I'm tired of defending my right to wear a headscarf

A new EU ruling says that workplaces can ban women from wearing them

On Friday night I was called by a well-known TV station. Did I want to be interviewed by one of their presenters about the latest ruling from the European Court of Justice about Muslim women and the hijab? The new rule states that workplaces can ban women from wearing headscarves. I sighed wearily. I thought about how the interview would unfold – about how I would repeat, as I have for the past 20 years, that Muslim women are human beings like anyone else, and should have the same rights as anyone else. I thought about the seeming futility of repeating this, and ultimately, about the emotional toll that the interview would take on me.

I felt drained. “I’m sorry but I’m unavailable at that time.” I put the phone down and immediately felt guilty that I wasn’t going to engage in the fight.

In the '90s, I went on an exchange programme to Paris, to improve my language skills and immerse myself in French culture. The family I stayed with owned a shop and one day, I accompanied the daughter to sit behind the counter. A customer opened the door and saw me – wearing a headscarf. She looked at me, a steely cold stare, as though my mere existence in that shop was an affront to her. She then looked pointedly at the owner, and in a great show of disgust, left the shop, slamming the door on the way out.

Even decades after that incident, I still feel angry at the way Muslim women are often treated and the manner in which they can be represented. I despair that we are stuck in this loop.

The new EU ruling would have given the employer in Paris the chance to force me to remove my headscarf. Not because I was doing anything wrong. Not because I was doing the job badly. But because that customer didn’t like the look of me. The justification? My headscarf is perceived as breaching an ‘image of neutrality’.

Ostensibly, the rule applies to any and all large-sized, conspicuous religious symbols. But since the ruling is in response to cases by two Muslim women in Germany, who were suspended from their jobs, it is clear who this is about, in a time of rising Islamophobia across the western world.

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I am angry and despair that we are stuck in this loop

So what is neutrality? There is no objective answer because even deciding on what constitutes neutrality is by definition a non-neutral act.

Often times those who hold power and privilege try to impose rules on those who are fighting prejudice. When the England football team took the knee, they were told that this was not the right way to protest. That the meaning of their action was deemed offensive – as determined by those who hold power.

In France, during the pandemic, you could be fined for not covering your face. But at the same time, Muslim women could be fined for covering their face. A facemask and a niqab cover the same area of the face. It is simply the meaning that is different.

In the west, the same case is often true for Muslim women who choose to cover their hair. As so many Muslim women including myself have been at pains to explain, it is just a piece of cloth. It is part of who we are, the meaning it holds is for us. It is not intended as a symbol, protest, political expression or as a challenge to anyone else.

This constant justification takes a toll. Having to explain over and over the meaning of what you wear is taxing. Having to justify that you are not a terrorist for wearing it or having to explain the literal obviousness that you have your own opinion and have chosen freely to adopt the headscarf; that no, my husband or father has not forced me to wear it; no, it doesn’t mean that I had a forced marriage; no, I don’t have to wear black all the time. Yes, I can travel freely. Yes, I can speak English. No, I don’t want to escape from anything. No, I shouldn’t be forced to remove my headscarf because in other places women are forced to wear it.

I feel guilty if I turn down interviews to explain all these things all over again. Because irrespective of the seeming futility of repeating these arguments, they clearly still need to be made.

Published: July 23rd 2021, 9:05 AM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National