For the third year in a row, Muslims have been more likely to report experiencing religious discrimination. In the United States, 61% of Muslims have reported religious discrimination in the past year alone, while less than 30% of Catholics, Evangelicals, and members of the general public have reported religious discrimination.
Among the Muslim community, the statistics of those experiencing religious discrimination differ among gender. Muslim women are suffering more than Muslim men when facing religious discrimination. 69% of women reported religious discrimination compared to only 57% of men. Reasons for this difference have been attributed to the fact that women are more likely to wear visible symbols of their faith, such as a hijab or other head coverings. 46% of Muslim women report always wearing a visible symbol that makes their faith known while 19% report wearing a symbol some of the time. With an obvious indicator of their religious beliefs, women become targets of overt acts of religious discrimination in public spaces.
Muslim women chose to wear religious attire for multiple reasons. The most common reason is that women feel that it is a religious obligation and a way to show piety to God. The second most common reason is for a sense of personal identity as Muslim. There are variations in Muslim religious attire and variations among those who choose to wear religious attire due to different interpretations of the Qur’an. In the Qur’an, there are no specifications on how much a woman is advised to cover but instead stresses the importance of modesty. In the Qur’an, Surah Al-Ahzab (33:59) states “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons [when abroad]: that is most convenient that they should be known [as such] and not molested: and Allah is Oft-forgiving, most merciful.” The Qur’an does not describe at what age women start this religious tradition. The age in which women start tends to vary from culture to culture. Some women start wearing religious attire when they start puberty while others start when they get married.
In the United States, Muslim women are legally allowed to wear their religious attire in their workplace, public facilities, airports, public schools, courtrooms and when having their photographs taken for government identification cards. Wearing religious attire is protected across the country by the First Amendment and Title Ⅶ. The First Amendment states that the federal government cannot make any laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion. Title Ⅶ, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s employment section, bans “employment discrimination based on race as well as characteristics such as national origin, sex, or religion.” In the same act, Title II and Title III focuses on protections in public accommodations (such as hotels, restaurants, etc.) and public facilities. Yet, women of faith are still being told they cannot wear their head coverings. In America, Muslims are more likely to be perceived negatively than any other ethnic and religious groups. In a survey where Americans rated different religious and ethnic groups based on favorability, Muslims were rated least favorably. However, Muslim women were more likely than men to answer “strongly agree” to the question of if they believe the general public views their religion negatively. Being perceived negatively has increased dramatically after September 11 attacks in 2001 (9/11) and the media’s constant portrayal of Muslims being linked to violence. In an Institute for Social Policy and Understanding report, a suspect of a completed violent act perceived to be Muslim will receive twice the amount of media coverage than a non- Muslim suspect. “Foiled” acts of violence thought to be done by a Muslim is likely to receive up to seven and a half times more coverage than a non-Muslim suspect. Even though Muslims are portrayed as violent in the media, the beliefs of American Muslims differ greatly from this. In a survey, compared to the general public, Muslims are more likely to condemn targeting and killing civilians as a crime that can never be justified. 59% of the general public agreed that it can never be justified while 76% of American Muslims agreed that it can never be justified. This shows that Muslim ideology does not support violence like the media often says it does.
The psychological strain of religious discrimination leads to feelings of shame, exclusion, and fear of prejudice and violence. In a case study, Muslim women described experiences that include others assuming they are an alien in the country they are a citizen of, others assuming they are unprofessional on the sole basis of their hijab, and others unfairly linking Islamic extremists to them. Consequently, some Muslim women are pushed towards voluntary social isolation.
While there are laws against religious discrimination, the systems in effect and research have not protected Muslim women enough. In a 2016 publication, the Pew Research Center stated that, in 2012 – 2013, there were no known reports of religious harassment due to religious attire in the United States. This shows the obvious gap in research since that same year, Disney was sued by a former employee who claimed that her supervisors and colleagues harassed her and forbade her from wearing her hijab. Existing research has no comprehensive statistics that access the severity of the discrimination and harassment that Muslim women face. There are many recent cases of Muslim women being denied the right to exist in their chosen identity while spending time in various public spaces. From schools, public transportation, restaurants, jobs, or even just walking on the street, Muslim women have been ostracized, verbally and physically assaulted, and denied opportunities.
One of the worst situations that a Muslim woman can find herself in while being discriminated against is to be verbally and physically assaulted. This happened to Umber Nisar in March 2019 when she was walking down the street towards her home in Brooklyn, New York. As she was walking down the street wearing her hijab, like she does on a daily basis, a man crossed the street and without provocation kicked her with brute-force. This incident was arguably a clear sign of hatred and prejudice against women who wear a hijab and the religion it represents. No one came to her aid, which makes it obvious that no one thought of her assault as an issue. In her most vulnerable state, onlookers responded to the assault as though it were a normal occurrence in America, as if religious discrimination and hate crimes are not critical issues in society. With this experience haunting her, she said “I think of my daughter, I think of my sister. I think of the other friends and family who live in this community, who walk in the same attire as I am right now.” Nisar is not the only Muslim woman who has been physically assaulted in recent years based on her religion. On a Bronx bus in May 2019, Fatoumata Camara, age 22, was beaten after a group of teens mocked her for her race and her religious attire. The harm they caused her resulted in far reaching consequences that has impacted her finances and health. Due to the teens’ prejudice and discrimination, Fatoumata accrued approximately $4000 of medical bill debt and a loss of $500 in personal belongings. The discrimination does not stop with the incident itself. Officials in charge of investigating failed to do a proper investigation. The District Attorney dropped the charges against the teens when Fatoumata was not able to identify the suspects in a photo lineup after the incident and after suffering a head injury. It was not until Fatoumata herself found the surveillance footage of the attack and brought it to the District Attorney’s office did the officials commit to take her case seriously.
Discrimination of Muslim women occur in all public spaces and can result in physical harm, mental health disorders, and barriers to job opportunities, social facilities, and social interactions. While there are constitutional laws and acts to protect religious freedom, federal policy has not proven effective in significantly preventing discrimination against Muslim women.