Book Review of The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States
The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States. By Bozena C. Welborne, Aubrey L. Westfall, Özge Çelik Russell, and Sarah A. Tobin. Ithaca: CornellUniversity Press, 2018. 264p. $115.00 cloth, $22.95 paper.
Rachel M. Gillum, Stanford University
Unlike in many European countries, Muslim women in the United States have the legally protected right to wear (or not wear) religious head coverings. However, by practicing this right, Muslim American women face consequences that can, in ways, limit their access to the full benefits ofAmerican citizenship. Because they are among the most visible adherents ofIslam, covered Muslim women are frequently targets of hostility and discrimination. This is especially true in the post-9/11 era, and more recently following the 2016 U.S. presidential race, where the country witnessed openly Islamophobic statements by politicians and national leaders, and a simultaneous spike in hate crimes and acts against Muslims.
The authors of The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States, Bozena C. Welborne, AubreyL. Westfall, Özge Çelik Russell, and Sarah A. Tobin, set out to investigate the effects of head covering on Muslim women’s social, religious and political lives. This timely book makes the case that while donning a headscarf is not typically meant to be an explicitly political act, the headscarf results in important social and political consequences for the women who wear them. It can both serve as a point around which to build community, socially engage, and feel included, but also can lead to political and social marginalization, affecting women’s political attitudes and actions.
The study offers important contributions to the literature on MuslimAmericans by investigating a minority segment of this growing and diverse religious population. Impressively, the authors capture the views of nearly2000 women from 49 U.S. states. Surveying Muslim Americans is particularly difficult because they comprise a relatively small percentage of the overallAmerican population (estimates suggest around one percent), and the true composition of the community is unknown because the U.S. Census does not ask individuals to identify their religion. So though not statistically representative of the community, this study offers an important empirical contribution that advances our understanding of the unique experiences and perspectives of this group. The study is further enriched by seventeen focus groups from which the authors were able to capture the nuanced perspectives of these women and how they are experiencing life in America.
The book explores Muslim women’s expressed reason for wearing a headscarf, their experiences of “othering” as a result, and the dynamics it creates among other Muslims of various backgrounds. Head covering is almost universally framed by respondents in this study as a free choice, with most citing reasons of piety, stating it is a requirement of their faith.
In what appears to be the central analysis of the study, the authors address the relationship between choosing to wear the headscarf and political engagement. They theorize that the mosque and other social and religious organizations support political mobilization through the diversity of networks to which one is exposed. They observe, however, that despite their covered respondents attending mosque at a higher rate, these women tend to be significantly less politically engaged than their non-Muslim counterparts.
The authors suggest that while the positive effect of mosque attendance on political participation holds for their covered respondents, a conflicting effect is also at play. They argue that the primary mechanism through which the headscarf negatively impacts political participation is through covered women’s more religiously homogenous social circles—primarily maintaining friendships with and marrying almost exclusively other Muslims—which are themselves a result of the “othering” they experience in the broader society and their desire to socialize with like-minded individuals. The authors assert that these women, in turn, have a heightened sense of dissatisfaction and disengagement with a political system that has been largely non-responsive to Muslims, and has not upheld its side of the “bargain” in protecting their rights of citizenship. This thesis has the potential to provide important nuance to some of the conflicting research about the role of mosques in promoting Muslim engagement within the American political system and should be explored further.
In total, this study lays an essential foundation toward understanding the reasons behind women’s choice to cover and the political and social consequences they face in the United States for this decision. The authors also touch on several important potential mitigating factors to their findings that are ripe opportunities for future research. I will touch on these issues in the space remaining here.
How might covered women differ systematically from non-covered women in ways that could explain differences in their expressed religiosity and their social and political choices? For example, some research suggests that socioeconomics and desire to marry can influence Muslim women’s adoption of more conservative views and behavior (Lisa Bladyes and Drew Lizner, “The Political Economy of Women’s Support forFundamentalist Islam,” World Politics,60(4), 2008). While the authors do not explore the role of socioeconomics in their text, this could be an interesting line of future research given what we know about the effects of income and education on political engagement more generally in political science literature. Additionally, 91.4% of the study’s sample is composed of women married to Muslim partners— how might single women differ in their religiosity and political behavior? Though the composition of the respondents provides novel insight into the perspectives of covered women(upwards of 85% are covered), it will be imperative for future studies to examine and control for these additional factors in order to isolate the effect of the head scarf.
Relatedly, there is opportunity to further empirically explore the intersecting effects of race, ethnicity and immigration on these women’s choices and experiences.I applaud the authors for seeking racial, ethnic and generational diversity in their sampling and for highlighting some of these differences throughout the study. For example, in their focus group interviews and discussion of key literatures, the authors provide expressive consideration to the experience of AfricanAmerican Muslims, a group that is often overlooked in studies on MuslimAmericans. They find, as I do in my work, that despite the ideal of a“colorblind” ummah, racial and ethnic divisions still play a pronounced role in the dynamics of many Muslim American communities.
Given the author’s rich data, it would also have been informative to know whether these demographic differences—which are known to impact political views and participation in theUnited States—have similar or intervening effects on covered women’s political participation, for example. Similar to the authors, my work suggests a strong relationship between perceived discrimination and feelings of closeness with the MuslimAmerican community. However, I find that this effect is strongest with Black and Arab Muslims who were born in the United States and minimal among certain immigrant communities. Also, as the authors note, experiences abroad can significantly shape political perceptions and behavior in the United States. My work shows these effects can be sticky and vary based on the country from which one came, how old they were when they immigrated, and how long they have lived in the United States. I also find that political participation and diversity of social networks increases across generations within the Muslim community. Given that the authors were able to capture so many foreign-born women in their sample, the field would benefit from understanding how these varied experiences interact with women’s decision to cover or engage politically.
Finally, as scholars continue to study the experiences and attitudes ofMuslims in the United States and globally, research designs should account for the unique types of interviewer effects that might influence survey and interview responses for this population. Evidence from my past work suggests that the mere presence of other covered women can elicit more pious responses from survey and interview participants, with the strongest effects among younger, poorer and less educated women (Lisa Blaydes and Rachel Gillum, “Religiosity-of-interviewer effects: Assessing the impact of veiled enumerators on survey response in Egypt,” Politics & Religion, 6(3),2013). Could it be that having asked about one’sreligious views in a group of other veiled women— or being asked to fill out a survey based on one’s decision to veil –could impact responses toward questions of religiosity? Though it appearsthat the authors may have been explicit in seeking out women who covered for their survey, they note that some of their focus groups were comprised entirely of women who covered while others were mixed. Depending on the details of the study design, they may be able to revisit their data to assess whether such“interviewer effects” were at play in their focus groups, which could constitute a substantial contribution to the field of research methodology.
Overall, this excellent study provides much needed voice to an often-discussed, but rarely heard from group with implications for Muslim social integration, political identity and mobilization. This book is a must read for scholars interested in studying Muslims or other religious minorities in western societies, as well as those who are more broadly interested in topics relating to religious andAmerican identity, race and ethnicity, and politics.