Religious Discrimination Against Muslim Women...an International Comparison - By Sherrie Hind
Religious Discrimination Against Muslim Women:
Comparing the United States, France, and South Korea
3 March 2021
“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (Bush). These words were used in 2001 by First Lady Laura Bush to justify U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Listening to her words, one might assume that Muslim women in the United States are treated with dignity and respect. However, Muslim women experience considerable discrimination in the United States and other democratic republics that claim to protect the rights of religious freedom, such as France and South Korea. Xenophobia, negative portrayals of Muslims in the media, and narrow definitions of secularism are all factors that contribute to the stigmatization of Muslims and the marginalization of Muslim women in particular. Because many Muslim women wear hijabs to cover their hair, they are visibly representative of their religious culture and can become vulnerable targets of anti-Islamic sentiment in these countries. Rather than enjoying dignity in the democratic republics of the United States, France, and South Korea, Muslim women frequently experience discrimination, depression, and exclusion from their societies—experiences that negatively affect their mental health and their sense of national belonging.
The United States is a country that values civil rights; however, there is still a significant amount of religious discrimination against Muslims that disproportionately affects women who wear hijabs.
The free exercise of religion is enshrined in the United States Constitution, and federal regulations require employers to provide religious accommodations for employees (Sheth 416). At the same time, American norms and values tend to be enforced through enculturation agents such as the media, schools, the marketplace, and the courts, where there is considerable leeway for individuals to act according to their own discretion (Sheth 413; Alimohamed-Wilson 75). At this individual level, there are widespread negative attitudes toward Muslims that affect their de facto treatment. Pew Research studies have shown that many Americans perceive Muslims as anti-American and do not consider Islam to be compatible with democracy or American society. Since the watershed event of 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government has used the media and law enforcement agencies to cultivate a heightened suspicion of Muslims. The result is what Associate Professor of Sociology, Dr. Sabrina Alimohamed-Wilson describes as an “emboldened citizenry” in the U.S. that feels they have the right to harass and intimidate Muslims (76). The conspicuousness of the hijab leads to Muslim women frequently becoming recipients of American anti-Muslim sentiment and microaggressions.
Muslim women wearing hijabs experience harassment, discrimination, and violence in the United States that has detrimental effects on their mental health and well-being. Surveys have shown that more women than men claim to experience discrimination which includes “[being] treated with suspicion, called offensive names, singled out by airport security or other law enforcement, or physically threatened or attacked” (Gecewicz). Discrimination and intimidation affect the education and employability of Muslim women as well. At school, Muslim girls experience bullying, sometimes having their hijabs pulled off (Alimohamed-Wilson 82). Dr. Falguni Sheth, Associate Professor in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, describes how Muslim women wearing hijabs have been fired as police officers, corrections officers, and retail employees; they have been removed from courtrooms and forced to remove their hijabs in correctional institutions (Sheth 415). Because these women feel unsafe, they become less independent as they avoid using transportation or being in public spaces when they are unaccompanied (Ali-Mohamed-Wilson 80). Studies of Muslim women by Public Health Services Professors Dr. Henna Budhwani and Dr. Kristine Hearld found that many Muslim women in the United States live in a state of “heightened vigilance” and associated depression. On a regular basis, they mentally prepare themselves for harassment; they speak cautiously, and they dress strategically in order to avoid instigating negative interactions with people (Budhwani and Hearld 3). The cumulative effects of prejudice, harassment, and exclusion induce internalized feelings of stigmatization, which are “associated with self-deprecating feelings of shame, self-blame, embarrassment, low self-worth and depression” (Budhwani and Hearld). Although it is true that the United States is ideologically a nation that respects religious freedom, many Muslim women living in the U.S. are subject to regular discrimination and intimidation that places limits on their independence and negatively affects their mental well-being.
Like the United States, France is a liberal democracy with laws protecting freedom of religion (Jacobsen 549). However, France has a unique interpretation of secularism that has led to state-sponsored discrimination against Muslims wearing hijabs.
As Professor of Social Anthropology, Dr. Christine Jacobsen, explains, secularism is interpreted by French society and legislators as allowing “inward freedom of belief” while prohibiting “outward manifestations of religion” in public spaces (556). In 2004, France adopted legislation that banned “ostentatious religious symbols” in public schools (Jacobsen 561), an action that was widely understood to specifically be a ban on wearing hijabs. Professor Jacobsen refers to the Muslim girls who grew up after this legislation as the “hijab ban generation” (546). These young Muslim girls in public school were the most immediately influenced by the ban, but the effects on many Muslim women in France were demoralizing as well.
This discrimination that is legislated by the government and supported by French citizens causes Muslims to feel alienated from French society.
