Muslim Women: Strangers by Nature?

Oumaya Amghar Ait Moussa

Project Assistant, European Institute of the Mediterranean

Muslim women are subjected to a series prejudices and negative stereotypes related to their faith, Islam, including the idea that inequalities between men and women in Muslim-majority countries are due to religion. However, patriarchy already existed. Other prejudices concerning Muslim women are the lack of education or the use of the hijab. Nevertheless, although in some countries its use is imposed, in others it is a way for women to take control over their bodies and adopt a form of dressing with which they feel comfortable. In Europe, women wearing the hijab have been the object of a discrimination which, in the case of France, has led the government to take prohibitive measures that challenge the rights of these women, who are by far the main victims of Islamophobia in Europe. Given that the fight for equality between men and women goes beyond any religion, politics or culture, governments should focus on taking egalitarian legal measures and enable access to education for women, who will have greater capacity to choose from the life options available.

“Oppressed”, “passive”, “veiled”, “illiterate”, “marginalised”, “weak”, “threat”, “sheltered”, “limited”, these are some of the terms used when describing or thinking about Muslim women. The perception of Muslim women is riddled with prejudices and negative stereotypes, which happens as a consequence of their religious affiliation: Islam. Sometimes there is a perverse surprise among some people that Muslim women can play sports and win trophies, such as Ibtihaj Muhammad or Ons Jabeur; can be politicians, such as Ilhan Omar or Fatima Hamed; can be top models, such as Halima Aden; can work in farms, factories and restaurants; can be doctors, academicians, lawyers, engineers, scientists, singers, actresses, soldiers in the military; or win Nobel Peace Prizes, such as Shirin Ebadi or Malala Yousafzai.

The debate is often based on the assumption that culture and, more especially, religious beliefs explain gender inequality in Muslim-majority countries. Lilia Abu-Lughod once pointed out that “the question is why knowing about the culture of the region, and particularly its religious beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history. […] Instead of political and historical explanations, experts were being asked to give religion-cultural ones.”1 Besides, Lurdes Vidal points out that “the imaginary about the Arab and Muslim world is full of negative connotations, with an unhealthy fixation on religion as the key to interpret everything that happens in it.”2

However, it is important to keep in mind that in Muslim-majority countries or communities, civil laws have wider-reaching “gender effects” than any religious personal status law. In addition, Islam is not the only religion in the region, although it is often painted as such in mainstream media coverage.3 In other words, the prevalence of religion, Islam in this case, in the legal sphere and in terms of gender policies is continually overemphasised by media coverage. Civil laws are made by men, not God.

In this context, Muslim women are infantilised because the image established in the cultural imaginary is that they are oppressed and need to be saved, and their freedom of choice is ignored. In this line of thought, Muslim women are not limited to choosing between their personal freedoms and their religious practice but have the capacity to act and make their own decisions. Thus, it is not about choices but about freedom, equality, rights.

An Approach to Gender Islamophobia As a consequence of the growth of Muslim communities in Europe, public debate about European Muslims has increased simultaneously with the politicisation of Islam. Therefore, Islamophobia has become an increasingly visible phenomenon in Europe. The first step in addressing Islamophobia is recognising its various forms. There are two types of Islamophobia: institutional and individual. Institutional Islamophobia refers to the discrimination against Muslims that could exist in various governments, law enforcement agencies and social institutions. On the other hand, individual Islamophobia refers to negative attitudes held by individuals towards Muslims or Muslim society as a whole. In both cases, these prejudices stem from misunderstanding and misinformation about Islam and Muslims.

The approach to gender-based Islamophobia must be highlighted because recent research on the topic shows that Muslim women are the main victims of Islamophobia because of the intersection between their gender-based and religious identities: they are women and they are Muslim, and that is made more evident through their clothing. In addition, if they are victims of other types of discrimination such as race, colour, and ethnic and social origins, this creates cumulative disadvantages, which makes the intersectional approach important.

