`Our scarves were ripped off, we were target practice'

28th March 2014 at 00:00
Muslim women recall experiences of wearing the hijab at school

Some are congratulated. Some are asked if they are bald. Some are told that they will be doomed to academic failure unless they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and saviour.

Above all, Muslim girls who wear the hijab to school are made to feel different, and as though they are representatives for all of Islam, new research claims.

Academics at the University of Michigan-Dearborn in the US asked young Muslim women to recount their experiences of wearing the hijab, or traditional headcovering, at school.

Those who attended schools with large numbers of Muslim students found choosing to wear the hijab relatively easy. "All my friends and mates in class congratulated me," one interviewee said.

Those who were one of only a few Muslim students in their school, however, found that wearing the hijab could make them feel particularly isolated. "Our scarves were ripped off, we were molested, we became target practice and we were the focus of much bullying," one interviewee said.

Several were repeatedly asked by classmates whether they were bald underneath the headscarf, the academics report in a paper published in the journal Religion and Education. Other students were asked whether they wore the hijab in the shower.

"I felt ostracised," one interviewee said. "Many times, I would find myself skipping lunch and hiding in the bathroom or library, to avoid being put in an uncomfortable situation."

Turning to teachers often did little good, the researchers found. The vice-principal at one girl's school regularly called home to report her for dress-code violation. "Miniskirts and net tops were allowed, but not a long skirt with a hijab," she said.

And one interviewee told the researchers that her algebra teacher said she would fail the class unless she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and saviour.

Several women described the hijab as a "banner" or "badge" of Islam. As a result, however, they felt under pressure to act as an ambassador for the religion. "No matter where I am, I do my best to be on my best behaviour.because I get judged twice as harsh as an ordinary-looking person," one said. "I am more attentive, use better manners, try to dress in lighter colours and even enunciate more."

The issue of religious dress and other religious symbols being worn in school has become a focus in a growing number of countries in recent years.

Back in 2003, an Oklahoma schoolgirl was suspended from school after refusing to remove her hijab. The US government took up her case, and a court ruled that school officials had illegally discriminated against her.

Since then, the French government has banned all religious symbols, including the hijab, from being worn in school. Last year, French ministers announced that all schools would have to prominently display a "secularism charter" to outline the principles of the republic. Plans were also announced to introduce compulsory lessons in "secular morality and citizenship".

Several German states currently prohibit teachers from wearing headscarves, although students are free to wear them. Teachers in the Canadian province of Quebec have been banned from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols, including hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and crucifixes, under controversial plans announced last year affecting all public sector workers.

The UK has also witnessed tensions: last September, Birmingham Metropolitan College abandoned a ban on the niqab, or full-face veil, after complaints that it was discriminatory.

Most of the women interviewed by the Michigan academics called for teachers to be offered training on the significance of the hijab. "I think that, by educating people on this subject, we would have a lot less confusion and ignorance about Muslims," one said. "This would translate into less-prejudiced individuals."

Others felt that students should also be given more information about Islam and its symbols. "Wearing hijab.is slowly becoming part of the American-Muslim culture," one said. "The more exposure the students receive, the more they will be comfortable, as well as prepared for the outside world, where they will come across all kinds of people, including hijabwearing Muslims."

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