Discrimination on the Basis of Wearing Islamic Attire

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Prejudice on the Basis of Wearing Islamic Attire

Physical appearance including skin colour and clothing preference are the basic information that shapes our first impression. These features also initiate our stereotypes and prejudices either in an implicit or explicit way and provide easy categorization. Headscarf as a form of clothing is a way of identifying the woman as Muslim and it helps people to draw lines as ‘us and others’ on a religious and also cultural basis. Due to the visibility of headscarf, women wearing them are under the risk of stereotyping, labeling and stigmatization. As well as this categorization is seen in Muslim and non-Muslims, it is also possible to see the differentiation among Muslims, especially in places where both covered and uncovered Muslim women are located together. Turkey is one of the best suitable countries among the examples of those places. In general, regardless of the segregation of Muslim-non Muslim or among Muslims, Muslim women who wear headscarf are labelled as backward, oppressed, undereducated or as politically manipulated.

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When dealing with such a conflict like covered/uncovered, the context must be considered. The reasons to be covered, or what those religious attires mean change within time and place (Bhowon & Bundhoo, 2016, p. 41). Shirazi and Mishra’s study (2010) highlights the importance of the context. In the study, researchers investigated the semantic versatility of the veil in different cultures, including Saudi, Iranian and Indian and concluded that the veil has no fixed meaning and its meaning depends upon the social context.

In literature, there are plenty of investigations regarding the prejudice and discrimination on the basis of wearing a headscarf both in psychology and other disciplines such as sociology and politics. In these investigations, it is possible to see different highlights regarding the content of prejudice towards covered Muslim women. By combining those different contents of prejudices from several resources and regarding the classification of levels of analysis (Doise, 1980), in this article we attempt to classify the common justifications for these prejudices and to explain them regarding social psychology theories.

Justifications for Headscarf Prejudice

1. Intraindividual Level of Analyses

Individual characteristics. Women with headscarves are commonly labeled as backward, bigot, unattractive, uneducated and such kind of negative characteristics. A study done in England (Mahmud and Swami, 2010) confirms these labels. Results indicate that, women with headscarves are seen more religious but also less physically attractive, popular, sociable, approachable and competent. However, as both Social Identity and Social Dominance Theory emphasize, context must be considered within the examination of such kind of justifications; these labels vary in different occasions. For example, there is evidence that women who wear the Islamic headscarf would receive higher ratings for personal characteristics within Muslim communities. The study of Pasha-Zaidi (2014, p. 11) revealed that in societies in which such attires are accepted, women wearing religious clothings are perceived as more family-oriented, communal and virtuous. Other characteristics such as being more traditional in social and gender relationships like being submissive to men are also seen positively in those societies whereas those behaviors are commonly perceived negatively and criticized by Western societies. Another example is that in Bahrain, wearing hijab is seen as a rite of passage to adulthood and associated with positive characteristics such as goodness and morality while women without hijab are considered as less Muslim (Mahfoodh, 2008; as cited in Pasha-Zaidi, 2014, p. 4). The meaning loaded on hijab based on wearing a religious attire in this context can be explained with the arbitrary-set system in Social Dominance Theory.

In addition, there may be other factors affecting those labeling. For instance, according to Zempi (2016, p. 3), some special clothings are not investigated well and mainly ignored by researchers. Such under-representations by society in general tend to strengthen the view that women who wear such attires are passive or disengaged.

Emphasis on preference. Another point regarding the individual based features is the emphasis on the reasons to wear such kind of religious attires. Mainly, the reasons to cover can be due to personal religious convictions, family pressure, acceptance as a good Muslim, neutralisation of sexuality and protection from male gaze (Bhowon and Bundhoo, 2016). Therefore, the reason cannot emerge as a personal choice each time. Pointing out this rationale, some of the European feminists support headscarf bans because they believe Muslim women do not voluntarily adopt it. As mentioned above, the idea that women with religious attires are submissive to men is usually negatively perceived in Western societies, and also some specific groups with an ideology such as feminists. Overall, the reason behind covering is highly contested site of gender controversy between traditionalists and feminists (Shin, 2015, p. 31).

