Updated: Oct 18, 2021
*It is important to note that this article doesn’t address all misconceptions about Muslim women and it may not answer all of your questions about Islam. Please educate yourself about Islam in more ways than just reading this article.*
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not Muslim. Although there are almost two billion Muslims worldwide, Muslims only make up about 1.1% of the United States population, so misconceptions about them are common, especially about Muslimah — women who follow Islam.
Muslimah are often ridiculed for their choice of clothing and their religious behavior. As Western observers make ignorant assumptions about Muslim women, they augment islamophobia, the fear of the Islamic religion, essentially demeaning Muslim women.
Non-Muslims Believe Hijab-Wearing Muslimah are Oppressed
Often, non-Muslims recognize a Muslim woman by way of her hijab or veil. Although people have discussed the piece of cloth countless times, there is confusion about what it represents.
While the head covering for Muslimah is called the “hijab,” the word “hijab” is never mentioned in Islam’s holy book, the Quran. In chapter 24, verse 32 of the Quran, God advises women to draw a veil over their chest and neck instead of only wrapping it around their heads as women used to when the Prophet Muhammed, Islam’s last messenger, received revelations of the Quran’s verses. Fundamentalists have explicated this instruction, and there is much debate about how Muslim women should and shouldn’t cover their bodies. While various Muslim women worldwide wear the hijab in different styles according to what they believe, others choose not to. “Just because I chose to wear the hijab, doesn’t mean I choose to represent every Muslim woman out there,” TEDx speaker Sall Beydound said at a conference.
Countless hijabis, or women who wear the hijab, wear it as a representation of their faith. However, others may wear it in “solidarity” with their culture or “because it is the normal practice in their family or community.”
Women who wear the hijab are instructed by the Quran to do so willingly and with comfort. “The Muslim woman who has been truly guided by her faith and has received a sound Islamic education does not wear hijab just because it is a custom or tradition inherited from her mother or grandmother, as some foolish men and women try to describe it with no evidence or logic whatsoever,” according to Dr. Muhammad Ali Al-Hashimi’s The Ideal Muslimah.
Even though various countries mandate hijab-wearing, it is a personal choice in Islam and is simply a way of showing modesty, which the Quran addresses for both women and men. Moreover, nowhere in the Quran are men instructed to oppress women. Islam supports women’s liberation and allows them to choose whether they want to show their hair and body. Islam essentially opposes the emphasis of women’s sexual appeal and appearance, and in doing so, destructs societal beauty standards that exist today.
Islam Encourages Muslim Women’s Education
People use the broad concept of the hijab when they claim that Islam subjects Muslim women to harsh treatment and considers them inferior to men.
According to the Quran, men and women are spiritually equal and can enjoy aspects such as freedom, education, and expression (among others). In chapter 33, verse 36, the Quran clearly states identical requirements for men and women to “receive forgiveness and a great reward.” In chapter 9, verse 71 of the Quran, men, and women are considered each other’s guardians. Furthermore, here’s the Prophet Muhammad’s reminder: “Women are the Twin Halves of Men.”
Not only are there countless other verses in the Quran where God refers to men and women alike and affirms their equality in Islam, but He also repeatedly criticizes the humiliation and ill-treatment of women that occurred during jahiliyyah (before the advent of Islam). In chapter 16, verses 58, 59, and 60, God condemns man’s unhappy reaction at a female’s birth. The Quran also denounces females’ infanticide in chapter 81, verses nine and ten, which continues to happen in parts of the world today.
Anyone who critiques Islam as a religion promoting misogynistic behavior and patriarchy has not understood the Quran.
Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s al-Muhaddithat: the women scholars in Islam includes countless women who were experts of hadith, the Prophet Muhammad’s actions and words. The book describes Muslim women’s prominent role in Islam and proves that they need not be solely mothers and wives. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Nadwi wrote on page 16 of the book.
Furthermore, Islam allows Muslimah to pursue knowledge and encourages them to achieve in their fields of study. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Prophet Muhammad sought information and advice from women. The wives of the Prophet are examples of pious Muslim women who were authorities in the community.
The Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, was a successful businesswoman. She was also an older widow than the Prophet and the first female who converted to Islam. Aishah bint Abu Bakr, Prophet Muhammad’s third wife, was a prominent Islamic scholar and teacher credited with translating over 1200 hadith.
Therefore, whoever claims that Islam prohibits women from educating themselves or pursuing a career is making historically inaccurate statements that disagree with the Quran.
