Researchers explore how religious garment defines a new generation of women

There's no argument that the hijab, a scarf that covers the head, hair, neck and ears, is a religious symbol that visibly separates young Muslim American women from their contemporary peers. But many who wear it say the covering is a boundary that's helping them carve out their own place in the Western world, yet it also bridges them with their family's traditions and values. The findings are from a paper by Rhys Williams, professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, and Gira Vashi, a research assistant at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Their paper, titled "Hijab and American Muslim Women: Creating the Space for Autonomous Selves," will be presented at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, at the 101st annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montreal, Canada.

"There are multiple meanings to the hijab as a religious and social symbol; it often serves well those who wear it," states the paper. "It provides a clear identity marker at a life-course transitional time, and it provides culturally legitimate space for young women who are formulating new Muslim American identities and lives."

The research comes from the larger Youth and Religion Project led by Williams and Stephen Warner, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The sociologists started the project in 1999, conducting interviews and focus groups with Chicago area college-age students who represented an array of cultures and religious groups. The researchers' intent was to find out the young people's motivation in joining the organizations how they utilized the organizations and how they benefited which has been rarely studied, according to Williams.

Many of the 20 or so Muslim women who participated in the interviews and focus groups were from Indian or Pakistani families, while others were ethnically Arab. In these interviews, Williams says the hijab was an issue that was consistently raised as the women aimed to clarify how they identified with wearing the traditional religious garment (not always a practice by their own mothers), which can be perceived as oppressive in an American "equal rights" society, since there's no particular dress providing such obvious distinction among Muslim men.

"In almost every discussion of Islam, gender or family that we heard in the course of this research, Muslim speakers (both men and women) went out of their way to claim ' in Islam, men and women have equal rights,' or 'men and women are different, but that does not mean unequal,'" the researchers write.

Instead, the authors say the distinctive covering allowed the women to show their families that they hadn't lost their traditions and values, plus, the hijab symbolized modesty and moral purity in an American culture they perceive to be overemphasizing materialism, individualism and sexual openness. Furthermore, college-age Muslims reported that Muslim men also wear modest dress, though nothing as obvious as hijab. "Hijab is becoming the catch-all symbol for Muslim identity, and for issues related to Islam's place in America," the paper states.

Williams adds that in embracing American culture, these college educated women are enjoying lives that their mothers never dreamed of attending college, driving a car, consulting with their Palm Pilots and Blackberries and planning successful careers. "I think that in many ways when they wore hijab, they were signaling to their parents and friends that they hadn't lost themselves, that they hadn't become too Westernized," Williams says. "And in some ways I think it gave them the freedom to be quite autonomous, because it signalized their piety."

Williams adds that as the research project evolved, what he found particularly interesting among Muslims and Hindus is how they're fashioning a religious identity as a way of keeping a foot in both worlds. "It's a way of keeping a fidelity and faithfulness to their family and to their family's traditions and to their faith, but at the same time working with that faith as a way of fitting in here in the United States. It is interesting to see how often the decision to wear hijab is represented as their free choice."

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The paper will be published in the forthcoming academic journal, Society of Religion, in spring 2007. The study is supported by Lilly Endowment, Inc., as part of the Youth and Religion Project. Williams also acknowledges support from the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center at the University of Cincinnati for providing a one-year fellowship that led to completion of the article.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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