Targeted: Veiled Women Experience Significantly More Discrimination in the U.S.

By Karam Dana, Nazita Lajevardi, Kassra A.R. Oskooii, and Hannah Walker

[Image credit: Newsweek.]

Beginning with the period after the September 11 terrorist attacks and continuing throughout the Trump era, discrimination against Muslim Americans is par for the course in contemporary America. Anti-Muslim sentiment, a rising tide of hate crimes, negative media coverage, the introduction and passage of “anti-sharia laws” in many state legislatures, surveillance programs, and the enactment of policies designed to restrict the entry of Muslims into the United States (U.S.) are simply a few examples of the challenges that this diverse community has faced.

Women who wear the hijab are particularly visible and identifiable as “Muslim.” For almost two decades, there have been anecdotal accounts of discrimination targeting Muslim women who adorn the hijab. For example, numerous women have reported being grabbed by their hijab by attackers in the post-9/11 period, and harassment and intimidation of Muslim women had become so prevalent that some Muslim clerics issued fatwas (i.e., religious legal rulings) permitting women to forgo wearing the hijab as it put those who wore it in danger.

While some research shows how the hijab shapes discrimination in the realm of hiring in the labor market, how the hijab shapes perceptions of discrimination in various sociopolitical settings remains an open question. This is a critical oversight, given that the hijab is a central component of the racialization of Muslim Americans and an object of cultural debate in the U.S. and western Europe. The hijab, for instance, has historically been constructed by some westerners as a backward, barbaric, and outdated relic signifying religious extremism and women’s oppression by Islam. Given the trope, are those Muslims who adorn the hijab significantly more or less likely to experience mistreatment and perceive discrimination?

Our paper in Politics & Religion, “Veiled Politics: Experiences with Discrimination among Muslim Americans,” fills this knowledge gap. Across two surveys fielded by the Pew Research Center in 2007 and 2011 among large samples of Muslim Americans, we examine how the hijab, alongside other factors known to shape U.S. Muslims’ experiences, affects perceptions of societal and institutional discrimination. Perceptions of societal discrimination were measured with two questions that appeared in both surveys: (1) “Have people acted as if they are suspicious of you?” and (2) “Have you been called offensive names?” Perceptions of institutional discrimination was measured with the following question, which also appeared across both surveys: “Have you have been singled out by airport security [because you are Muslim]?”

Descriptively, sizable proportions of Muslims across both surveys reported experiencing discrimination across each of the measures. This is important for two reasons. First, it provides confidence that the descriptive results replicate across two cross-national samples and are not artifacts of one specific survey. Second, they demonstrate that reports of societal and institutional discrimination are incredibly high. Figure 1 displays a histogram of our main explanatory variable of interest – the frequency of wearing the hijab in public. As can be seen, there is a great deal of variation in how often women reported wearing the hijab, with 38% and 36% reporting wearing it all the time in 2007 and 2011 respectively, and 49% (2007) and 40% (2011) reporting never wearing it.

Figure 1: Frequency of wearing the hijab in public

Dana et al. figure 1

Next, our paper conducts multivariate analyses to examine how the hijab is associated with perceptions of discrimination across each of the three outcomes variables in both surveys. We consistently find a positive and statistically significant relationship between wearing the hijab and reporting suspicious looks, verbal abuse, and airport discrimination. Moreover, as Figure 2 helps illustrate, the size of the impact of wearing the hijab on perceptions of discrimination (in this case suspicious looks) is quite large, increasing the likelihood that one will say they experienced looks by about 20 percentage points in both survey years.

Figure 2: Predictors of suspicious looks (full sample). Note: Symbols denote changes in the predicted probability of perceiving suspicious looks. The lines attached to the symbols represent 90% confidence bands.

Dana et al. figure 2

It is important to note that the results discussed above examine the impact of wearing the hijab on experiences with discrimination relative to other factors, like attending mosque and socio-economic status. Since the hijab is specific to women, we include an additional measure for gender. While women who wear the hijab are especially likely to face discrimination, women who do not wear the hijab are less likely to face discrimination than are U.S. Muslim men, especially when it comes to every-day, societal experiences. On average, Muslim men are about seven percentage points more likely to report experiencing societal discrimination than are Muslim women, even as women who wear the Hijab face discrimination at significantly higher rates than those who do not.

Together, our study complements emerging work in race and ethnicity, unpacking heterogeneity among stigmatized groups rather than treating members of stigmatized groups as uniform. Our findings suggest that there is great variation in the sociopolitical experiences of Muslim Americans, and that the role of gender and the hijab – which have largely been overlooked in this body of scholarship – are necessary factors to consider.

Karam Dana (@KaramDana) is an Associate Professor in the school of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell. He is also the founding Director of the American Muslim Research Institute (AMRI).

Nazita Lajevardi (@NazitaLajevardi) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University.

Kassra A.R. Oskooii (@kassrao) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware.

Hannah Walker (@hlw_phd) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University.

2 comments

  1. Interesting study. Have you ever considered inversing such a study and doing a comparison? You could attempt to measure the level of discrimination faced by women who chose not to wear the hijab (or niqab, etc) in countries like Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republics of Iran, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or even some sharia compliant regions of Indonesia. Some adjustment of variables would be needed because in many of these countries women are discouraged or not allowed to work outside the home. I am sure, however, there are other measurable behaviors of discrimination you could find that would be culturally appropriate. If I had to guess, you would even find that discriminatory behaviors by family members toward those women that are even more objective and definitive than asking someone to answer “Have people acted as if they are suspicious of you?” Comparing your findings of the US population’s type and level of discrimination to any, or all, of those countries listed above would be truly fascinating.

    Like

  2. Likewise another correlating study might be to see how Jewish men are/aren’t discriminated against for wearing a Kippah. Or to study discrimination for someone (men/women) wearing a cross? Is it any sign of “other” or something more specific to a certain religion?

    Liked by 1 person

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