Islam is Ireland’s fastest growing religion with a population of 48,130 and their numbers are expected to reach 100,000 by 2020 . It is estimated that about 500 Irish people convert to Islam every year, with more women converting than men.
In November 2013, a vicious hate letter was sent to various Islamic institutions and mosques around Dublin threatening to attack any Muslim man, woman or child that entered a mosque. The letter was an example of intolerance towards the Muslim community and it also claimed to represent ‘the Irish people’.
The Irish Anti-War Movement organisation said it was ‘an insult to the Irish people’ and The Immigration Council of Ireland also condemned it. They insisted these were the feelings of a minority of intolerant people, it does not change the fact that there is discrimination against the Muslim community, and in particular against Muslim women wearing the hijab. The hijab is a head covering that many Muslim women wear while in public, which conceals the hair and the neck from view.
Bilkis Sulaimon, although born a Muslim, only started wearing the hijab last year. She explains how important the hijab is to her by saying, “It’s an obligation for every believing woman in Islam. My personal reason for wearing it is that I think it expresses my religion. I want people to know I’m a Muslim, it’s my identity and a form of modesty.”
According to ‘Muslims in Ireland: Adaption and Integration’ , Islamic clothing like the hijab often means that Muslims are easily identified. This sometimes leads to Muslims being singled out and discriminated either in public places or in terms of employment.
A Muslim convert who prefers to remain anonymous, so she’ll be called Diana for clarity’s sake, shared her experience with discrimination. “I work in a restaurant,” Diana said, “If I asked to wear the scarf, [my boss] wouldn’t allow it; it’s very complicated to go to an employer and say I want to do it, but I’d be judged. You would be judged.”
Diana explained how she felt uncomfortable leaving in CVs while wearing the hijab, as she felt she didn’t have as good a chance at getting it if employers knew she was a Muslim.
“I tried [finding another job] recently while wearing hijab and the woman looked at me like I was an alien or something. She looked at me very strange when I gave her my CV. You know how hard it is to find a job in Ireland, imagine how hard it is to look for one with a hijab. It is ten times worse.”
A journal called ‘Measuring Islamophobia’ shows that the growth of discrimination against Muslims has been identified as a new, worrying trend in racial intolerance with members of Europe’s Islamic communities the target of unacceptable behaviour and discrimination that can take many forms, including violence.
After speaking with Dr Yazid Said, an Islamic Studies professor at Mater Dei Institute for Higher Education, about whether it would be wiser to not wear the hijab to avoid discrimination, he said, “If people face persecution for such things then you know they’re standing up for what is essential to their identity and they have to choose whether they compromise their dignity or not. I would never, as a Christian, stand up and say I’m compromising my traditions because in public it’s embarrassing. I see reality in a particular way and I have the right to express that.”
Dr Said explained that Islam has many faces; what the hijab means in Saudi Arabia could be a totally different answer in Bosnia or Egypt or Indonesia. He says that people care about their religious identity and he believes that part of the Irish tradition has always been welcoming, hospitable and down to earth towards all sorts of people.
“I think the public sphere is not supposed to be a neutral space where we ought to water down our traditions or withdraw from expressing it publicly,” he continued, “It should be a civic space where people can engage one another’s traditions honestly and to a full, without a sense of fear, so a Christian can be a Christian and a Muslim can be a Muslim and a Buddhist can be a Buddhist. A sign of maturity is that we are able to engage one another from the depths of tradition.”
According to ‘The Experience of Discrimination in Ireland Analysis’ in 2008, non-Catholic groups tend to report higher rates of discrimination compared to Catholics. Muslims record the highest ‘raw’ rate of discrimination.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland and National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism published a study called ‘Making our Voices Heard: The stories of Muslim women in Ireland’ about the lives of sixteen Muslim women in Ireland. The stories of these women show their experience of discrimination with Irish people due to their Muslim religion and the fact that they wear the hijab, which makes them into a ‘visible minority’. One of the women featured, Lorraine O’Connor from Coolock in Dublin said, “It dawned on me that even though I was Irish, as soon as I put on the hijab, I became a foreigner in my own country.”
Sarah Rashid, born into a Muslim family, has a different view of the hijab and its function. She said, “I wanted to wear the hijab when I turned seven because I thought it was a cool fashion thing as all the women were wearing it. My dad told me to wait for the age where it’s appropriate to decide if you want to wear it or not. Then I just didn’t think it was necessary because I wasn’t that religious in that aspect and was just a hypocrite if I wore it. My friends and sisters didn’t wear it and they’re Muslims as well; it’s not a necessity. People mistake the hijab [as being] very heavily engraved in the religion. Where I grew up, and what I have learned from women where I am from in Bahrain, it’s more traditional and cultural.”
New Jersey native Leila Rodriguez, an ex-Christian and Muslim convert, spoke about her experience after converting. “Some cannot wear hijab at work, some cannot even find work because of it,” she said, “One sister I know who I met on Twitter used to always have her picture up where she wore hijab. One day I noticed she didn’t have it on so I messaged her because I was genuinely concerned. She told me that she had been attacked coming out of a mall at night on her way to the parking lot. They screamed racial slurs at her. After that, she did not want to wear the hijab. I felt really sad about it and I still do.”
Discrimination and judgment from others may stem from the idea that the hijab is oppressing women, and their stares could be a form of silent protest about that. Leila debunks this by saying, “Hijab is not just a head covering; I also have a brain. I’m allowed to think for myself. I am not oppressed because Allah is against the oppressors, this is very clear in the Quran. Women have many rights due to Islam. It may not seem that way in other countries so I’m here to tell you it’s wrong. If women are being oppressed because of culture and tradition, it is not Islam. People often confuse Islam with culture and they don’t mix.”
After engaging with several Muslim women about what the hijab means to them and what reactions they have received as a result of wearing it, I decided to get some first hand experience. I bought a hijab from an Islamic clothing store and decided to spend three hours walking around Dublin city doing things I would normally do to see what reaction I would receive. In short, I didn’t last the three hours I had intended spending in the city.
From the moment I left my house I was stared at and it made me very uncomfortable, as I am not used to so many people looking at me. I also experienced several angry looks, all from women, as I passed them.
I only spent an hour and a half around the city but it got to the point where I was near tears and wanted to go home. I had experienced snide comments, a woman peeking under my umbrella as if to verify that I was wearing a hijab and outright stares from people. The worst part of my experience was when I was exiting a retail store and a group of teenage boys who had been at the front of the shop came rushing past me and one of them said, “Bomb!” and ran off. It was very shocking.
It was an eye opening experience, but not one that I would rush to participate in again. I spent some time during my experience with the hijab off, after removing it in a department store. I was wearing the same clothes and doing the same things and yet I felt so much better without the hijab on. I didn’t feel like anybody was looking at me strangely or judging me anymore. To me, this confirms that the reaction I experienced was a direct result of wearing hijab.
My experience makes me question the level of tolerance and tact in Irish society. We are known worldwide as welcoming and friendly people but what does that matter if we do not treat our fellow citizens with the same tolerance as we do our guests, whatever religion they may identify with.
The hijab is obviously a garment that is highly important and innately spiritual to some Muslim women and there is clear discrimination and judgement apparent, which I witnessed firsthand during my short-lived experiment. After several interviews, it is obvious that some degree of judgement and discrimination exists in Irish society against Muslim women who wear hijab and although the interviewees found the majority of Irish people tolerant, there is a minority of people that need to start accepting others for who they are, and a majority of us who need to think twice before staring.