Hijab: A choice to be respected and encouraged

06 July, 2011, Marieke Jasperse

New Zealand prides itself on being a culturally diverse and inclusive society. Yet recent events suggest visibly Muslim women continue to bear the brunt of discrimination.

Our research suggests that wearing hijab may effectively diminish the negative consequences of being visibly Muslim in New Zealand. This choice should therefore be respected and encouraged.

The choice of wearing hijab is a complex form of personal, cultural, religious and political symbolism.

Research by Ward and Masgoret (2008) has shown that New Zealand is for the most part a racially tolerant society. New Zealanders endorse multicultural ideology to a greater extent than Australians and citizens of European Union countries do. But this contradicts a more recent study by Stuart and Ward (2009) on immigrants to New Zealand who came from predominantly Muslim countries in Asia (e.g., Malaysia, Pakistan), Africa (e.g. Somalia) and the Middle East (e.g. Iran, Iraq). These people are perceived more negatively than immigrants from other countries in Asia and Africa (e.g. India, Philippines, South Africa) and those from Europe, North America and the Pacific).

Further research by Jasperse and Ward (2009) has shown that Muslim women are particularly vulnerable to these negative attitudes whilst wearing hijab, the distinctive style of head dress associated with Islam. The results of a survey distributed throughout Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington indicated that although the frequency of perceived discrimination was generally quite low and tended to be subtle, women who wore highly visible hijab experienced significantly more discrimination.

This is consistent with survey research conducted by Stuart and Ward (2009): they found only 15 percent of New Zealanders believed that it is okay for a woman to wear a headscarf wherever she wanted. Almost half (47%) agreed that New Zealand is no place for burqas.

Why would Muslim women continue to cover themselves up here? Whilst the women who participated in the Jasperse and Ward study (2009) acknowledged that being visibly Muslim increased their vulnerability to discrimination they also discussed how wearing hijab simultaneously exerted a positive protective function, making them feel protected, connected and confident. These women also reported significantly better psychological outcomes, namely higher life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of psychological distress.