Hijabs: University's Last Taboo? Muslim Students On Stereotyping And Discrimination

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MUSLIM GIRLS
"People are cautious when they approach me." | belmac via Getty Images

University has long had a reputation for being a diverse and tolerant environment, but when it comes to religious wear, and particularly the hijab, stereotyping and stigma are still prevalent on campus.

The Huffington Post UK spoke to Muslim students across the country, and it is clear they don’t experience the same tolerance for their religious dress everyone else enjoys for their clothing choices.

As one 20-year-old sociology student at Bristol University explained, wearing the hijab made her stick out. "People do get cautious when they approach me for the first time," she said.

Several of the students said they experience discrimination due to wearing the hijab, as some of their peers automatically assume the head scarf is synonymous with extreme right-wing views. This results in those students feeling they have to prove they do not fit into the "stereotypical Muslim woman" category.

One student told HuffPost UK the need to constantly reaffirm their distance from such views "originates from people’s idea that our faith is unreasonable, violent or just plain different from the norm".

She added: "So the fact that I cover my head re-establishes their particular view about Islam and about me as a person."

Another student, Abi Jeylani, says her student union does not hand out leaflets advertising clubbing events or parties to anyone wearing the hijab, while international development student Nazia Carim, says students question her choice of subject.

"People initially assumed I would be homophobic, or not be tolerant to people questioning Islam," she told HuffPost UK. "I also get the feeling people wonder why I’m studying a course about development and human rights, which is so opposite to the stereotypical Muslim woman."

Carim describes being harassed with questions about her faith and her dress not only by her lecturer, but also by fellow Muslim students: "An Egyptian girl and I were debating inequality in Islam. The lecturer butted in and started challenging me about what I wear and why I need to dress so modestly.

"I was also questioned by other Muslims about why I wore the full-body hijab as neither the headscarf, nor the full-body hijab are compulsory, in their view."

However this discrimination is an issue of not just religion, but gender too; hijab stereotyping means female Muslims face more marginalising on campus than their male counterparts.

As Irham Ehsan, a 21-year-old media and communications student at Greenwich University, says: "Males have it so much easier.

"They don't have to deal with as much discrimination and when they do something silly, it isn't highlighted as much as it is with us hijab-wearing women."

As bad as the stereotyping is in the university environment, it is even worse in general public.

"I was once stopped in the middle of a supermarket by a middle-aged Caucasian woman blasting off her hatred to girls in hijabs," the sociology student studying at Bristol recalled. "She said I needed to take it off because I was oppressed.

"She asked: 'Why do you want to oppress all the other women in the UK? Don't you want to be free?'

"Those words were thrown to me just because I was wearing a hijab. The way she said it made it look like I was forced to wear one and I needed someone to "free" me from the whole oppressive issue.

"The whole incident was pretty disappointing."

Despite the discrimination faced by those who wear hijabs, one 20-year-old English Literature student says university students are far more tolerant than others outside the academic environment, and so they feel much safer.

"A growing number of students have interacted with Muslims before so there is less misunderstanding about us," she says. "I don’t worry about wearing the hijab on campus.

"But there are areas right outside of my university I wouldn't feel comfortable walking past."

Ehsan adds: "There is a huge difference between university and the outside world. I've faced a lot of discrimination, on the train, in public places - covert and blatant.

"University is kind of a safe haven for me."

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