In literature there are plenty of studies showing that women wearing Islamic attire exposed to discrimination in employment settings (King and Ahmad, 2010; Unkelbach, Schneider, Gode and Senft, 2010). Putting in a nutshell, covered women tend to be perceived more negatively and less likely to get the job compared to uncovered women. Indeed, the employers argue that as long as a woman keeps on her headscarf, she should be already declaring a choice to remain outside the visibility norms of large-scale retailing and to work in shops that cater specifically to the Islamic population. (Sayan-Cengiz, 2016, p. 151)
Prejudices related to individualistic characteristics for sure cannot be justifiable. According to Zempi (2016) the local environment is also a contributing factor to women’s decision to wear the religious garment such as nijab, hijab or headscarf. As mentioned before, if there is a necessity to figure out the reason why the person chose to cover, we cannot search it only within the individualistic features. Also, according to Social Identity Theory, when people are categorized into groups, they come to be seen in terms of characteristic group features that define their social identities, while neglecting individual traits which define their uniqueness (Ellemers & Haslam, 2012, p. 381). This kind of categorization explains the individual based prejudices towards women with Islamic attire.

2. Interindividual Level of Analyses

Headscarf as an identity mark. Before talking about prejudices that can be grouped under this category, it would be appropriate to propose some related study results. Bhowon and Bundhoo (2016) found that, participants who identified themselves as Muslims placed their Muslim identity before their national one. Results also indicate that they all endorse a positive self attitude. These results are not surprising regarding Social Identity Theory. According to Turner (1984), as people define themselves and others as members of the same category, they self-stereotype in relation to the category and tend to see themselves as more alike in terms of the defining attributes of the category (as cited in; van Lange, Kruglanski & Higgins, 2012, PAGE EKLE). However, the strong identification of Muslims with their groups is interpreted as a form of self-segregation, the separation of a religious or ethnic group from the rest of society in a state by the group itself. Indeed, along with as being personal choice, wearing religious attire emerges as an expression of belonging to the ‘ummah’ (Zempi, 2016, p. 1). Rokeach (1960) alternatively proposed that prejudice is expressed against a person not because of the person’s identification with an ethnic or racial group, but rather because the person holds beliefs, or is perceived to hold beliefs that are dissimilar to the prejudiced person’s beliefs (Tan and Vera, 1970, p.18).

In this context, wearing headscarf is seen as an identity mark. Women with religious attires are perceived as a public expression of having deep religious commitment, therefore as a mark of difference from those whom do not wear it (Zempi, 2016, p. 5). Moreover, by being marked, women wearing headscarf are also being under an examination about the consistency of their appearance and behaviors: How much do they cover? Are their attitudes in line with their headscarves? Are they properly religious? (Sayan-Cengiz, 2016, p. 103). As a result, being under examination continuously induces the necessity of being proper, in other words necessity of perfection.

From Terror Management Theory perspective, having a religious commitment provides both literal and symbolic immortality. Islamic attire is a form of symbolic immortality by strengthening the group membership and influencing others. However, noticing others with different worldviews signal the possibility that one may be wrong in his/ her belief or his/her worldview is invalid (Çaml?, 2010, p. 4). In this context, religious attire serves as a mark of differentiation between groups and trigger the basic existential anxiety and leads to negative evaluation of out-group members. This negative evaluation can exhibit itself as prejudice.
Gender Oppression. From feminist perspective, there is a gender oppression in Islamic lifestyle against women. Accordingly, there should be a gender equality and women shouldn’t have to be under obligation regarding social life, while men can behave in more self-directed manner. Therefore, Islamic attire serves as a legitimacing factor of inequality and women with Islamic attire tend to be seen as oppressed from this perspective. The feminist perspective equated the veil with female oppression, subordination and discrimination (Pasha-Zaidi, 2014, p. 3).

The idea of gender oppression is in line with the invariance hypothesis in Social Dominance Theory, suggesting that when everything else is equal there will be a men dominance towards women (Sidanius & Pratto, 2012, p. 427). In addition, the feminist ideas also can be explained with hierarchy-enhancing legitimizing myths in Social Dominance Theory. The inequality between genders depends on pre-existing social norms with respect to interpretation of Islam.

