Struggle of a Veiled American Woman

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"It's My Homeland Too!"

Islamophobia is a term that dates back to the early 1980s. It means fear of Islam and hostility against Muslims. Many Muslims in Western communities are subjected to stereotyping, discrimination, and hate crimes.

Although the term had been developed by Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington in their theories relating to the notion of “clash of civilizations,” it has been very commonly used since the 9/11 attacks and 7/7 bombings when reference is made to Muslims, especially those living in the West.

Things got worse when Islamophobia made its way to media headlines, which regularly report on how fearful the West is of the Muslims, the potential source of terror as they are being categorized.

Since then, many Muslims have been victims of Islamophobic discrimination. Many cases have been reported and many voices raised to defend the rights of Muslims as equal citizens, but this has never stopped the fear that leads to hatred.

Hani Khan is one of these cases — one of the voices that call for equality and justice. Khan is a young, veiled Muslim American woman of Pakistani origin. She was hired last October as a stockroom worker at Hollister Co. in California. She passed the job interview with no major comment on her hijab; she was told that she could wear her hijab as long as she matched its color with the “company’s brand identity.”

For five months, things went just fine with her. She started to get acquainted with her new job till a district manager who was in a visit to the company branch saw her in hijab. The manager called for an urgent meeting (which he did over the phone) with the Human Resource Department, saying that scarves and hats did not fit within their “look policy,” as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported the case.

Khan was asked to remove her hijab during the working hours, and when she replied that she would not be able to comply with that because she is used to wearing it for religious reasons, she was sent home at once. Later, in the same week, she was fired over the phone.

“We learned of the case when Hani contacted us. She called us the day after she was taken off her work schedule,” Zahra Billo, Programs and Outreach director at CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area Office, told (IOL).

“This is not the first time a woman has had trouble at work because of her headscarf, but this is a particularly notable case because the employer was so clear in their discriminatory intent,” Billo added.

“When I was fired, I was shocked and surprised. I didn’t expect this coming from a workplace where I had been for the past months,” Khan commented to IOL on how she had received the news.

“In this society, it has become hard for everyone to find jobs. When adding in the factor that you are Muslim, it has become even harder because there is a natural tendency for people to be afraid, which again I don’t understand,” Khan added.

Not the Only Case

Khan is not the first, and may not be the last, Muslim woman to be subjected to discrimination because of the hijab. Unlike some European countries, the US has no law that bans the hijab in public places, universities, and most of workplaces. Nevertheless, the hijab is, in some cases, targeted with Islamophobic acts.

Asked why some veiled Muslim American women may find difficulties interacting with society, Khan replied,

I think there is a different type of interaction for a hijabi [i.e., veiled woman] in the community only because she is so reserved and tends to be modest. Personally, I have worn the hijab practically my whole life, so it’s just a part of who I am, and I am not going to let that hinder my interaction with teachers, fellow classmates, or friends. The only difference is that the other person might react differently when they shouldn’t.

As America is considered the land of liberty and equality, some tend to interpret the intolerant attitudes toward some Muslim women as being related to their hijab, and as a manifestation of racism that is deeply rooted in the American culture. While discrimination based on color is a clear-cut example of racism in America, discrimination based on religion is also there to varying degrees. In the case of Islam, what makes things worse is the fear of Muslims due to the media hype that associate them with terror.

Hence, the stance against hijab cannot be merely a general case in America, but more individual cases.

Answering the same question about how veiled Muslim women interact with American society, Billo (who is also veiled) said, “As a woman who was born and raised in America, who has a graduate degree, and who wears hijab, my overall experience has been positive. There have been some instances of negativity, but a lot of times those issues can be mediated through education. I am fortunate to have never been subject to such intentional discrimination as the sort we are seeing in this case.”

We Can, Despite Hate Messages

Khan’s story did not come to its end when she was fired — there was a drastic shift in events. After she had contacted CAIR to report the attitude of her employer, a death threat letter was sent to her. Commenting on the issue, Billo said, “We have received hate e-mails since going public with the complaint. Some of the hate mail has been a nuisance at best, but at least one of the messages crossed the line into a violent threat. We reported that one to the FBI.”

It was disappointing for Khan to receive hate messages, but this did not stop her from standing firm for her case: “America is full of immigrants, so for people to complain about the Muslims living in America, that makes no sense. Everyone is here to live their life successfully, and to deny that right to a population because of what is happening, which is out of their hands, is unjust and unfair,” she said.

According to a report issued in 2009 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, nearly 6 in 10 American adults see Muslims, as being subject to discrimination more than the Mormons, atheists, or Jews are.

That is why most American Muslims in different fields are trying to dispel misconceptions about Islam and to integrate, socially and culturally, into the larger American society.

“Muslims need to continue to reach out to their neighbors, friends, and co-workers to ensure they know about Islam and the various practices of Muslims,” Billo said.

“Additionally, Muslims need to be empowered. I sincerely applaud Hani for the courage she has exhibited in standing up for her rights, speaking about her religion, and setting an example for other Muslim women,” she added.

“This is our home just as much as it is anyone else’s home,” Khan said with high spirit.

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