Excerpted From: Bethool Zehra Haider, Asking the Muslim Woman Question: Understanding the Social and Legal Construction of Muslim Women, 38 Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 81 (2023) (180 Footnotes) (Full Document)


BethoolZehraHaiderI have worn the hijab since the age of nine. I still recall the tremendous excitement I felt on the eve of my ninth birthday as I thought of donning the hijab full-time. To me, the world of hijabis was special--exclusive, even, in a manner of great distinction. In public, hijabis, often complete strangers, nodded and waved to one another with familiar smiles. They shared tips for finding clothing that was long sleeved and modest and had a peculiarly impressive knack of holding a safety pin in their mouth while pinning their scarves closed (a trick I was overjoyed to learn from my mother after sufficient practice). It was not just these commonalities, but also a collective understanding of identity, a bond between them I longed to share.

Although the door to hijab revealed all that I had hoped for and more, there was a dark underbelly I had not anticipated. Detailed searches on airport premises, extra scrutiny about my country of origin, and Islamophobia follow me like a shadow. As I grow, become educated, and enter the workforce, microaggressions abound-- questions about how long I am obligated to keep my hair, whether I choose to wear the scarf full-time, whether I can choose what color to wear that day, and the most curious seekers' favorite: whether I will have an arranged marriage. Every question is grounded in an assumption that my choices are not my own, but instead enforced by a patriarchal religious system.

Although they may not sound explicitly racist to the untrained ear, these comments and exclusionary stereotypes cut deeply. They are rooted in entrenched conceptions of Islam and of hijab-wearing Muslim women: the idea that we are “other,” inclined to terrorism, deserving of thorough searches in airports, and oppressed by controlling religious systems and men in our lives.

As I work towards my J.D., these hindrances still manage to find me. No matter how assimilated, educated, or professional I attempt to be, there is always the lingering trace of my veil upon my work, a silent damper during interviews and in the classroom. There is a strange absence of scholarship on this topic, both by and about women like me, who observe the hijab within the legal field.

This paper will explore why and how that came to be --- beginning with the forces which act upon Muslim women to exclude them from roles within the law, obstacles they face once they have made it, and resistance to such pressure. Though I am not the first to note the gendered treatment to which veiled Muslim women have been subjected, I will examine this intersection through a historical lens, looking at the manner in which Orientalist conceptions, against the backdrop of imperialism, created dichotomous categories which have caught veiled Muslim women in their fold. I hold that a very purposeful, gendered account of Islam, rooted in Orientalism and exemplified by 9/11, affects the way Muslim women are treated in the legal sphere at large, keeping their voice outside of the cultural norm.

Finally, I will briefly touch upon how the legal profession's notion of “bleach [ed-]out” professionalism is a misguided notion, and rather than assuming that a lawyer's neutrality should be grounded in mitigating their identity, the profession can discover a more distinct form of justice by engaging with Muslim women, listening to their voices, and allowing them into the profession as they are.

As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “being a woman is not a natural fact, it's the result of a certain history.” I hope this analysis can serve as a map of the social and legal construction of veiled Muslim women to fully understand the intersection at which they stand within the legal profession today.

[. . .]

Ahmed Ajil and Kwan-Lamar Blount-Hill suggested that, to discover “the lived realities of the colonized subject inside the global north, knowledge should be produced by researchers who have an intimate understanding of these lived realities.” I hold that this applies in the case of Muslim women, not only for purposes of producing academic knowledge, but also for purposes of producing cultural awareness and capital. Rather than allowing a world in which the male, non-Muslim is the yardstick of maturity, autonomy, and rationality, there is much we can gain if we accept a world where our ethnic, religious self is not judged by the archaic majority's rules, but rather by a human perspective, inclusive of all voices.

Here, I see a parallel with early feminist writers who explored the various values women brought to the workplace and world stage. As Carol Gilligan posited, we lose something when we neglect to ask the woman question and exclude women from thought. Similarly, there is much we lose out on when we neglect Muslim women from our perception of “normal” and from our discourse as a whole. To ask the Muslim woman question, to ask what her version of the story is, and how will she tell it, is revolutionary: it finally unveils the Orientalist narrative and the exclusion of Muslim women. It finally increases opportunities otherwise denied to Muslim women by breaking down the stereotypes she otherwise would be confronted with every time she enters a room. When we refuse to bring the veiled Muslim woman into the picture, we are not only making an oversight but maintaining a longstanding worldview that denies veiled Muslim women autonomy. We are allowing structures which alienate Muslim women, and thereby alienate all of us from Muslim women, to dominate.

We should encourage law firms and legal institutions to engage in implicit bias testing so that individuals may be made aware of the version of Muslim women they have been falsely taught about. Furthermore, diversity and inclusion training should include cultural information about Muslim women, the stereotypes they face, and the ways to counteract negative thought processes the public may hold. Re-education about Muslim women is necessary to ensure their freedom to exist in the future. On a structural level, legislation, such as that which has been brought to protect the right to wear natural hair at work, should be expanded to include wearing hijab in workplaces.

It is possible to create a world that is not distinctly colonial and rife with stereotyping, but balances various perspectives, blending identities beyond our created perceptions of one another. Where the veil does not signify a tired narrative but individuals in themselves. Where various voices, ways of dress, and true selves are naturally embraced. Welcoming veiled Muslim women to speak about their own gender, religion, and stature without preconceived notions not only makes it possible to see opinion and autonomy where there previously was only the assumption of oppression, but also makes room for Muslim women--and thereby Muslims as a group--to define their own neutral, to enter professional and traditionally closed-off spaces with ease, and to be a part of the conversation.

J.D. University of California, Irvine School of Law 2023.