The hijab, which is often recognized as a head covering and/or long coat by Muslims and non-Muslims, has become highly symbolic of the identity struggle for Muslim women living in Canada. While some Muslims perceive it as a connection to their religious beliefs, others view it exposes the bigotry and/or misperceptions of Westerners. Beyond being an article of clothing, the hijab connotes a greater philosophy of modesty and unpretentiousness because Islam requires dressing modestly. Seen through Western eyes and values, however, the hijab is often portrayed as oppressive, hindering women’s right to free expression and putting a restriction to their mobility. Since the events of 11 September 2001, the hijab has become, for some Canadians, a symbol of terrorism and extremism. In Immigrant Muslim Women and the Hijab: Sites of Struggle in Crafting and Negotiating Identities in Canada, Tabassum Ruby explores the construction of identity for Muslim women in Canada as expressed through the hijab. Far from the simple, the decision to wear or not to wear the hijab is considerably complex and personal phenomenon mostly because Canadian media presents the hijab negatively.
Ruby conducted three focus groups of Muslim women—one of hijab wearers, one group who does not, and a mixed group—to better understand the meanings of the hijab. For many participants, living in Canada had provided more autonomy and inspired them to learn more about and fully embrace their religion because they believed that many of those living in Muslim countries had taken their faith for granted. Additionally, where Western values often sexualize women, the hijab was a means of neutralizing the male gaze, thereby guaranteeing a woman’s respect and dignity. However, such freedom had created considerable tensions, for many Western values, such as mixed parties and premarital relationships, run counter to Islamic beliefs, which made raising children in the Muslim faith difficult. Embracing the hijab, then, was a means of affirming Muslim values. Some participants who chose not to wear the hijab did not do so because they believed that the hijab is not a customary dress code in Canada and it draws attention to a woman; therefore, wearing the hijab in a Western setting would have the opposite effect. Some also believed that the relationship with God is personal, and not dependent on visual markers like a headscarf. Despite believing their actions consistent with Muslim beliefs, many non-wearers stated that they felt considerable pressure from other Muslims to conform and wear the hijab.
Ruby concludes her report with a few recommendations for improving the quality of life for Muslim women in Canada. These include: greater awareness of Islam by non-Muslims; non-stereotypical representations in the media and education system; and acknowledgement that wearing the hijab is a choice that reflects values of modesty and religious beliefs, not a form of oppression. In short, Ruby and her focus group participants ask non-Muslim Canadians to recognize and appreciate the complexity of Muslim women’s choices and reasons.