Media’s False Representation of Muslim Women Creates Misconceptions
According to Muslims for American Progress, over 80% of news coverage in the U.S. portrays Muslims negatively. The Muslim Council of Britain also found that “most coverage of Muslims in British news outlets has a negative slant,” which contributes to the islamophobia increasing since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
A study administered by Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge shows that Muslim women are characterized by mass media as “victims of their own culture and a threat to ours.” Another study by Narjis Hyder, C.A. Parrington, and Mariam Hussain found that Muslim women in the U.S. face discrimination more often than Muslim men, perhaps because many wear a headscarf.
Television shows and movies often represent Muslim women as submissive creatures who need saving, which demeans their right to make decisions. Hijabis on television are only happy when their scarf is off. While this may be true for Muslim women who unwillingly wear the hijab, it is inaccurate to assume that all hijabis are miserable.
Naturally, as humans, not only do we fear the unknown, but our brains make assumptions about what we don’t know. Few Americans know a Muslim, let alone a Muslim woman, which is why misconceptions about them exist.
Perhaps if people ask Muslim women questions before they jump to conclusions about who the women are, the fear and confusion that hit them won’t consume them. Someone (unknown) wisely lays down: “Before you assume, learn the facts. Before you judge, understand why. Before you hurt someone, feel. Before you speak, think.”
Through Teen Lenses: Do you know of any misconceptions about Muslim women?
“One major misconception of Muslim women that exists today is that women are oppressed. I have had countless encounters of people assuming that I was forced into dressing modestly or forced into wearing the hijab. The truth is, in Islam, no one is forced to do anything. You can’t force a woman to wear a hijab or dress a certain way. Wearing the hijab was a decision I took myself and have not regretted. To prevent making these assumptions, it is imperative to recognize that religion is a choice. Islam doesn’t force anything, and people do it out of choice. Unfortunately, the media shows a side of Islam that is not true, so it is important to realize that the media isn’t always right. Also, if you have any questions, ask them respectfully to prevent any derogatory remarks. People are more than happy to answer your questions as long as they are said nicely!” Tasnim Ullah, 17, Senior at Clarksburg High School, Germantown, Maryland
“I’ve recently started wearing the hijab, Alhamdulillah, and have seen a huge difference before and after. Firstly, all the questions I got asked about why I ‘had’ to wear the hijab, asking if I am being forced was a little disappointing since the common misconception is that Muslim women are oppressed or ‘forced’ to wear the hijab. I had to clarify that it’s not that I have to, no one’s forcing me, it’s a personal choice I am making for myself just like you woke up this morning and picked an outfit of your choice. Another misconception I felt with my hijab was that people assumed I would be narrow-minded or backward until proven otherwise, just because I choose to dress modestly. I think these assumptions can’t be avoided unless a) there’s awareness of how liberating Islam is towards Muslim women b) they know you on a personal level to know that there is no oppression or lack of choice involved.” Maryum Feroz, 18, Sophomore at Montgomery College, Gaithersburg, Maryland
“A major misconception about Muslim women is that we’re always the ‘victim’ in every situation. We’re victim to our culture, our religious beliefs, our families, etc. While it’s true that that’s the case sometimes, assuming that every Muslim woman you meet must be victimized in order to be heard so disrespectful. We should be uplifted for the fact that we’re strong, smart, and capable, rather than being fawned over by people with ‘savior’ complexes.” Asma Tariq, 17
“Many people like to assume they know about Islam, specifically how Muslim women are viewed in Islam. One common misconception is that Muslim women are supposedly oppressed because we wear the hijab or certain things we can and can’t do. I believe that if people genuinely want to learn and understand, they should keep an open mind and take some time to ask a Muslim person about Islam. I’m sure that most of us would love to answer any questions they may have. There are many things online and in books, so people can also research with reliable resources. If they have some free time, they could visit a mosque to see what Muslims do and maybe even talk to some people there.” Fatima Ahmed, 18, Freshman at Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland
“One misconception that I think is pretty prevalent is that we’re very sheltered in our exposure to Western culture. Especially for hijabis, while the idea that we’re “oppressed” is slowly starting to fade away thanks to the availability of information on social media and stuff, I feel like there’s still this underlying idea that we aren’t exposed to things like pop culture and don’t have our niche interests. As for the way to avoid making assumptions, I guess it’s just important to realize that while being Muslim ties us together, that itself does not make up our whole persona. Each one of us has our own experiences and ideas, so it would be great if people could get to know us for who we are rather than how we express ourselves spiritually.” Farah Reyal, 17, Freshman at the University of Maryland