As of 2010, there were an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, making Islam the world’s second-largest religious tradition after Christianity. Though many people believe, particularly in the United States, that Islam is mainly associated with countries in the Middle East or North Africa, nearly two-thirds of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific. (Masci, D. 2017) One common Western idea about Islam is that Islam is an oppressive religion towards women; proponents of such a viewpoint associate the concepts of the hijab, or headscarf, and the niqab, or the facial veil, with oppression of women’s rights. The notion that the hijab or niqab are oppressive towards women in Islam can be proposed as a psychological question- does Islam and Islamic teachings oppress women psychologically?
There are many ways that the concept of whether a religion oppresses a specific population can be approached. In this research analysis, we will be discussing the idea from three different perspectives: the effects of Islamic teachings on women’s self-image, women’s mental health, and women’s overall life satisfaction.
Hateful rhetoric towards Muslims psychologically makes individuals think it’s okay to be discriminatory towards them, whether overtly or more subtly, according to Kevin L. Nadal, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a 2015 paper published in “Qualitative Psychology.” Nadal says that for Muslim women, the most common stereotype is that they lack control over their own lives. “The reality is that a lot of Muslim women view it as quite the opposite, they’re proud of their gender, do have a voice and choose to celebrate some of their traditional roles.” (Clay, 2017)
From a cultural psychology lens, what is the impact that sustaining Islamic beliefs and maintaining Islamic religious customs on women?
To begin, let’s first define the items in question. Islam, as defined at the Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project, is defined as “submission to God,” and Muslim refers to “one who submits to God.” Islam is the name of the religion of Muslims, wherein there are five basic tenants- belief in the concept of one God, fasting during Ramadan, praying five times per day at various intervals of the day, giving the zakat, or charity, and performing the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. (Islam, 2018)
Happiness is henceforth defined as subjective well-being, and positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates this further in her 2007 book titled “The How of Happiness” as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (Happiness Definition: What is Happiness n.d.)
According to a publication by Fatima Mernissi titled: “Veil and the Male Elite- A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam,” the impact of Islam on women’s rights, as well as the psychology of women, is profound. Beginning with the hijab and its effects on the psychology of women, first the hijab should be defined. The concept of the word hijab is three-dimensional, and the three dimensions often blend into one another. The first dimension is a visual one: to hide something from sight. The root of the verb hajaba means to hide. The second dimension is spatial: to separate, to mark a border, to establish a threshold. And finally, the third dimension is ethical: it belongs to the realm of the forbidden. Without going in depth into Arabic linguistics and the different contextual meanings of hijab in Islam, the Quran actually ascribes a negative connotation to the hijab, symbolizing it as a veil that hides God from men, due to the inability of certain individuals to perceive God. According to verse 5 of sura 41, the hijab is something that diminishes human intelligence. Scholars of Islam have translated that hijab in this verse signifies “a difference in religion that produces conflict.” From this perspective, the hijab is something that should negatively impact the psychology of the woman wearing it, as it should the psychology of the women surrounding her.
In a study performed by Mercedes Sheen, Hajar Aman Key Yekani, and Timothy R. Jordan, focused on the effects of the hijab on female facial attractiveness perceived by practicing Muslim Emirati women living in their native Muslim country (the United Arab Emirates) who themselves wore the hijab as everyday attire, participants were shown frontal-head images of women in three different conditions: covered (heads fully covered by the hijab except for the face), partially covered (heads fully covered by the hijab except for the face and the hair around the forehead) and uncovered (heads with no covering). The findings showed that faces in images where heads were covered and partially covered by the hijab were rated as equally attractive, but both were rated as significantly less attractive than faces in images where heads were uncovered. These findings suggest that, even for practicing Muslim Emirati females living in their native Muslim country for whom wearing the hijab is a normal aspect of everyday life, perception of facial attractiveness is compromised by wearing this garment.
The study found that, while wearing the hijab may be dominated by male attitudes towards suppressing female attractiveness towards males, female Muslims too perceive the negative influence of wearing the hijab on female facial attractiveness. This effect of wearing the hijab is not consistent with a preference for one’s own cultural group but may however occur due to the hijab hiding external features such as hair and ears, which normally contribute to the perception of human facial attractiveness. Socialization is also a noteworthy cause for the results of the experiment, since although the women were all Emirati, the hijab is not a universal concept practiced and advertised globally, thus bringing in-groups and out-groups into question as well. (Sheen, 2018)
What’s fascinating from a psychology perspective is, although perceived facial attractiveness is diminished due to hijab according to the previously cited research, a study performed by the Deakin University School of Psychology in Melbourne Australia found that, through a series of path analyses, there is a significant positive relationship between mainstream cultural identification and the measures of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating that were mediated by thin-ideal internalization. Also identified through path analyses were significant negative relationships between heritage identification and the measures of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating that were mediated by self-esteem. The researcher, Alexander J. Mussap, found that the relationship between western acculturation, body dissatisfaction, and eating behaviors was significant. The study was performed by issuing a questionnaire to a sample of Muslim-Australian women between the ages of 18 and 44, containing measures of cultural identification (heritage and mainstream), body dissatisfaction and disordered eating (dietary control, bingeing and purging), internalization of the thin-ideal, and self-esteem. The results of the study performed were indicative of the potential risks to body image incurred by women who adopt Western values, and of the benefits of retaining heritage cultural values that promote a positive self-image. (Mussap, 2009)
Further research published by Alexander J. Mussap, published in Issue 2, volume 12 of the Mental Health, Religion & Culture journal titled “Strength of faith and body image in Muslim and non-Muslim women” found through path analyses that for Muslim women (but not non-Muslim women), strength of religious faith was inversely related to body dissatisfaction, body self-objectification, and dietary restraint. These relationships were mediated by increased use of modest clothing and by reduced media consumption. The results of this study are consistent with the proposition that adherence to Islam can indirectly protect women’s body image from appearance-based public scrutiny. (Mussap, 2009)
Now that we’ve worked to define the hijab, establish a relationship between hijab and perceived attractiveness, and elaborated on the correlation between strength of faith and body image in Muslim women, it’s important to relate the hijab and its relationship with body image in Muslim women.
In a publication titled “U.S. Muslim women and body image: Links among objectification theory constructs and the hijab” published by Lana D. