The issue of Arab Muslim women’s migration to Western countries is an integral part of broader questions concerning Arab migration. There are several disparities underlying the causes, rates, and implications of women’s immigration as compared to men’s immigration. Some women immigrate to look for better opportunities in their host countries, others immigrate to pursue their studies or simply seek personal or professional pathways. Nevertheless, it is safe to assess that the extent of vulnerability, exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, and abuse is greater for Arab Muslim women in their host countries than for men.
The political turmoil in the Middle East following the Tunisian revolution in 2011 and the subsequent anarchy and bloodshed in many countries of the region led to a large-scale exodus of millions of Muslim women, men, and children to Europe, Canada, and the United States. The Arab Spring prompted the biggest wave of mass-migration since the second World War, with approximately 16.7 million refugees dispersed worldwide.
These geopolitical upheavals have forced the host countries to reconsider their migration and refugee policies and anticipate any potential socio-economic or political pressures by focusing on how to watch, contain, and control Muslim newcomers. The question of identity for migratory Muslims in the new locationalities is very central to the debate of migration. Thus, it is of paramount importance to probe the implications of various determinants such as race, class, religion, and sexuality to understand the intricacies of Muslim women in diaspora.
Some of the questions to be asked in this vein are: What challenges do Muslim women face in their host societies with regard to their identities? How do Muslim women represent themselves in their new locationalities? How do they reconcile multiple identities in their new “homes?” And what transformations undertake their sense of identity, belonging, and cultural allegiance?
According to several studies, immigrant Muslim women in Europe and the United States are still considered the most marginalized “others,” especially after the September 11 attacks in New York City. Veiled Muslim women continue to face stigmatization, discrimination, and ostracization in public settings due to their religious identity and dress code, which is their most visible marker of difference.
Veiled Muslim women continue to face stigmatization, discrimination, and ostracization in public settings due to their religious identity and dress code.
In “Muslim Women and Girls: Searching for Democracy and Self-Expressions,” Theresa Renee White and Jennifer Maria Hernandez confirm that “Muslim women are often seen through cultural and religious frameworks, oftentimes portrayed as figures of oppression, victimhood, and despair.” This narrow representation of women has been particularly rampant in the United States, where Islam comprises the second-largest religious group and the Muslim population continues to grow rapidly.
Discrimination against Muslim women in the United States can sometimes take violent forms, as Khalid Iqbal of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., stated: “In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the hijab has also become associated with the notion of terrorism in the eyes of some angry Americans. We have had to suggest that women not go out at night, that they stay in safe public places, and have a cell phone ready to call for help.”
Within this context of cultural misunderstanding and misinterpretation of identity markers, symbols of culture and identity such as the hijab become highly contested sites. While “the West looks at the scarf as a sign that Muslim women are oppressed, . . . Muslim women see it as a sign of dignity that shows respect for their religion and elicits respect from men,” J.G. Read wrote in “Challenging Myths of Muslim Women: The Influence of Islam on Arab-American Women’s Labor Force Activity.”
Immigrant Muslim women who wear the veil in the United States or elsewhere, consider it an integral facet of their cultural identities; even as for a majority of Americans, it is a symbol of the anti-modernity and oppression in Islam. The veil for Muslim women is, therefore, a means for the articulation and assertion of their religious, ethnic, and cultural identities as well as a means to combat and subvert Western cultural hegemony.
In her discussion of veiling and unveiling, Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi contends that to counter and subvert the forces of Western imperial campaigns, the act of veiling has become a political act which symbolizes resistance, defiance, and solidarity. Likewise, the act of unveiling is an expression of women’s political agency in re-determining Islam for themselves without the dictates of male Islamic fundamentalists.
Many feminist scholars believe that the stereotyping of Muslim women in the West finds its origins in 19th century Orientalist discourse.
Many feminist scholars believe that the stereotyping of Muslim women in the West finds its origins in 19th century Orientalist discourse, which depicts Muslim women in terms of transgressive sexuality and sensuality, seductiveness, lasciviousness, and irrationality. The tropes that Muslim women “express unlimited sensuality, . . . are more or less stupid, . . . [and] above all they are willing and submissive,” as Edward Said points out, are still shaping the mindset through which Muslim women are perceived in the West today.
