Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Unveiling Romanian Muslim Women. an Inquiry into the Religious and Identity-Building Meanings of the Hijab

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Unveiling Romanian Muslim Women. an Inquiry into the Religious and Identity-Building Meanings of the Hijab

Article excerpt

Introduction

Undoubtedly, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror launched by the Bush administration have put Islam in the spotlight. In addition to the widespread public perception that being a Muslim is equivalent to being an Islamic fundamentalist, there are other factors that have contributed to the heightened global awareness of Islam and interest in the Muslim population1. According to Read2, such factors include growing immigration and the spread of Islamic teachings and ideas that are attractive to an increasing number of people and thus lead to conversion. Many scholars have inquired into the particularities of Muslim communities and populations, their beliefs and religion, their behavior in society, their values and interests. In the last decade, however, much Islamic scholarship has focused on the status of Muslim women and their representations in the Western world. It is widely acknowledged among both Muslims and non-Muslim researchers that the condition of women in Islam is largely misunderstood and, to a significant extent, misrepresented in the West3. Much research literature aims at correcting such misunderstandings. For instance, a great deal of studies examines the Islamic dress code, with a particular focus on the practice of veiling4. Nonetheless, the majority of research on veiling has been carried out in the U.S. or Western countries, both among Muslim-born women and converts, respectively. By comparison, studies on Muslim communities in Central and Eastern Europe are far more limited in number. With few notable exceptions5, a Central and Eastern European perspective in the debate about Islam and Muslim women has not been explored enough.

Drawing on the existent literature in the field and on in-depth interviews, we aim to examine the practice of wearing hijab by Romanian-born Muslim women. In our attempt to show the particularities of veiling among young Romanian Muslim women, we take into account the context, the meanings and values that these women attach to wearing the hijab and the consequences that such a practice has for their lives in the community and in the Romanian society at large. We hope that the results of our work will enrich the research literature on this topic and will add a new perspective on the status of Muslim women in Eastern Europe.

The Meanings and Perceptions of Veiling: Evidence from Previous Studies

A visible marker of religious identity, the hijab6 and the practice of veiling in general is an all-encompassing metaphor of Islam. In light of recent attempts of Muslim communities across the world to show successful integration, we witness renegotiations of their publicly assumed Islamic identity and reactions to Islamophobia, which are closely connected to an ongoing "re-Islamization process"7. Being more visibility in the public sphere has led to debates, controversy and criticism over the Islamic values and practices, and the hijab has accentuated such visibility and, consequently, it has intensified reflection on the condition of Muslim women and Muslim integration.

There is a unanimously held view in the literature on womanhood in Islam that the phenomenon of veiling is associated with the oppression of women. In the West, Islam has been often portrayed as oppressive of women, which, by contrast to the Western liberated attitude, has led to a popular (mis)belief that Islam is less democratic, less civilized and even inferior8. As a symbol of Muslim women's oppression, hijab has been transformed by the Western perception into a powerful negative stereotype9. Furthermore, wearing a hijab is considered to be equivalent with religious fundamentalism and extremism10. Women who veil, and thus make visible their religious identity, have sometimes gained the sympathy of many non-Muslims who have pitied them for being subjects to patriarchal oppression and sexism from within their communities. Woman's inferiority to man in Islam is blatantly misunderstood by the West. …

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