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'All women live under the male gaze, but the European hijab ruling feels like the eye of Sauron'

World Hijab Day allowed me to see the hijab for what it is – not a threat, not a tool of oppression – but a reflection of care for others and sense of belonging, writes Sinead Mercier.

Sinead Mercier Researcher, Irish Green Party

THREE YEARS AGO, I walked into university to attend a conference on the meaning of traditional clothing in the West of Ireland. It was called “Threads of Discovery: Cloth, Clothes and Culture” and, by some strange and fortunate coincidence, this conference and NUIG’s Malaysian society World Hijab Day event were in two rooms side by side.

World Hijab Day is the 1st February every year when Muslim women dress others with the hijab in order to promote the Day’s motto of “Better Awareness. Greater Understanding. Peaceful World”.

I was assured I wasn’t appropriating but instead it would be a chance to find out for myself the reality of wearing a piece of clothing truly imbued with meaning in not just the West of Ireland, but the Western world.

I’ve been subjected to pretty colourful jibes and jokes about redheads for much of my life, yet I have never endured serious abuse for what was on my head. I’m privileged to be part of the scenery, fading into an abundant crop of pasty Galwegian redheads.

Listening to the open, kind and funny members of NUIG’s Malaysian and Muslim societies recount their stories of public and official abuse, whilst wearing myself the otherwise innocuous object of their persecution, it brought home to me how unjust and cruel their treatment was.

Love and kindness

To be able to experience wearing the headscarf in such a friendly atmosphere was a privilege, but I felt odd and appropriating.

I’m grateful for that chance for allowing me to see the hijab for what it is – not a threat, not a tool of oppression – but a reflection of care for others, a love of one’s culture and sense of belonging.

Women expressing their identity and self must be respected and supported, rather than seen as helpless victims of oppression or a target for violence.

European Court ruling

0063 European hijab ban protest copy Demo outside the European Parliament Office in Dublin in protest of the European Court of Justice ruling allowing employers to stop their workers wearing the hijab. Pictured is Amram Abdalla, originally from Somalia. RollingNews.ie Source: RollingNews.ie

I find the recent case from the European Court of Justice appalling in light of that February day in 2014 and the headscarf-wearing friends I have made over the years, many of them avowed feminists.

The European Court ruled that you can’t fire someone because your customers don’t like being served by a woman in a headscarf. However, it appears you can fire a headscarf-wearing employee if after you employ them a customer complains and you subsequently formalise an informal rule requiring all employees to dress “neutrally”.

All women live under the male gaze, but for a European court to puts its focus on a piece of cloth on the heads of a tiny proportion of the EU population feels decidedly like the eye of Sauron.

The EU has done little to protect Irish women from death and disability under the anti-abortion and anti-contraception stance of religious institutions. It has done even less to protect Ireland’s poorest cohort in the workplace – single mothers – from EU-imposed austerity.

Furthermore, from a gender equality perspective, this ruling will further alienate Muslim women and prevent them from strengthening their economic independence and their emancipation.

Whatever your stance on religion or feminism, it is also frightening that an employer could have such power over how an individual chooses to express deeply held beliefs.

Legitimising across all workplaces the intrusion of consumer, corporate or managerial desire – unconnected to any health or safety concerns – into the everyday life of an employee is a dangerous precedent to set.

This case also cannot be pulled from a context in which the EU moves to militarise its borders as 3,740 refugees – many Muslim and many fleeing wars Europeans have stoked and started – died in Mediterranean waters in 2016 alone.

European Principles

There is no doubt that in an increasingly globalised world, as all that is solid melts into air and nationalism rises to fill the void, the EU is seeking common principles with which to define itself.

Will the EU define itself by borders, increasingly privatised and increasingly lethal? Will our common European culture be dictated by a minority of multinational corporations profiting from the disintegration of a people’s dignity? Or will we define ourselves by excluding others as we begin in Ireland to uncover plot upon unmarked plot of unmarried mothers and their stolen children?

With my upbringing as an Irish Catholic in an internationalist EU, came the duty to understand and accept faith and culture in other forms as but one of the myriad mediums through which people give effect to love and kindness in their lives.

A far more wholesome option, would be to see the great beauty in seeking to live lives along guidelines of understanding, love and kindness to others, a promise which World Hijab Day’s motto “Better Awareness. Greater Understanding. Peaceful World” reflects.

Sinead Mercier is a researcher for the Irish Green Party and has worked with Amnesty International, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

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About the author:

Sinead Mercier  / Researcher, Irish Green Party

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