Despite all the historical changes, the recurring images of Orientalism “remain remarkably consistent, and its power is perhaps greater than the past. Thanks to the penetration and expansion of mass media, the stereotyped knowledge of Orientalism can gain global recognition and instant diffusion,” writes Zainab Ghasemi Tari and Sayed Mohammad Marandi in “Orientalist Feminism; Representation of Muslim Women in Two American Novels: Terrorist and Falling Man.”
The consistent representation of both Arab and Muslim women in Hollywood films as silent, oppressed maidens explains how media can reinforce racial stereotypes and prejudices. What such essentialist representations overlook is the fact that immigrant Muslim women’s identity is more complex than the way it is simplistically represented. In other words, the identity of Muslim women in the West is neither static nor singular, but fluid and dynamic.
In her book “Aversion and Desire: Negotiating Muslim Female Identity in the Diaspora,” Shahnaz Khan problematizes the notion of Muslim identity in a diasporic context, arguing that Muslim women’s “understanding and experiences of their religion are not uniform and coded, as perceived by Westerners and projected by Islamic fundamentalists, but are rather malleable, fluid, manifold, and even contradictory.”
The cultural reality of migrant Muslim women and the multiple forms of discrimination and exclusion they are subjected to within the secularizing contexts of their host societies push some of them to strategically remove the veil and adopt new cultural practices to conform to the mainstream culture. This adoption of the Western way of dressing and adaptation to the Western cultural context reflects the dynamics of acculturation and the effects of interaction between Muslim women and their host society.
The process of acculturation, according to Philip A. Harland’s article “Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora,” can involve the “selection, adoption and adaptation of a variety of cultural traits including language, dress, religion, funerary practices, and other cultural conventions, beliefs and values of a particular cultural group.” Acculturation and cultural conversion of most Muslim women, however, do not resolve all the problems, as they continue to be viewed and stereotyped as non-Western women by mainstream Western society.
Likewise, the acculturation and transformation of these women makes them targets for Islamists with their rigid understanding and interpretation of religious texts. Islamists often describe these women as traitors of their own religion and identity. Thus, immigrant Muslim women seem to be pulled in different directions by Orientalism and Islamism. Muslim women in “exile,” therefore, occupy what Homi Bhabha calls “the third space of liminality.” They are trying to negotiate different identities at a time—attesting to the multiplicity of their allegiances and hybridized identity.
“These women are attempting to constitute a third space in which they receive recognition as Muslim; at the same time they are contesting the regulatory pressures of Orientalist stereotypes . . .”
As Shahnaz Khan points out, “these women are attempting to constitute a third space in which they receive recognition as Muslim; at the same time they are contesting the regulatory pressures of Orientalist stereotypes and fundamentalist-influenced mythology of the umma [Muslim community].” This suggests that Muslim women are consciously and actively critical of both Islamic and dominant Western cultural influences. They continuously inscribe their agency by rejecting sexist, racist, and religious discourses while opening up a liminal third space which suggests that identity is always in the process of formation and becoming; never complete, or precise.
In “Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies,” Stuart Hall posits that “the subject previously experienced as having a unified and stable identity, is becoming fragmented; composed, not of a single, but of several, sometimes contradictory or unresolved, identities.” According to Hall, immigrant Muslim women’s identity is impacted by the physical and cultural environment they inhabit. Therefore, the notion of fixed identity promoted by religious, nationalist, and anti-colonialist discourses in many Arab and Muslim countries is highly destabilized by the experiences of Muslim women in Western countries.
The anxieties of migration for Muslim women in their host countries are amplified by the discourses of Orientalism and Islamism. Torn between false, Orientalist representations, Islamist subjectivity, and rigid assumptions, Muslim women in the West try to find a middle ground whereby they can integrate into their new host-societies and retain their religious belonging. This process, however, involves the re-inscription of a third identity that is predominantly hybrid and fragmented.