3. Positional Level of Analyses

Class-based assumptions. The covered-uncovered conflict led to a view on a hierarchical base regarding the position and status of women with headscarves. The main standpoint is that, women with headscarves occupy a subordinate position in society. The feminist ideas suggesting that there is men oppression to women in Islamic lifestyle gave rise to this point of view. However, if we talk about Turkey, mainly the previous legal obstacles for covered women related with attending universities and working in the public institutions provided roots for this attitude.
Although currently there is no legal restriction for women with headscarves about where to study and work, it is still possible to talk about presence of a glass ceiling for those women. If we look at large-scale retail settings as chain stores or shopping malls, we can easily observe that women with religious attires are rarely engaged with these kinds of working places, they are rather engaged with small-scale, individually owned stores, especially in stores selling religious attires (Sayan-Cengiz, 2016, p. 150). The reasons for this situation can be found in large-scale retail settings’ purpose of representing an outlook related with being presentable and fashionable, young urban, middle-class, heterosexual, slim appearance with no hints of ethnic, religious, gendered, bodily particularities (Sayan-Cengiz, 2016, p. 150). In some cases, a ‘negotiation’ comes into point in which the woman is asked to not wear any religious attire in order to get the job, especially high-status ones in private sector. However, this kind of request puts the woman in a hard position because she would raise suspicions about her modesty if she accepted such request.

Another point about the class-based assumptions relies on socio-economic statuses. Toprak and Uslu (2009, p. 62) showed that there is a meaningful differentiation among people with different socio-economic statues (SES) to the headscarf issue in Turkey. Accordingly, the positive attitude toward the freedom to wear the headscarf decreases as the SES increases. According to SDT, the combination of high Social Dominance Orientation and high ingroup identification among dominants produces especially strong derogation and against subordinates. Considering that, both employers and people with high socio-economic statuses can be counted in dominant groups, there is a likelihood of them to discriminate and show negative attitude towards subordinate group, women with headscarves.

4. Ideological Level of Analyses

Politically manipulated. In order to understand the base of this assumption, first the differentiation between traditional and the modern, urban headscarf referred as turban should be made clear. The traditional headscarf did not always cover the hair completely like the modern turban which had no predecessor in Islamic garment (Kreiser, 2005, p. 456) and assumption is that traditional headscarf is motivated by a conscious Muslim identity whereas turban wearers are seen as a kind of activists or a new social movement (Sayan-Cengiz, 2016, p. 120). Therefore, the preference of turban is generally attributed to some political based reasons and those women who wear turban are assigned with a new kind of identity in which it is represented by turban. As Sayan-Cengiz points out (2016, p. 101) some scholars attribute a novelty to young, urban wearers of the headscarf by also emphasizing that their motivations are contoured by the modern Islamist movement.
The rates of political parties in Turkey provide another base for this assumption. There is a great distinction between the followers of other parties and Republican People’s Party supporters, who think in considerably high rates that wearing the headscarf in universities and public offices is contrary to secularism (Toprak and Uslu, 2009, p. 59). Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the attitude toward the headscarf can be shaped by political party preferences.

In addition, it is possible to see more robust form of prejudice based on ideological reasons in the Western side of the World. Because of the Anti-Muslim stereotypes in a post-9/11 and 7/7 era, especially Muslim women who wear face veil are stigmatized, criminalized and marked as ‘dangerous’. Hence, the wearing of the face veil is often understood as a practice synonymous with religious fundamentalism and, as such, one which fosters political extremism (Zempi, 2016, p. 1).
Against modernization. Modernization theory focuses on the convergence to the Western culture patterns. Accordingly, at the end of the industrialization period, each culture will resemble to Western societies. Therefore, the predominant Western values referred as modern. The main values that are emphasized by Western societies are freedom and personal autonomy. As mentioned before, Islamic attire, especially veil, is seen as a form of accepting predominance of men therefore regarded as opposed to freedom, equality and personal autonomy. This kind of thinking leads to prejudice and discrimination on a basis of clothing preference. Women with religious attire are commonly labeled as pre-modern and they are seen as a threat to the ideal figure of Westernized citizen of the Turkish Republic (Sayan-Cengiz, 2016, p. 101). However, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that by discriminating on a cultural base concerning Western values, those people are actually behaving contradictory. Indeed, Saraoglou et al.’s study showed that people who gave importance to freedom tended to show less negative attitude towards veil (Saroglou, Lamkaddem, Pachterbeke, & Buxant, 2009, p. 426).