Young Muslim girls and their families are forced to choose between practicing what they perceive to be a key tenet of their religion, or remaining in public school. While some girls transfer to private schools, many families cannot afford to because of state welfare regulations (Scott 178). Girls who insist on wearing hijabs are expelled, and many have dropped out of school. A recent study conducted by Political Science Assistant Professor Dr. Vasilika Fouka and PhD candidate Alaa Abdelgadir found that “exposure to the ban significantly decreases the likelihood of completing (any) secondary school for Muslim women aged 17 and above” (708). This lack of education has long-term negative consequences for the employability of Muslim women (Abdelgadir and Fouka 708). A 2013 opinion poll indicated that eighty-four percent of people in France are opposed to Muslim women working with the public if they are wearing hijabs (Jacobsen 560). At one point, France was even considering a law that would not allow Muslim women to wear hijabs in their own homes if they ran a public preschool (Jacobsen 548). In the words of one woman: “France is my home country, but authorities make my life here unlivable. I want to work and flourish … but I’m not allowed to” (Jacobsen 548). Other Muslim women describe feeling “dirty” and “ashamed” and lacking any hope for their future (Abdelgadir and Fouka 711; Jacobsen 547). These words show that Muslim women in France experience the kind of internalized stigmatization that is felt by Muslim women in the United States, which makes them also vulnerable to low self-esteem and depression. Rather than enjoying freedom and dignity in France, Muslim women wearing hijabs are pushed out of the social sphere and shamed.
South Korea is an example of an Asian democratic republic that constitutionally guarantees its citizens freedom of religion, but struggles with a citizenry that actively discriminates against Muslim women wearing hijabs (2019 Report on International Freedom). Korean prejudice toward Muslims is consistent with generally negative societal attitudes toward multiculturalism. Ethno-nationalism is a strong patriotic sentiment in South Korea, and there is a high value placed on pure-blood homogeneity (Eum 840). Dr. Ik-Ran Eum, an Assistant Professor at Dankook University who specializes in Muslim studies, argues that Koreans also adopted Western Orientalism as they developed economically, which led them to see Arabs, and consequently Muslims, as an inferior “other” (Eum 837). Religious prejudice and political ambition are factors that have also contributed to discrimination against Muslims in South Korea. Protestant Christian organizations have mailed anti-Muslim propaganda to voters throughout South Korea in order to gain support during elections; for example, warning that: “’A sharp increase in security threats and sexual assaults of Korean women are expected with the increasing number of Muslims’” (qtd in Koo 160). These organizations have also successfully used social media platforms to enforce associations of Muslims with terrorism (Koo 168, 178). These negative attitudes toward immigrants and Islam affect all Muslims, but due to the visibility of hijabs, Muslim women are more likely to face social sanctions in public spaces.
Women who are visibly Muslim in South Korea are subject to discrimination that is both racist and religious.
In 2017, a National Human Rights Commission found that Koreans feel that immigrants should be “shunned” and that Muslims are potentially terrorists (Koo 161-162). Research on the adjustment of immigrant teens in South Korea relate the experiences of non-ethnic Koreans in school as including “discrimination, peer victimization, and social exclusion,” which negatively affects their education (Kim et al. 1077). Being shunned and excluded negatively affects the mental well-being of Muslims, who tend to isolate themselves in Itaewon, one neighborhood of Seoul, which has been described as “’Muslim racial, ethnic, and religious ghettoization’” (qtd in Eum 835). Like Muslim women in the United States and France, Muslim women wearing hijabs in South Korea report experiencing hostility due to the conspicuousness of their religion. They are more likely to report being ignored in school, glared at, or having backs turned toward them in public places (Eum 841). Occasionally, they may also experience more aggressive tactics such as having older Koreans trying to remove their hijabs (Eum 838). Muslim women in South Korea also find it difficult to find work and have been fired for wearing hijabs (Koo 165). As shown in research, these repeated experiences lead to states of heightened vigilance and internalized stigma that are associated with poor mental health outcomes, including depression (Budhwani and Hearld). Muslim women, including ethnic Koreans, report feeling that they must take off their hijabs if they want to be part of Korean society (Eum 840). Academics in South Korea, such as Professor Eum, are only beginning to evaluate the negative effects of racial and religious prejudice on Muslim women — research that she describes as: “[giving] voice to the experiences of marginalized Muslim women in Korea” (Eum 825). Muslim women in South Korea, as in the United States and France, have a difficult time both practicing their religion and finding a sense of belonging in their country. This tension, stress, and stigmatization in the daily lives of Muslim women is in clear contrast with espoused constitutional ideals of religious freedom.
The United Nations, in its preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). In recognition of this truth, many countries in the world, such as the United States, France, and South Korea, constitutionally commit themselves to protect human and civil rights, including the freedom of religion. However, the preceding analysis of religious discrimination against Muslim women who wear hijabs demonstrates that these countries are failing to achieve their humanist aspirations. In these three countries, marginalization and stigmatization engender low self-esteem, lack of hope, and depression in Muslim women who feel that their societies do not value their voices or care about their physical and mental well-being. Muslim women should be able to participate fully in their societies and practice their faith since both are essential aspects of their humanity. If these countries want to actualize their ideals and make progress toward just societies that value human dignity, they must make more purposeful efforts toward fostering environments that welcome the addition of multicultural voices and practices. For example, the media could include more stories that highlight the positive contributions Muslim women have made in their respective communities, and cultural sensitivity training could be mandated for schools, workplaces, and law enforcement agencies. In the countries examined in this paper, globalization is diversifying the cultural practices of their populations; therefore, their social stability will increasingly be dependent on their successful incorporation of culturally diverse individuals as contributing citizens. In modern democratic republics that champion human rights, the “rights and dignity of women” that Laura Bush lauded must include the rights and dignity of all women, including Muslims.
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