By Sahar Aziz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sahar Aziz is a fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and an associate professor of Texas Wesleyan School of Law. She serves as the president of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. The views expressed are her own.
In October, in a blatant act of discrimination, a Muslim woman wearing a veil in an Oklahoma bank was reportedly told she had to be escorted from the door to the teller. The Valley National Bank in Tulsa stated that this was not an act of religious discrimination, but rather part of their “no hat, no hood” policy instituted to allow security to clearly identify and take surveillance pictures of customers.
But as Executive Director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Adam Soltani said, "singling out Muslim women or other people of faith who wear religiously mandated head coverings that do not hinder identification is inappropriate and discriminatory."
According to the Pew Research Center, 43 percent of the roughly 1 million Muslim women in America wear headscarves. That’s a significant number of women in this country who face potential difficulties based on their decision to practice their faith the way they see fit. Yet their unique civil rights challenges are not reflected in any substantive way in the agendas of American Muslim organizations, who dance around the issue of gender, or among American feminist groups, who don’t want to touch issues of religion with a ten foot barge pole.
With the American public generally still suspicious of Muslims, evidence increasingly suggests that for American Muslim women, the “veil” now “marks” them as representatives of the suspect, inherently violent, and forever foreign “terrorist other” in our midst.
A recent policy brief published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, shows that Muslim women of all races and levels of religiosity face unique forms of discrimination at the intersection of religion, race, and gender because of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Consequently, these women are caught in the crosshairs of national security conflicts that profoundly affect their lives – including the safety of their family and their economic prospects – and receive inadequate support from advocacy groups focused on defending Muslims, women’s rights or civil liberties post-9/11. With the number of bullying cases against Muslim children and employment discrimination cases filed by American Muslim women on the rise, American women’s organization must stand up and take notice.
While these women’s rights groups have focused on equal pay, abortion rights, and other gender-specific issues certainly benefit Muslim women, the American women’s rights agenda fails to address the unique forms of subordination experienced by American Muslim women and the challenges faced by many other religious groups. With 86 percent of American women affiliated with a faith tradition, exploring issues of women’s rights and religion is a critical issue.
This exclusion from the agenda is the latest iteration of the ongoing challenge faced by Western feminists to remain relevant in an increasingly diverse and complicated conversation on women’s rights in this country. Add the element of religion, specifically American Muslim women who cover their hair, and traditionally progressive feminist organizations get nervous. Ironically, feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation have consistently called for banning the burqa and spoken in defense of women’s rights in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern nations while remaining silent on an American Muslim woman’s right to wear the headscarf free of discrimination and violence. They might address the fact that civil rights are abused when it comes to religious women’s rights; however, they don’t take issue and support the gender rights of these women through concerted campaigns.
What will it take for a woman’s choice to cover her hair based on her religious beliefs to be seen as a civil and woman’s right? Whether a woman wants to take off the burqa in Afghanistan or wants to wear the headscarf in Oklahoma, women’s rights organizations must remain consistent in their support of choice and yes, freedom to practice religion in the way that aligns with a woman’s core beliefs.
In the end, a woman’s rights are about personal autonomy to choose her life’s path, not whether we approve of it.