So far this year the hijab has continued to be the focus of many news reports. In February, there was considerable coverage of the fifth annual World Hijab Day when non-Muslim women donned the headscarf in solidarity with their Muslim counterparts. The same week Nike released its “Pro Hijab” to much media fanfare, there were reports of a viral video of a British teenager dressed in hijab and abaya “twerking” who subsequently received death threats for this apparent transgression. And in the most recent news, the European Court of Justice ruled that businesses can ban “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign” as long as it is applied to all faiths equally.
The caveat: the two cases brought to the ECJ were those of women fired for failing to remove their hijabs. It has been worryingly too easy to guess the news outlet based on its framing of each of these stories. Articles and opinion pieces from even mainstream news organizations often demonstrate either genuine prejudice against Muslims or forays into identity politics and the glorification of the hijab. This is all done at the expense of informed and nuanced discussion. If we are to offer real support to Muslim women in the West, reasoned voices must prevail in discussing this complex issue.
Take the latest EU court ruling, now a significant news story: The Guardian titled its piece on the ruling, “Europe’s right hails EU court’s workplace headscarf ban ruling.” The Independent carried the op-ed, “Europe has started to enshrine Islamophobia into law – history tells us this can’t end well.” While The Telegraph ran the strapline, “Employers can ban the burka, European court rules.” There is no denying that ideological slants are driving forces behind such reckless headlines. It should be of great concern to anyone, from the Left or the Right, who genuinely cares about women’s rights that the hijab has become politicized to the point that balanced discussion is disappearing from our mainstream news. The Guardian and The Independent’s headlines are nothing more than fear mongering about the dangers of the far-Right. They are designed to purposely stoke fears already legitimately felt across Europe concerning the rise of populist right-wing parties by playing identity politics. The Telegraph on the other hand uses an extreme to stoke fears of Radical Islam. There are some extremely important factors that are being thrown to the cutting room floor in favor of raising the blood pressure of their respective readerships. It is both disgraceful and highly irresponsible of leading news publications to act in such a way when the public perception of the hijab has a direct effect on Muslim women’s lives.
Let us begin with The Telegraph’s piece. Yes, the court certainly did rule that employers can ban the burka, but it ruled that any religious garment or symbol could be banned and at no point was the burqa singled out for mention in the ruling. Nor were either of the cases taken to the ECJ concerned with the wearing of the burqa rather they were about the hijab. The Telegraph’s tagline may as well have read “Employers can ban Mormon underwear, European court rules” for all that it has to do with the story at hand. Yes it may be true but it is hardly an accurate representation of the main facts.
So why was the burqa snuck into the title? Because it is more controversial than the hijab and would probably guarantee clicks from subscribers. But The Guardian and The Independent are no less inflammatory. Contrary to their assertion, the ruling is not a headscarf ban. The ECJ makes clear in its decision that all religions must be treated equally in this regard and that requests or dismissals made on the basis of customer preference alone may constitute discrimination. In fact only one of the two cases was settled by the ECJ ruling while the other was thrown back to French courts to decide. Many religious leaders have also denounced the ruling as it applies equally to, among other people, Christians who wear a cross or a crucifix and Jewish men who wear kippahs. The coupling of this willful half-truth with Europe’s far-Right groups and “Islamophobia” is designed to inflame already high tensions. By sensationalizing this story, they are failing to credibly discuss the more truly concerning consequences of the ruling. This is a disservice to the public they are meant to be informing. While the ruling applies to any religious symbol, it is most likely that it will disproportionately affect Muslim women. It also stands in contrast with the European Court of Human Rights ruling from 2013 concerning a BA employee and her right to wear a cross. This contradiction sets up more legal battles in the future. Further, as The New York Times notes, it would be foolhardy to ignore the current political climate in the EU, which may be encouraging concessions to the Right in a bid to stave off the EU’s collapse. To be fair to The Guardian, much of the content of the article gets this right, but the take home for its readers will undoubtedly be that the ECJ is catering to far-Right extremists in banning Muslim women from the workplace.
The reporting of the rest of the stories is just as depressing. The Huffington Post praised World Hijab Day as a counter point to Trump’s presidency. The “Nike Pro Hijab” was lauded by both The Guardian and The Independent. And while outlets such as Breitbart and The Daily Mail dominated the reporting of the death threats aimed at the teenage girl in hijab, feminists and the mainstream Left fell silent.
It is important that we understand that this is not informed reporting; all of these news outlets are offering only one side of a complex discussion without even suggesting there is another. Muslim women who wear the hijab will not ultimately be empowered by this intellectual laziness and neither will those who do not. It behooves every respectable media outlet to do better. If they are to write on the hijab they should also be educating themselves on the complex issues at play and steer away from pushing their ideological agenda. If they do not, they risk losing the argument to the Twitter mobs they have armed with pithy and inadequate information.
The issue of the hijab needs to be discussed in the mainstream news but this must be done responsibly. It should be acknowledged that while the hijab is certainly the most recognized head covering, many religions have dictates for so-called “modest wear” including hair and head coverings. The hijab is no more deserving of vitriol or praise.
It should also be noted that regardless of the various reasons given for wearing hijab, it is entrenched in patriarchal notions of a woman’s value. It is a symbol of honor culture; a way of understanding and controlling a woman’s sexuality. That the hijab only needs to be donned around non-mahram men but can be removed in the company of any woman is testament to this. A Muslim woman who claims her wearing of hijab is nothing more than an expression of her religious identity is still buying into these ideas. It is also a fact that there is a considerable amount of dispute in Islam as to the requirement of hijab. Many Muslim women argue that it is not a mandate of Islam. To wade into this argument by representing only those women who wear hijab is to homogenize the experience of millions of Muslim women who differ in their practice.
It is also a fact that many women who choose not to veil can face considerable ostricization and backlash from the wider Muslim community. It is also true that for the every woman for whom the hijab is a personal choice there are many others who are coerced into veiling either by familial expectation or by force. However, it is also a disconcerting fact that anti-Muslim sentiment is steadily rising in the West and as the most visible symbol of the religion, Muslim women are disproportionately affected. By buying into the hijab wholesale or rejecting it by means of sensationalism, respectable news outlets do away with meaningful discussions and empower those outlets that only seek to exploit it as a divisive symbol.
There are many important issues about the hijab still to be addressed and these need to take front and center. The UK, for example, needs an open discussion about the worrying effects of veiling girls as young as four years old. It needs to be pointed out that nowhere in Islam is there a requirement to veil before puberty. It also has the chilling effect of sexualizing young girls and to what extent can the case be made that this is a four year old’s independent and informed choice. But how can these arguments be made sensibly when they are drowned out by either the glorification of the hijab and cries of Islamophobia or the stoking of racial tensions.
We must empower cooler heads; those who can offer informed opinions to counteract the extremes of either side. Mainstream news organizations must try to avoid the marginalization of Muslim women who veil whether that is through choice, expectation or force while at the same time championing those progressive and ex-Muslims actively fighting for Muslim women’s rights often at the sacrifice of their own safety. It may be a fine line between making Muslim women who choose the hijab feel accepted and the outright glorification of something that imports a woman’s value into her sexuality but it is one we must try to walk responsibly. A case must and should be made in the mainstream news that the hijab, as a symbol of honor culture, fundamentally goes against liberal values concerning women’s rights without shading into prejudice or discrimination; this can only be done by banishing identity politics and fear-mongering from the discussion.