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«Veiled Muslim Women in Australian Public Space: How do Veiled Women Express their Presence and Interact in the Workplace? by Siham Ouazzif Master of ...»

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Veiled Muslim Women in Australian Public Space:

How do Veiled Women Express their Presence and

Interact in the Workplace?

by

Siham Ouazzif

Master of Applied Anthropology

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Women and Islam 9

2.1 The Revealed Texts 12

2.2 The Prophet and Women 16

2.3 Women and Work 17

2.4 Religious Texts and Misinterpretation 18

2.5 Feminism and Islam 22

2.6 Conclusion 24

3. Working with the Hijab 25

3.1 Work, Veil and Religious Practice 28

3.2 Sexuality, Mobility and the Veil 30

3.3 Socializing with Co-workers 33

3.4 Praying at Work 35

3.5 Interaction with Male Colleagues 36

3.6 Conclusion 40

4. Motivations for Veiling 41

4.1 Veiled Muslim women in the West: Oppressed or Liberated? 42

4.2 Media, the Veil and Muslim Women 45

4.3 Identity and the veil 50

4.4 Female Sexuality and the Veil 52

4.5 The veil as a form of protest or political resistance 57

4.6 Conclusion 59

5. Conclusion 61

6. References 63

1. Introduction In a world characterized by both open and closed geographic borders, people who meet the visa requirements of receiving States are faced with negotiating new ideas and cultural boundaries. Populations of countries receiving flows of migrants too might encounter forms of difference and similarity anew. As policy response to immigration, multiculturalism in Australia faces many challenges. ’Culture’ and the norms and values that groups of people choose to adhere to condition their identity and their place in a society. Identity is a complex changing process through which we understand and make sense of our surroundings. Our sense of belonging and our striving for recognition is formed through relations between different members of a society.

In this research project I have sought to understand, engage with and present veiled Muslim women’s diverse identity and their experiences at work in the multicultural city of Sydney.

Veiled Muslim women today are made to represent one of the most controversial symbols in the West. In Australian society as in many Western countries veiled Muslim women face great scrutiny and attention in the media and in the academy. In this paper, I hope to give these women a chance to have a voice, a voice through which to represent themselves. Although their voices are mediated through my own, which is an inescapable aspect of any anthropological research. I hope that our mutual intention to communicate something of the experience and diversity of veiled women’s experience in the workplace and broader public arenas in Sydney makes this paper a partial instance of self-revelation.

One of the first women I interviewed in Sydney, Fatima, explained how she feels the global

debate on Muslim women resonates in the public in Australia:

As an Australian woman I feel it is about time that we are presented with diverse images of what a Muslim woman can achieve... and can look like. Our society needs strong and positive images of Muslim women that can lead forward as good examples for the Muslim community as well as the Australian society. Our daughters can then walk proudly as Muslim women veiled or non-veiled in the street with their non-Muslim mates…where they no longer feel that they are misunderstood or left out in their own home … but accepted equally as other members are in our highly multicultural and multi-religious society In the beginning of my research I soon realized that among my informants there was a feeling of scepticism at being part of a study that explored Muslim women’s issues. However as they came to know that I too was from a Muslim background I sensed they felt more at ease.

Nearly all of the women expressed a sense of frustration at having been misrepresented in both the media and in other academic studies. They did not want to be part of a study that reinforced an image of veiled Muslim women as oppressed, backwards or limited. Their clear demands upon my research made me realize how research is always a political negotiation, given our own agency and the agency of others. Objectivity is put to the test as we try to grasp, represent and critically analyze the others’ points of views. Interestingly since I am not veiled the women asked many questions in return about my Muslim identity, forcing me to make a distinction between myself as an individual and as a researcher.

As I embarked on my fieldwork I was fortunate to meet many engaged and enthusiastic people who were interested in helping me investigate the topic of veiling in Sydney. Through my encounter with members from MWNNA (Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia), I was introduced to other women who were keen to express the issues that concern Muslim women in Australia. MWNNA works for Muslim women’s needs and advocates for greater awareness on Muslim women’s rights in Islam as well as for better communication and bridge building between Muslims and the wider non-Muslim community. They also facilitate the formation of interfaith groups.

In the course of my research I attended various seminars and meetings that introduced me to some of the public voices within the Muslim community regarding women’s issues. I was fortunate to interview them to converse on many aspects of Muslim women’s lives, choices and Islamic identity in Australian society. In total I conducted sixteen in-depth interviews with Australian veiled women. All the women were well educated and held different professions from professors, psychologists, teachers to marketing managers. My main focus centred on the experiences the women encountered in the workplace, how they felt about their Muslim identity, and veiling as a marker of that identity. I also sought to ascertain how they understood the role of woman in Islam.





These questions deserve particular attention as we live in a political environment in which Islam and Muslim women especially have come under a scrutiny that is too often misguided and based on generalizations. In this environment it is the Islamic veil that has been the focus of attention, and connected to oppression and fanaticism. These stereotypes clearly have an influence on people’s perceptions and formation of opinions. All of the women I talked to expressed the need for more diverse representations of Muslim women. I therefore think it is important to shed light on and explore the changing identities among Muslim women in Australia who are constantly forming new images while challenging the homogenized ideas that exist.

