Due to popularity of my post, Muslim women creating fastest cultural shift, I’m following up with a guest blog written by Karima Hana-Meksem, PhD, Researcher, Writer & Consultant in Human Development and Leadership
Sometimes I teach the class called “Media Ethics” and ask my students to complete the phrase “Muslims are….” And they always say “terrorists” and I say how many of you heard the phrase “catholic terrorists” and they say “well no” and then I tell them “What about the Irish Republican Army”. The idea that they are Christian terrorists… they do not think that way… It does not carry the same connotation for Christians…and that is purely a function of media. (A participant in education-2010)
The purpose of the study was to contribute to a better understanding of employment discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or country of origin. More specifically, the study attempted to describe how religious stereotypes and religious artifacts may affect the hiring process of Muslim women wearing a hijab in the United States and what are the reasons as to why these stereotypes have developed?
The research questions were (a) To what extent do American recruiters stereotype Muslim women in the United States who wear the hijab? (b) What are the sources of these stereotypes? And (c) How could these stereotypes affect recruiters’ hiring decision?
Qualitative interviews were conducted in the states of Illinois and Missouri during the Spring and Fall of 2010. These participants interviewed were in charge of hiring in the educational and healthcare sectors. The study was challenging since it involved a very sensitive and susceptible topic in the American context today: Muslims. In addition, the difficulty of this study on Muslim women wearing the hijab in the United States was also related to its perception. It was interesting to observe how potential participants may have understood the purpose of this study and how this might have influenced their participation to it. The context of the study played an important role, it may have influenced potential participants’ negative responses and maybe as well some negative attitudes during the interviews conducted.
This study identified five main themes from the interviews’ data which are the following (a) fear of Muslims, (b) hijab appearance vs. hijab functionality, (c) impact of cultural and religious differences, (d) stereotypes, and (e) discrimination in the United States.
The research participants were united when questioned about the appearance of the hijab and how divided they were when they spoke of its functionality. Indeed, the research participants, who all have hiring responsibilities included in their position, described almost unanimously that the hijab is viewed by them as an attractive and beautiful religious artifact.
However, when the participants elaborated a little bit more about the function of the hijab, their observations differed. During the interviews they explained their views based on various factors that might have influenced their perceptions. This pointed out I believe, how our society might strongly influence people’s views. In addition, it is important to understand how shared beliefs imposed by the dominant culture may take part in influencing people’s thinking. There are negative stereotypes against the Muslim community and, in particular, Muslim women wearing the hijab in the United States today associated with Islamophobia. Mainly, the hijab is perceived as a symbol of fundamentalism at the extreme and as a strange practice at the best.
In this study, one participant stated directly that he would have difficulties hiring a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, although he is informed that in the United States discrimination against an applicant because of religious beliefs is illegal. This suggests a cognitive conflict between the appearance of hijab and its function.
All the recruiters interviewed illustrated the fact that they all hold biases. For instance, one participant described his bias against obese people and acknowledged that it was a conscious bias. Mostly, the participants’ views expressed in this study demonstrated that all hold biases toward Muslims in general which influenced the way they identified the hijab in particular. I consider that everybody may hold biases against Muslim women who wear the hijab. Consequently, it is fundamental to educate people and make them aware of their own biases and how this might impact their perceptions.
The value and perception of the hijab was ultimately connected with the research participants’ cultural and religious backgrounds. Indeed, the participants’ perceptions of Muslims in the United States were intimately connected to the participants’ cultural and racial background. Some participants in this study shared a bit of their own struggle related to racial and religious discrimination and based on the findings these participants were the most considerate toward Muslim women wearing the hijab. These participants expressed their views of broadmindedness by using terms like, tolerance, melting pot, diversity, diversity training, and acceptance. The rest of the participants who seemed to have more disapproving perceptions qualified the hijab using terms like strange, thing, backwardness, anti-intellectualism, and fundamentalism. Consequently these judgmental insights have been described in this study coming from three expected sources (a) the media, (b) the politics, and (c) people’s social and cultural environments. Indeed, all the participants illustrated during the interviews that the principal sources of negative stereotypes toward Muslims are related to the way the media and politics portrayed Muslims and Islam in the United States.
Another important point was that all the participants shared that their own stereotypes and opinions toward Muslims in general, and that Muslim women wearing the hijab in particular are the essence of their personal journey. Some participants explicitly stated that the way they perceived other people is a combination of their ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. In other words, the participants argued that the value of tolerance and diversity is learned in some milieus, although some of them spoke at length about diversity training and education as a mean of opposing negative stereotypes and teaching tolerance.
Some participants did acknowledge too that nowadays these negative stereotypes toward Muslim women wearing the hijab may affect some hiring decisions that maybe recruiters, persons in charge of hiring or even themselves will be making. However, the findings demonstrated that all participants were aware of the anti- discrimination laws that were judged by them as more punitive than preventive.
Consequently, the findings in this study also illustrated the reality that negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims in the United States were more pronounced after the event of 9/11. I consider that both negative stereotypes toward Islam and Muslims and the current American context may affect hiring decision based on non-job-related factors.