Muslim women are the main victims of Islamophobia because of the intersection between their gender-based and religious identities

In this respect, a European comparative report that analysed the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women in the field of employment and hate crime found that Muslim women are the main targets of Islamophobic hate crime and speech, and violence, especially if they wear a headscarf. For instance, in the Netherlands and France, over 90% and 80%, respectively, of the victims of Islamophobic incidents reported in 2014 and 2015 were Muslim women, most of them wearing a visible religious symbol.4

Stereotypes and Prejudices

A stereotype is an immutable image, idea or notion commonly accepted without scientific basis held by one social group about another, because of opinions and prejudices about certain people. These stereotypes and prejudices may take the form of dislike, fear, discomfort or hatred and consequently lead to discrimination.

In the case of Muslims, the media, films, books, hate rhetoric and some actions of Muslims themselves have been key instruments in shaping these stereotypes or prejudices in certain groups and influencing public opinion. It is important to highlight here the role of the media, since television news, unlike literature or cinema, is presented as objective. In this way, presenting themselves as informers of reality and guarantees of objectivity, the news discourses of the media become “constructors of realities” and, consequently, essential in the processes of imagination and social construction of the communities of belonging, whether national or transnational.5

When it comes to Muslim women there are plenty of stereotypes but most of them revolve around three key elements: the hijab, women’s rights and freedom, and education. The controversy over the hijab lies not only in its use in the public sphere, which has been the focus of much of the public opinion, but also in the labour and political spheres; also being a highly debated topic for feminism pundits. In her book Sense sucre, Mireia Estrada reflects this idea very well since she argues that the hijab is such a banal subject and at the same time so full of meaning that, whichever way you look at it, you are wrong. If you defend it, you ignore the girls who have been forced to wear it; if you condemn it, you ignore those who choose to wear it freely.6

The hijab is seen as a symbol of deprivation of freedom, as well as a symbol of male oppression and as an endangerment of the integrity and tolerance of Western societies. Some believe that women who wear the hijab are being forced to do so, while others argue that it is a woman’s choice whether or not she chooses to wear it.

When it comes to Muslim women there are plenty of stereotypes but most of them revolve around three key elements: the hijab, women’s rights and freedom, and education

It is true that in some political and social contexts the hijab is imposed, while in others it is an example of women taking control over their own bodies and choosing to dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable and good about themselves. However, when Western countries deny Muslim women wearing the headscarf, they are also questioning their status as citizens.7

 Another worrying aspect is the politicisation of the hijab. Take France as the paradigmatic case. When it comes to religions, France is a pretty diverse place. Over half of its population identifies as Christian, it has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe, and a third of people in France do not affiliate with any faith. Nevertheless, France brought measures to keep religion, especially Islam, out of public life.

Back in 2004, Nicolas Sarkozy, at that time Minister of the Interior, pushed through a law banning the wearing of the hijab in schools. In 2011, he introduced another law banning the wearing of the niqab in public places, which was ratified by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014. Lately, the hijab has taken centre stage in France’s presidential campaign. The war in Ukraine, the rising inflation, the possible gas supply cut-off, climate change or the hunger and social unrest in some parts of the world were not as important as the hijab was. As suggested by Professor Luz Gómez García, at this point the question arises as to whether it is no longer the model of citizenship that is under discussion, but the very notion of egalitarian and inclusive citizenship as a constitutive element of European political life.8 This reinforces the idea that Muslim women are never European enough, only Muslim. Recently, the fashion magazine Vogue France shared in an Instagram post a photo of actress and model Julia Fox wearing a black scarf tied around her head, with the title: “Yes to the headscarf!” Needless to say, Julia Fox is a nonhijabi, non-Muslim white woman.

Even the Muslim women who do not wear a hijab are subjected to discrimination and Islamophobia because of their names, origin or colour, even when they were born and raised in European countries. In addition, there is a perception that their decisions or actions are linked to an axis between that which is permitted (halal) and that which is prohibited (haram). We should not forget that when it comes to religion there are women who are attached to the faith and claim it, such as Tamara Falcó or Eileen Lahi, those who prefer to keep it in the private sphere and those who are occasional practitioners or are not practitioners and identify themselves as atheists.

