Marking women as targets of religious discrimination based on clothing is nothing new, but it is on the rise around the world, new research shows.
“Women in 56 countries experienced social hostilities — that is, harassment from individuals or groups — due to clothing that was deemed to violate religious or secular dress norms” from 2016 to 2018, the Pew Research Center said in a recently released survey.
“Social hostilities” are defined in the study as anything ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence, including killings, motivated at least partly due to the religious identity of women.
Governments often are instigators, as well. Pew found that strict rules were in place on women’s dress, usually mandating or forbidding head coverings, in 61 nations.
“The number of countries where women faced social hostilities and government-imposed restrictions related to their dress has risen in the five most recent years of the study.”
The survey brought back memories for Nell Green, who served as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in West Africa, Europe and Houston before transitioning to South Carolina in September.
Throughout her travels, Green said she has witnessed both the government and social forms of religious restrictions on women around dress codes.
“I have spent time in the Middle East were women have to wear a hijab,” she said. “And if you don’t, in certain countries you can go to jail.”
Even having the head covering come off by accident can be a harrowing experience in certain places.
“I was on a plane one time in the Middle East, and my head covering had flipped off without me knowing,” Green recalled. “The flight attendant came running up to me and grabbed my scarf and put it back on me. Scared me to death. It was really hard to always remember to keep it on.”
But as the Pew survey noted, women of faith also may face restrictions in stringently secular cultures.
Women of faith also may face restrictions in stringently secular cultures.
“In certain places in Europe, you can’t wear a cross. My children got in trouble with cross earrings,” Green said. “In these places no T-shirts with religious implications are allowed. In some of the countries in Europe, it’s not so much freedom of religion as it is freedom from religion, and when you wear these symbols in public spaces it is taken as you trying to push your faith or proclaim it.”
Muslim women in those societies are often torn between extreme family pressure to wear head coverings and government or social rules opposed to them, she said.
It’s not a phenomenon she’s witnessed often in the United States. “We have pockets of people in the U.S. offended by the hijab, but for the most part I have seen acceptance of it because we don’t have as much of an issue with religious symbolism.”
According to Pew, in most of the nations — 42 of 56 — where social harassment occurred, the targeted women had violated secular dress norms. “In 19 countries, women were harassed for not adhering to religious dress codes, such as by not wearing head coverings or dressing in other ways deemed offensive to religious norms.”
And women in Russia, Germany, India, Indonesia and Israel were the targets of both kinds of discrimination, Pew said.
Europe had the most countries where women faced social hostilities for violating dress norms.
“Europe had the most countries where women faced social hostilities for violating dress norms, with incidents recorded in 20 countries, or 44% of the 45 nations in the region. In all of these cases, Muslim women faced discrimination, physical violence and other forms of abuse for wearing head coverings.”
Women faced both kinds of pressures in other parts of the world, the survey found. In sub-Saharan Africa, women deemed too religious in their dress were harassed in four countries and for violating faith-based clothing requirements in three.
“In parts of Kenya, for example, a teacher’s union reported in 2018 that female teachers were required to wear hijabs, while in Liberia, Muslim women reportedly experienced workplace discrimination for wearing headscarves,” the report noted.
Pew reported cases from the Americas, too. “In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, a Muslim teacher at a Hindu school in 2018 was told to remove her hijab or leave the premises. And in Canada in 2016, a woman spit on and pulled the hijab and hair of a Muslim shopper in a supermarket in Ontario.”
Laws controlling the hijabs for women, beards for men and other religious symbols were reported in 21 of 45 European countries, 16 nations in the Asia-Pacific region and nine each in the Middle East-North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa region, Pew said. Six nations in the Americas had such rules.