New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel


The Muslim New Yorker Dichotomy

By Omar Jameer

The past decade and a half has brought quite a lot of attention to American Muslims. While Muslims, like any other minority, have faced discrimination in the past, the level of it has increased greatly since 2001. Most often, a Muslim can be told apart based on his/her clothing. Clothing that denotes an individual’s Islamic faith, such as the hijab, burqa, and kuffi, among others, have become reasons for Muslims to become targets for discrimination. This begs the question: how do Muslims in New York City respond to the scrutiny of the public eye in the way they dress?

A renditioning of the intended design of Park51, the "Ground Zero Mosque"

A renditioning of the intended design of Park51, the “Ground Zero Mosque”

If any conversation about discrimination against those of the Islamic faith is to be had, the catastrophic events of September 11th, 2001 must be mentioned.

If any conversation about discrimination against those of the Islamic faith is to be had, the catastrophic events of September 11th, 2001 must be mentioned. The common understanding is that the perpetrators of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon claimed to be Muslims. The event has changed the perception of Muslims in New York from being a comparatively inconsequential minority to being scrutinized very closely for their religion. To illustrate this point, one might examine the “Ground Zero Mosque” debacle that occurred a few years back. Though planned for a long time, the building, to be named Park51, was to be an Islamic community center with a prayer space, food court, fitness center, and other things. The Islamic center was a decision by the Cordoba Initiative as a “gesture of peace and interfaith dialogue.” Despite these claims of the desire for peace, the center, called the “Ground Zero Mosque” by conservative dissenters, came under fire for purportedly being a symbol of Muslim conquest and an insult to the families of 9/11 victims. Whether the mosque was to be built or not was hotly debated; polls taken by various organizations reflected that most Americans thought the mosque should not be built, though a majority acknowledged the legal right for it to be built. Indeed, some of these dissenters were Muslims, as Paul Vitello reported in the New York Times near the start of the controversy in 2010.

The Islamic faith itself is a hot topic in the U.S. One only needs to flip on the television to see how often issues related to Islam are featured. These issues range from (ill-founded) Islamophobia to America’s involvement in combating the numerous Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East and Africa.

American Muslims make up just about one percent of the population, and it can only be

Muslims make up a very small, though growing, percentage of the U.S. population.

Muslims make up a very small, though growing, percentage of the U.S. population.

surmised that this amount of attention would affect them in numerous ways. Portrayals of Islam by the media is often done in a negative light; that attention given to Muslims tends to highlight the most news-worthy tidbits like extremism, the oppression of women by historically Islamic states, and, of course, “Sharia Law.”

Thus, those who follow Islam find themselves discriminated against because of their religion. The article “Costs of War” details the issue of racial profiling of peoples who are usually Muslim, Arabs and South-Asians. It cites that that since 2001 hate crimes against Muslims have elevated and that workplace discrimination has increased by 150 percent.

How often a Muslim is discriminated against, if at all, is correlated to the clothing he or she wears? Skin color or other aspects of appearance can be factors, but religious/cultural garb is a telling sign of a Muslim who is comfortable with his or her religion. For women, the hijab, jilbab, and niqab are examples of this clothing; for men, the jalabiyyah, bisht, kufi, turban, and sirwal are examples of such. These articles of clothing can make ones Islamic faith apparent and can thus lend to negative perceptions of individuals that chose to wear them, which in turn could lead to discriminatory actions against Muslims in schools, on the streets, in the workplace, and at airports.

It is not hard to see that the bulk of discrimination against Muslims based on clothing rests upon the shoulders of hijabis, or women who wear the hijab in religious observation. The purpose of the hijab is founded in modesty; the tenets of Islam require that Muslims dress in a humble matter, and the hijab is used to cover a woman’s hair, which is seen as a significant aspect of her beauty. It is true that Muslim women wear “Islamic” clothing more often than men simply because of the requirement of the headscarf; for men, western clothing can easily fulfill the requirements of modesty.