There has been much research on Muslim women and the veil. Its wearing has been dissected in every possible way, being connected to religious affirmation, cultural marker of the feminine, political strategy and segregation and oppression (Cooke 2005). However there is little research on the experiences veiled women encounter in the workplace in Australia, although there is some research that examines discrimination and statistics on the number of women who are employed (Bouma 1996). In wearing the veil, Muslim women in Australia are claiming a distinct identity in public space through their visual Muslim identity. As they interact with the general public new ideas and perceptions are formed and negotiated between non-Muslim Australians and Muslim women.

These negotiations also occur between Muslim women themselves. The variations among Muslim women’s dress have rarely existed side by side as we see today in many of the big cities in the West. Colourful veils are combined with the latest fashion. While Western women receive the message through popular culture that being desirable and beautiful means being less covered, Muslim women are encouraged to put the veil on. In both cases the female body and her choice of clothing represent not only the distinctiveness of culture but also contested values and norms in that particular culture.

One of the vital contextual politics impinging on interpretations of the meaning of the veil is the perceived threat of Islamist terrorism and radicalism, seen as posing a threat to Western democracy. Muslim women as cultural bearers are seen by many to represent that dichotomy.

The tendency to perceive veiling as an image of backwardness and oppression can be linked to the orientalist assumption that modernity cannot be reconciled with Islam (Benton 1996;

15). In Australia as in other Western countries multiculturalism seems to reach its limit vis-àvis Islamism, where choices regarding political practices and religious values and norms become the marker of one’s identity. This occurs as minority cultural practices and sets of values collide with majority standards of both cultural practices and norms. In the last few years there have been numerous examples of how Muslim women have been said by political figures to be victimized by their own religion.Ex-Prime Minister John Howard expressed concern about Muslim attitudes towards women when he said, “I think some of the associated attitudes towards women (are) a problem” ( The Australian, George Megalogenis February 20, 2006 ). He has also said that Muslim people need to respect Australian values such as equal rights for men and women. In this context it is interesting to note that both Muslims and Australian – note the distinctions – are presented as homogenized groups rather than as individuals with diverse view points.

In this thesis I intend to reveal my informants’ accounts of their experiences in public space and work and how they integrate their Islamic identity with them. Additionally I have attempted to explore how these women think about women’s position in Islam. To do so in Chapter One I will first discuss the discourse on women in Islam from a theological perspective. This is because of the important correlations between what Muslim women in Australia believe and practice, and their knowledge of the Islamic sacred scripts. My quest in this chapter is to understand what theological traditions and male theologians have said about women in their interpretation of holy scripts. Because Islam is a religion interpreted and understood differently by different people, the gender roles notion in Islam too have been interpreted and practiced differently, setting a foundation for how people understand their own gendered identity. According to Islamic feminists, Muslim women have been oppressed because of a patriarchal cultural that is still ruling in many Muslim countries (Mernissi 1996), even if it has been the interpretation of Islam by the male elite that has supported these states.

I will then go on to discuss how women and men who are advocating for Muslim women’s rights have come to revise sacred texts as a foundation for re-evaluating some of the ideas about women’s role and status in Islam. Muslim women in Australia are heiresses to these interpretations. In my second chapter I look into veiled women’s experiences at work and how they integrate their Islamic identity in the workplace, and engage and interact with people at work. Finally in Chapter three I will discuss the complex motivations for choosing to veil and what the meanings of this garb represent for some Muslim women in Australia.

Note: in the thesis I will use the term the veil and hijab synonymously, because the literature uses both to describe the material covering women’s heads. The term ‘veiling’ is of course used to describe other types of covering that are customary in many different cultures, which might include the face as well as the hole body ( Mernissi 1996, Barlas 2002, Doogue 2005 & Bouma 1996) However throughout my research experience I noticed that Australian Muslim women used the Arabic term hijab, the veil as well as the headscarf synonymously.

2. Women and Islam “Women are the twin halves of men” The Prophet Muhammad (Minai 1981; 3) The variety of women’s lives in Muslim majority countries, the various projects of secularism and nationalism pursued by their elites and others, and the migration of Muslims to every corner of the globe means that a discussion of the relationship between Islam and women is in one way an impossibly large and disaggregated subject. Nevertheless, this has not appeared to discourage Muslims in many places from discussing just that topic – that is from making connections between Islam and how women should live. In this chapter I want to emulate both some of those Muslims and some of my informants by attempting to do what they do.

That is to say, the most common method through which my informants and many others articulate Islam and women as objects of a single discourse is through constructing a dialogue between authoritative texts and problematic human experiences. This is a dialogue between the rights of women as interpreted in inspired texts and the actual conditions of women’s lives. However the partners in this dialogue are not of equal status. On the one hand there is a tendency to treat the inspired texts as universally applicable across time and place. On the other hand we have the variety of women’s lives and experiences, radically differentiated by class, nationalism and migration. In general this potential disjuncture is averted by the privileging of the authoritative texts of revelations and what they say about women’s rights and obligations in Islam.

Emulating this privileging of texts, in this chapter I too will first briefly outline central aspects of the texts of Islam. I will then examine how the Prophet Muhammad came to be an example to Muslims in his companionate treatment of women. Then I will discuss the complicated nature of the authoritative Islamic sources and how some sections both from the Koran and hadith/sunna have been misread and used to oppress women. Finally I will look at these texts and Muslim feminism, and how Muslim women, writers, activists and academics advocate for women’s rights. This group has used holy script to challenge existing interpretations regarding women’s position and status.

Within the discourse on Islam and women many scholars and feminists argue that the position of Muslim women can best be understood through a scrutinization of the Islamic teaching.



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