. I was stubborn, clinging to my opinion; I did not try to remove [the hijab]. I thought it was my right. My sisters took it off when they entered the university.... One of my sisters told me: You were not smart enough to be able to adapt. Maybe. Maybe I was not smart. Maybe she was right. I’m not sorry. I was telling myself it was a test from God.25

There are tens of such testimonies which include reports from women who were physically harassed by school administrators trying to force them to lift the veil. This led to career blocks as such women could not get educated in their chosen field of study. One woman, Enas, reports that “I wanted to get my higher education and become a media specialist; one day [the administrator] dragged me forcefully and she forbade me from entering the higher institute.” Enas ended up not completing her education.26

Such cases are also found in many other Arab countries. In Lebanon, a report about opportunities for veiled women exposed what seems to be a systematic discrimination against them in some sectors. In some media organizations, veiled women are not allowed to work.27 “I applied to a job and I got an appointment to a job interview,” reported one job applicant, “after they met me and found that I wear the veil, they refused my application indicating that it is against company policy to hire veiled women.” Veiled women also appear not to be accepted in the Lebanese judicial system. Although female judges comprise 45% ofall judges, which is an impressive record compared to other sectors, there is a total absence of veiled female judges. The arguments raised in that regard pertain to the notion that a judge should avoid showing any affiliation with an aspect of religion or religiosity as this would be perceived negatively by some litigants.28 The judge arguably has to be perceived even in appearance as an impartial party without any religious tendencies or affiliations. A veiled woman, the argument goes, would be problematic as a judge, as her dress questions her impartiality especially when there are cases involving litigants from multiple faiths.

What adds to the problem in Lebanon is the lack of effective legal mechanisms that mitigate religious discrimination in employment opportunities. The legal apparatus is slow, is in need for modernization, and there are weaknesses in “people’s trust.”29 Similar issues were raised in other Arab countries such as Algeria where veiled women were barred from some industries including aviation, tourism, and security forces.30 The bottom line in this line of thinking is that if the veil poses a roadblock towards women’s advancement, then it should be shunned. This would be the case even if this is related to discrimination against veiled women.

While the veil sometimes acts as a barrier to employment, in other cases it actually facilitates it. Sometimes employers, who are religious or who are not comfortable with unveiled women, discriminate against the latter. According to critics, this is also another instance where the veil creates inequality and unfairness among women. According to this argument, the veil divides women into two camps: the veiled and the unveiled. It would not be beneficial to the cause of women for them to be perceived as two groups. An inequality between groups of women could be used as an alibi towards creating inequality between women and men. Critics of the veil indicate that it is problematic that some religious men do not like to work alongside women who do not put on the veil. This opens the door for lots of discrimination against those who don’t adhere to “acceptable” standards.

Ifthere is evidence that veiled women are discriminated against, there are also indications that unveiled women can also be prone to discrimination. In 2005, a member of the Kuwaiti parliament raised the issue of discrimination against unveiled women. He indicated that such discrimination comes against the Kuwaiti constitution which asserts that all Kuwaitis are equal irrespective of whether they are male or female.31 The banking syndicate supported this assertion noting that such practices isolate certain members of the Kuwaiti society and produces unjustifiable discrimination in employment policies.32

In Gaza (Palestinian territories), similar issues were raised by some women who do not wear the veil. Asma, a blogger, wrote33: “In most countries, discrimination takes place against veiled women. Only in Gaza there is discrimination against those who do not wear the headscarf. You find unjust laws, ugly comments, and ridiculous words against a woman who is not veiled.” In what appears to be a response to such charges, the minister of education indicated that the ministry does not forbid unveiled students from entering schools, but they have to wear acceptable clothing.34 In Saudi Arabia, problems occur at a more structural level. For example, the daily newspaper “Mecca” reported in 2014 that unveiled females, including students, were barred from entering the all-girl schools.35 In 2015, the Saudi minister of labor issued a ministerial decree requiring female workers to pay a fine of about 1000 Saudi riyals (around USD 300) if they don’t adhere to the required veiling requirements.36

In February 2017, news reports indicated that the governing board of Karbala in Iraq (which is a sacred city in Iraq for Shi’a Muslims) made a decision to forbid unveiled women from entering the city. This raised concerns on limits that such decisions would pose on women’s mobility and participation in public affairs.37 This met other complaints that unveiled women were subjected to harassment in the headquarters of the Prime Minister.38 “In our Iraqi society, an unveiled woman is looked down at even if she is wearing modest clothes,” complains Aliah, a 37-year-old school teacher, “the veil is now enforced under the gun in Iraq.”39 All of this has prompted some to use the phrase “the shi'a ISIS” to refer to practices that oppress women in today’s Iraq: “the behavior of the shi'a Islamic parties in Iraq coincides with behaviors of the sunni ISIS.”40 This was in reference to practices that have been increasingly present in Iraq including forbidding women to work in cafes or enforcing, under the gun, a strict dress code on Iraqi women. Apparently, extreme parties, irrespective of sectarian affiliations, are culprits in discrimination against unveiled women.

Similar incidents are also reported in other Arab countries. In Egypt, for example, some ultraconservative Muslims reportedly barred unveiled women from casting their votes during elections.41 Selwa, a 27-year-old woman from Cairo reported that she initially wore the veil due to social pressures: “I suffered as an unveiled woman from lots of harassment on the streets and at work.”42 Some note that the societal perception of a woman who does not put on the veil is one of despising which leads to all types of suffering for those women.43 In Lebanon, unveiled women are free to dress as they wish except in some religiously affiliated organizations. The religious

Al-Manar TV does not employ or host (except under severe exceptions) women who are unveiled.44 Similar measures are found in other religiously affiliated organizations.

Those experiences indicate that women sometimes have used, or were forced to use, veiling as a negotiating chip with potential employers. Contrary to experiences of women who lose opportunities because of their veil, there are other women who are able to gain work because of their veil. Kamal, in a study about Syrian women accountants, found that women “have been able to use the practice of veiling in order to negotiate greater opportunities for access to work in a patriarchal context”45(p. 188). The veil has thus been used as a means, not only to protect women as they go to school and work, but also to help them gain access to those spheres.46 The veil, according to such perspective, provides access to social and economic networks that are not available to other women.47

In an interesting analysis of ikhtilat discourse and behavior by two competing Islamist groups in Egypt, Aaron Rock-Singer explains the differences between Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood. The former group initially embraced views that effectively wanted women to return to their homes. They actively adopted views that women’s presence in the public space is incidental and exceptional. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, adopted a perspective that was more pragmatic. They actively worked on involving women in the public space, albeit a segregated or controlled public space. The Salafi discourse developed over the years from effectively arguing for seclusion (women need to be at home) to one of segregation in public spaces: “Women were in public to stay and, if Salafi elites were to successfully compete with the Muslim Brotherhood for a popular audience, they had to adapt to this reality” (p. 304).48

According to this argument, this all leads to one conclusion, that women are not equal, not only to men, but also to each other. Two classes of women emerge. The first represents those who refuse to don the veil. Those will suffer from societal humiliation in addition to obstructions to their economic empowerment. The second group is represented by those who decide to veil, who would accordingly be given the qualified “permission” to enter into the public area without much harassment, and would thus benefit from relatively more extensive networks of economic opportunities. This creates an environment of inequality and injustice. Women, according to this view, do not have to go through all of this. The veil creates disequilibrium whether it acts for women’s pragmatic interests or not. Accordingly, proponents of this perspective, call for its lifting.

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