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Muslim women, forgotten women?

By Julie Pascoët, Senior Advocacy Officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR)

8 March 2016 - Today we are celebrating International Women’s Day. There’s still a long way to go before we achieve real equality between women and men in Europe, but it’s even further away when it comes to Muslim women or those perceived as such.

Indeed, women seem to bear the brunt of Islamophobia in Europe, as they face discrimination and violence that are both sexist and racist. A recent report by the French Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF) shows that 74% of victims of islamophobic incidents were women. This figure goes up to 82% when it comes to islamophobic violence.

This gendered dimension of Islamophobia can be seen in several European countries and is due to several combined factors. First, Muslim women are often easily identifiable when they wear clothes perceived as ‘religious’, like a headscarf. The portrayal of these women in media and political discourses is also extremely stigmatising and tensions seem to focus around the headscarf, which is seen as an ‘obstacle to integration’. Then there is also the fact that certain religious practices are treated as intrinsically contrary to gender equality and that mainstream feminist arguments are increasingly used in racist and xenophobic discourses.

But the reality of Muslim women’s experiences of discrimination is at best unrecognised and at worst ignored. A new project by the European Network Against Racism aims to address this gap by documenting the impact of Islamophobia on women and the links between Islamophobia and sexism in eight EU countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom). Focusing on racist violence and employment practices, it will make concrete recommendations to European and national decision makers to address this issue. This project also allows for exchanges and partnerships between Muslim women, feminist and anti-racism organisations, to counter prejudices on either side and find commonalities in their struggles.

Discrimination experiences of Muslim women are linked as much to their gender as to their religion or perceived religion

Preliminary findings from the research show that discrimination experiences of Muslim women are linked as much to their gender as to their religion or perceived religion. Muslim women suffer the same inequalities as all women experience – the gender pay gap, difficulties in accessing employment, the glass ceiling, violence – but these are compounded by additional factors such as ethnicity, social class or wearing ‘religious’ clothing such as the headscarf. For example, in the Netherlands, 76% of discrimination complaints on the basis of religion came from women. In Belgium, 44% of recruiters admitted that the headscarf has a negative impact on selection. In the UK, 1 in 2 women wearing the hijab felt they had ‘missed out on progression opportunities because of religious discrimination and that the wearing of the hijab had been a factor’.

The ban on wearing the headscarf in the public sector in certain countries (France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands) is often used as an argument to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols in the private sector. The study also shows that Muslim women adopt different strategies to avoid or minimise the risk of being discriminated against: self-exclusion, drop-out, alternative choices, etc.

As for physical and verbal violence, ‘visibly’ Muslim women are targeted frequently with verbal abuse that can escalate to assault, making them more likely targets of racist violence. The CCIF in France reports that perpetrators target both Islamic symbols (e.g. tearing a headscarf off) and their victim’s body (e.g. sexual abuse), and insults are both islamophobic and sexist.

It is therefore urgent to end the exclusion and violence that Muslim women face. Measures to promote equality between women and men must include an intersectional approach and protect against multiple discrimination, including on the basis of gender and religion. In addition, existing laws prohibiting discrimination in employment must be better implemented to ensure Muslim women are protected in this field. Finally, EU Member States must adopt strategies to combat Islamophobia, or at least include specific measures in their action plans against racism, and also address the gender dimension in these plans.

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