From another perspective, some women with Islamic attire see this kind of clothing as a form of resistance to imposition of Western clothings and they reported that they feel more in control of their bodies in this way (Zempi, 2016, p. 9). Some similar results (Dunkel, Davidson and Qurashi, 2010, p. 63) indicate that women with Islamic attire have a preference for larger body shape, which is against the Western beauty values.

Against secularism. In general, secularism which emphasizes the life in the real world rather than the hereafter and other religious or spiritual issues is identified with ‘modernization’. Along with secularism and modernization, the visibility of the headscarf increases and it has caused controversy between some groups of society. Especially secularists’ and feminists’ ideas became inconsistent with the ideas of women with headscarf and their supporters. As mentioned before the headscarf is seen as backward, rural, traditional, and as an indicator of women’s submission. In addition, in the eyes of secularists and feminists, the headscarf is the symbol of backwardness rather than women conscious of their rights and freedoms and demands on this issue carry the threat of radical Islam and a theocratic state. Moreover, men fulfill duties in the public place while women are isolated from outside and are mainly responsible for bringing up children and doing daily housework. Therefore, headscarf serves as a symbol of this division of labor and the banning women from public life (Genel & Karaosmano?lu, 2006; as cited in Toprak & Uslu, p. 52). According to this view, women do not cover their heads based upon personal choice, rather they are forced to do so by Islamist men.

According to Ç?nar (2008, p. 907), the headscarf has been declared by the Islamist political elite as “the symbol of struggle of Islam against secularism” (as cited in Sayan-Cengiz, 2016, p. 120). This statement represents the situation in a very clear manner. These notions are embedded within the concern that the headscarf is a threat against the achievements of Turkish modernization project, especially with regard to women’s rights. In Turkey, the secular elite as well as women organizations including feminists do not have any sympathy toward women wearing the headscarf and do not promote their welfare or do not support them in getting an education, participating in public life and benefiting from public goods (Seçkinelgin, 2006; Marshall, 2005; as cited in Toprak and Uslu, 2009, p. 52)
An important point is that, the perceptions towards Muslim women with religious attire may not necessarily be as dichotomous as the debate between secular feminists and Islamic feminists. El Hamel (2002) found that secular feminists tend to equate the hijab with oppression and subjugation of women, whereas Islamic feminists perceive the hijab as a symbol of freedom from materialism and the imperialism of Western ideals (Pasha-Zaidi, 2014, p. 3). In summary there are two contrary aspects, on the one hand according to feminism perspective headscarf is a symbol of oppression; and on the other hand, it was said that meaning of headscarf is biased and overstated (Bhowon & Bundhoo, 2016 p. 34).


People use different types of justifications to explain their prejudices. However, none of them is able to legitimate such kind of negative attitudes. Prejudice leads to discrimination and causes problems in social life, especially for disadvantaged group members. In this article, we aimed to group the justifications for headscarf prejudice and it is possible to conclude that the justifications on the basis of wearing Islamic attire considerably vary. On the other hand, there is an outstanding emphasis on the macro level factors such as political and cultural agents.

Understanding prejudice with respect to theoretical framework can help us to provide some solutions to reduce them. Regarding the theoretical framework, we believe that Social Dominance Theory is able to explain headscarf controversy in more detailed manner whereas Social Identity Theory is more powerful in terms of its ability to explain various aspects of prejudice.

Several suggestions can be argued in order to reduce prejudice. First of all, if people get educated about prejudice, this could help them to be aware of their own prejudices and make self-regulation which might turn into automatic manner eventually (Monteith et al., 2016; as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2010, p. 535). Also, the self-awareness could help to question the social norms and how much they actually identify themselves with those norms. However, because prejudices are learned in early years of life, simply getting educated about them might not be enough to control them. In this regard, although it is necessary to get educated no matter what, just relying on individual based solutions would not be realistic. Therefore, as Allport (1954) suggest, institutional support should come to view and authorities need to focus on prejudice issue for finding solutions to reduce them (as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2010, p. 537). Also, regarding the prejudice towards women with Islamic attire, emphasizing a shared Muslim identity by disregarding the interpretation differences can reduce prejudice between Muslim groups.


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