When it comes to women’s rights, it seems that Islam created the patriarchate. But Islam did not create patriarchy; patriarchy already existed. Even so, we cannot deny that Islamic Law has been practised in recent years in a very patriarchal way. In the end it is not easy to be a woman anywhere in the world. What is clear is that the struggle for equality between men and women and the rights of women transcends any religion, politics, geography, race, culture or workplace.

As the journalist Shada Islam highlights, discrimination based on gender is happening in democracies and autocracies, in secular societies and religious ones, in rich and poor nations. Although the Orientalist and Islamophobic discourse points to it as a problem in the Global South and in Muslim majority states, it is also a blight on the face of too many Western democracies.9 To give an example, the Supreme Court struck down the landmark Roe vs. Wade case that has guaranteed the right to abortion in the United States.

Even the Muslim women who do not wear a hijab are subjected to discrimination and Islamophobia because of their names, origin or colour, even when they were born and raised in European countries

Last but not least, there is the issue of education. It has been suggested that Muslim women do not have the right to pursue education and empower themselves. This is largely attributed to Islam rather than to the lack of opportunities, socioeconomic and political roadblocks, prevailing cultural patriarchal norms, poor access to schools, and the low quality of education. However, nowadays, awareness of education for women is rising among families and they are being encouraged to become economically independent. According to a recent study, as Muslim women move up the educational ladder, the role of religion as a predictor of academic attainment is diminishing. Also, the report shows that a country’s wealth – not its laws or culture – is the most important factor in determining a woman’s educational fate.10 In recent decades, women in countries like the United Arab Emirates are making some big educational leaps.


What is clear is that there is still a long way to go in terms of gender and Muslim women’s rights everywhere in the world. It is therefore essential to implement political and legal measures and, above all, to raise public awareness to avoid falling into misunderstanding and misinformation, not only on issues affecting Muslim women or Islam but on any issue affecting human rights.

Therefore, institutions have to promote diversity and equality in all social and political spheres. An illustrative example would be Barcelona City Council, which has created a technical service to promote cultural diversity among its employees, approved in the Barcelona Interculturality Plan 2021-2030. And to implement laws that provide defence mechanisms in situations of vulnerability.

Barcelona City Council has created a technical service to promote cultural diversity among its employees, approved in the Barcelona Interculturality Plan 2021-2030

The media in this case has a decisive role to play. Projects like MAGIC (Muslim women and communities Against Gender Islamophobia in society), led by the European Institute of the Mediterranean and funded by the European Commission within the framework of the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme, which aims to prevent gendered Islamophobia in media outlets in Spain and Belgium through capacity enhancement, training of journalists and promoting awareness campaigns, are essential. Another indispensable tool is that women should have access to education to have power over their lives and choices and at the same time agency, critical capacity and the power to be economically independent. It is so important to not take education for granted.


[1] L. Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its
Others”, American Anthropologist, 2002, pp. 783-790.
[2] L. Vidal, “La revolució invisible”, Ara, 2022.
[3] M. Mikdashi, “How Not to Study Gender in the Middle East”, Jadaliyya, 2012.
[4] D. Seta, “Forgotten women: The impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women”, European Network Against Racism, 2016.
[5] G. Martín Muñoz and R. Grosfoguel, “La islamofobia a debate. La genealogía del miedo al islam y la construcción
de los discursos antiislámicos”, Casa Árabe, 2012.
[6] M. Estrada Gelabert, Sense sucre, Barcelona, Ara llibres, 2022.
[7] L. Mijares and A. Ramírez, “Mujeres, pañuelo e islamofobia en España: Un estado de la cuestión”, Anuales de Historia
Contemporánea, 2008, pp. 121-135.
[8] L. Gómez, “Dios es lo más: jóvenes musulmanes e islamofobia”, afkar/ideas, 2016, pp. 20-22.
[9] S. Islam, “War on Women needs forceful response, not glib statements”, euobserver, 2022.
[10] C. Hackett and D. Fahmy, “Education of Muslim women is limited by economic conditions, not religion”, Pew Research Center, 2018.