Does My Headscarf Make Me Less Academic?
Many Muslim women living in non-Muslim majority countries like Germany know the uncomfortable stares. The looks that seem to pity them. The whispers, the outspoken words. And all of this because Muslim women cover their heads and dress modestly.
In this, Muslim women follow the Creator’s commands because they are sure that whatever Allah has decreed, is the best for them. However, having this certainty in belief does not mean that Muslim women are not facing everyday life negativity.
Muslim women who wear the headscarf are discriminated against in Germany. That is a fact. For example, until recently, it has been difficult to become a teacher in a public school, especially in the capital city of Berlin, when one wears a headscarf. Other professions with regards to allowing women to wear the headscarf vary greatly.
I would like to refer to my own experience as a Muslim academic and journalist wearing the headscarf. Many non-Muslim people I encountered have an issue with the headscarf itself as a clear visible sign of my lived piety. In Germany, religion and the sincere belief in God with the practical consequences of this very belief have been allocated a peripheral place in society. So, displaying piety in such an open and confident way causes discomfort in the other. Still, I want to refer to the command of covering in the Qur’an, and how it relates to the discomfort mentioned above. I will follow it up with a personal experience of being recognized as a woman of God.
Women of God
Allah mentions in the Qur’an (33: 59) that women should cover themselves so that they become known. Allah wants Muslim women to be recognized as believing women. This is an interesting point that I would like to underline with personal experiences I made a few years ago when I traveled from Germany to Poland by train. I wore a broken-white headscarf and a long dress. All of a sudden, the train stopped for a long time in the middle of nowhere. That is why the people on the train started talking to each other. At one point, a man asked me which Christian order I belonged to. I was quite surprised about his question. I told him that I was Muslim, and that is why I covered myself. Now it was his turn to be surprised. On another occasion, I was asked a similar question upon arrival at the airport in my hometown. These two incidents made me ponder. I was recognized as a woman of God because I covered. People thought I was a Christian nun. That made me feel happy because people recognized me as a woman close to God. However, it is this same notion of remembering someone of God that also makes people feel uncomfortable. I argue that non-religious people tend to feel uncomfortable around a covered woman because they are reminded of God. Many people in Germany perceive God to be non-existent. It results in Muslim women, who express their connection to God, being treated differently, and be made feel differently.
The Academic Experience
There seems to generally be a greater tolerance towards religious symbols, i.e., the headscarf in Western academia. Nevertheless, experiences in everyday life made me feel that I had to explicitly show that my piety did not impact my role as an academic. This feeling was caused by the everyday life experiences with negativity and discrimination towards covered women that I have described above. Although there seems to be a greater tolerance towards covered women in academia, this tolerance is limited in reality. As a way of life, Islam is present in every aspect of one’s life. There are certain concepts in social sciences, for example, that I cannot accept to be in line with my Islamic worldview. When these topics arise in discussions with non-Muslim colleagues or so-called liberal Muslim colleagues, it usually becomes an awkward situation. And rather than disclosing my so-called non-liberal views, I prefer to stay silent.
This self-silencing is a problematic issue because it silently supports the non-tolerant views of the liberal academic majority towards academics with a religious background who hold traditional views of how God structures reality. One example that I will name briefly is the Muslim’s belief that Allah created everything in pairs. Creation in pairs, male and female, functions as an epistemological tool within the Islamic worldview. Therefore, a Muslim will have difficulties and feel a moral dilemma to agree with the idea of gender plurality/diversity and whatever that contains. Muslim academics at famous Western universities in some parts of the world have to be extremely careful to express a different view other than the one currently socially and politically acceptable regarding gender plurality. They might simply lose their job if they decide to express a different opinion.
Personally, as an academic in the field of Southeast Asian studies, I tried to cope with this multidimensional moral dilemma by focusing on research topics that do not have a high potential of raising controversies. However, the feeling that I have to defend my double identity as an academic/ researcher and Muslim, i.e., Muslim academic/ Muslim researcher, remains. It is this strange notion that is inherent in secular academia (esp. in humanities) that by being religious, one cannot be objective. As if being non-religious brings about a higher objectivity. This is a false assumption because either person has her subjective circumstances and worldview that influences her as an academic or researcher (I discussed this issue at length in my article The Muslim Researcher: Reflections on Insider/ Outsider Research in Indonesia, Journal of Islam in Asia, Vol. 16 (1), 2019).
The Journalist Experience
I have always liked writing. From an early age of around ten, I started writing poetry, and later I wrote my first short articles. However, I really started writing journalism once I embraced Islam in February 2008. It was then when I truly had a topic to write about passionately. As a Muslim, I took my first steps in Indonesia. I also started writing about Islam in Indonesia for the German Islamic newspaper. I have been a freelance contributor ever since. Here, my Muslim identity and the topics I chose to write about helped me to get published. Currently, I am also actively writing for different Muslim online media; mainly about Islamic spirituality and convert stories. Again, here I could only gain access because I am Muslim. I have not been able to write much for mainstream non-Muslim media. This might be mainly due to the topics I choose to write about. However, from my personal experience, I feel that I have greater freedom of expression writing journalistic articles as long as I have a medium that is willing to accept it. The dream to write mind-opening pieces of journalism and academic articles remain. The difficulty here, of course, is that censorship (or choice of topics) is basically directed by economic circumstances, and one has to write what one can sell before writing ‘to change the world.’
Being a Muslim woman professional is not only about external circumstances that allow or not allow us to pursue a career in academia, journalism, or any other field. We do not only have to negotiate our Muslim identity within the professional world. Being a Muslim woman professional also includes staying true to our own religious and moral values, i.e., our Islamic worldview in every circumstance. We cannot and should not sell our Islamic worldview for worldly matters. This includes the responsibilities given to us by our Creator. Muslim women who are blessed with children have to negotiate their professional engagement with the amanah given to them by Allah. That does not mean that they cannot contribute to society. They should. However, it is important to keep our priorities according to our Islamic worldview in mind.
The author obtained her Ph.D. in Southeast Asian studies from the Humboldt-University Berlin, Germany. She worked as a full-time assistant professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia from April 2018 until August 2019. She currently serves as PostDoc Fellow at the Berlin Institute of Islamic Theology at Humboldt University Berlin.