“You and your Muslims can go back to your terrorist country!”                               -Homeless Guy

How, then, does discrimination against Muslim women based on their clothing manifest itself? One young woman I spoke to described an instance in which she was harassed on the street for wearing a hijab. On the anniversary of 9/11, she was taking her kids home after she tutored them in Arabic when a drunk homeless man threw a beer can at her while saying, “You and your Muslims can go back to your terrorist country!” Situations like this, while uncommon, present a reason for a hijabi’s necessity of caution: fear. And what of the places in which Muslim women are supposed to be granted an increased measure of safety like schools and the workplace? While U.S. schools do not have the secular and punitive dress codes being enforced as French schools do, many Muslim students report having heard comments regarding their religion, especially hijabis, whose headscarves become reasons for aggressions like name-calling or the physical tugging of the hijab. In the workplace, Muslim women find that their religion can conflict with dress codes. While this in itself does not directly constitute discrimination, as it can be argued that companies have their profit as the foremost priority. However, with that in mind, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits “denial of reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious practices, unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer.”

It is difficult to surmise that such a simple adornment like a hijab would place such a hardship on a company that they would deny a woman employment, but that was precisely the case when Samantha Elauf applied for a sales job at Abercrombie & Fitch in 2008. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission decided that Abercrombie’s refusal to hire Ms. Elauf constituted discrimination based on religion. The EEOC represented Ms. Elauf when the case rose to the Supreme Court, and we are currently awaiting a decision. On the flip side, Abercrombie describes its dress code as neutral toward religion. By that reasoning there would have been no discriminatory intent on Abercrombie’s part; their refusal to hire Ms. Elauf would thus not be born of a nefarious intention, but rather strict business policy that they claim–since they do not want to sound as though they are discriminating– would make or break the company’s image. Whatever the decision is in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc. is, it is clear that Muslim women can have greater difficulty when applying for jobs because of their religious observation.

Muslim men tend to suffer less discrimination because western clothing can fulfill the demands of the religion.

And men? As I mentioned before, when strictly talking about clothing, Muslim men tend to suffer less discrimination because western clothing can fulfill the demands of the religion. Men who choose to wear clothing that is typically associated with Islam, however, can find themselves in a similar situation as women who wear the hijab. I’m recalling a time when I rode the C train, the worst train of MTA in all aspects, downtown while returning home from school with a close friend who happened to wear a turban. I stepped on the train, and watched as people were lazily sprawled on their seats­– it wasn’t crowded and it was hot. My friend stepped on the train and I watched as a few white folks by the door immediately sat upright and rigid, with the rigor of alertness now coming to their eyes. Not taking notice, my buddy sat down next to the mother and her two daughters and thereafter I watched as she repeatedly and nervously glanced at him and then got up hastily at the next stop and changed cars. No one can doubt that it was the fear of my friend, or rather, a fear of his turban, that drove the woman from her relaxation and from the train car–neither of us smelled or anything like that. The punch line? My friend is a Sikh, and I was the Muslim.

Similar reactions occur to kufīs and jalabiyyah among other articles of clothing. As such, Muslims who wear Islamic clothing, male or female, know better than any other people how such clothing, though it is an integral part of their religion, can change their everyday interactions with people. How do Muslims react in the way they dress? The young woman I spoke to who had a beer can thrown at her gave a distinct reasoning for not wearing a hijab: pity. There is a common perception by many that Islam is an oppressive religion to women and that the hijab is the main instrument of this oppression. She described the look she gets because others think she is oppressed as a “pity face,” and because of the judgments of outsiders, she chooses not to wear the hijab. Men, it can be easily observed, are much less likely to wear Islamic clothing here in New York than where they came from, stemming both from a pull toward assimilation and the push of discrimination against those who wear traditionally Muslim clothing.

Yet many Muslims, especially women, for whom it is certainly more difficult to assimilate while wearing a hijab, still find themselves wearing Islamic clothing and some even champion wearing such clothing. After all, this is New York, a far more diverse place than most others in America. The best way, some would say, to combat discrimination based on Muslim clothing would be to wear it proudly– people will get used to it.

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