Over the last twenty years, there has been no religious symbol more controversial than the Muslim veil. It has progressed from a relatively innocuous emblem of religious freedom, to a constant reminder of the western world’s growing unease with Islam.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the events of 9/11 played a big part in this shift. It’s been thirteen years since the Twin Towers went down and we’ve come a long way since then, but that deep-seated sense of apprehension still remains. We still fear those who are different. We clamour and yell for human rights, but still we struggle to find a balance between transparency and personal liberty.
In fact, nowhere is this more evident than in France. In April 2011, France became only the third European country to implement a full ban on face covering dress in public, religious or otherwise. Whilst authorities were quick to point out that non-Muslim citizens are also subject to the new law, it is burqa wearers who are its true target. It is burqa wearers - Muslim women - who continue to suffer at its hands.
A Place Of Freedom
We’re lucky enough not to have such a ban in this country. In Britain, every citizen has a legal right to religious freedom. You can wear a burqa, a hijab, a turban, a crucifix or a cassock – just so long as it doesn’t impact on anybody else’s freedoms. It doesn’t, however, mean that we always live side by side peacefully with those who choose to wear them – this is particularly true when it comes to the hijab and the burqa.
These disputes are most common in the workplace, where religious sensitivity is very often pushed aside in favour of increased efficiency and security. It’s extremely difficult to be a woman in the fast paced corporate world these days, so just imagine how hard it is must be a woman and a hijab wearer. How can you focus on being the best possible employee, if the trappings of your religion make the people around you uncomfortable?
The most important thing to remember, as a hijab wearer, is that 99% of the people you encounter harbour no ill feeling towards you – burqa notwithstanding. If the people at work look at you strangely, ask questions about your veil, or feel uneasy round you, it’s almost certainly because they do not understand it. As we all know, it is ignorance that breeds fear – here is a guide to making sure that wearing a hijab to work is never something to fear.
It’s Okay to be Curious
Whilst it absolutely isn’t your job to make your colleagues understand why you choose to wear a hijab, it can be useful to let them know that it’s okay to want to understand. In our wonderfully multicultural society, it’s become something of a taboo to be curious about those who are different. You might catch a colleague sneaking a glance at you as you adjust your veil after a long, hot afternoon in the office. You might notice that certain people struggle to meet your eye, or perhaps even maintain eye contact too fiercely – both signs of discomfort, usually borne out of a desperate desire not to offend.
You don’t have to take it upon yourself to be a constant representative for the Muslim community, just don’t be offended and don’t be afraid. If you notice that some colleagues do seem to be struggling with the fact that you wear a hijab, it can sometimes help to very casually bring it up in conversation. A simple aside about how hot a hijab can get in the summer, for example, will usually yield interesting results from those around you.
“Oh, really? Do you have to wear it every day? Are you allowed to take it off when you get home? What does it mean anyway?”
As long as the questions are never disrespectful, opening up a dialogue about your hijab can be a great way to put your colleagues at ease. As soon as they know that a veil has no effect on how warm, funny, passionate and thoughtful you are, the fact that you wear one to work should completely cease to matter.
Taking Care Of Your Rights
In the same way that it is your job to help people understand why women choose to wear the hijab, it the duty of your colleagues to accept it whether they agree with it or not. As a British citizen, you have a legal right to wear a hijab unless reasonably asked to remove it by a police officer or a government official – at an airport, for example. If there is no evidence to suggest that a veil will impair or impede your work, you cannot legally be prevented from wearing one in public or otherwise. These are your religious rights and you are entitled to them – never forget that.
Whilst it’s actually quite rare to run into a colleague who really do have a genuine problem with the hijab, it can and does happen from time to time. It can be extremely galling to know that a person won’t be on friendly terms with you because of your religion, but there’s not much that you can do about it. As long as they behave respectfully towards you and never verbally or physically abuse you, it’s best to accept that some people just aren’t as warm as others. If anything, it’s their loss – focus on those colleagues who brighten up your day instead.
The problem with the hijab is that it’s so often the elephant in the room. Are we supposed to notice it? Are we allowed to mention it? Am I racist if I don’t agree with it? Will she be offended if I ask a question about it? We’re all just human beings trying to make our way in the world, trying to comprehend and understand those who are different to ourselves. If we can acknowledge that, we can move forward together. It’s time to let people know that they can talk about the hijab and that they should talk about it – after all, it’s here to stay.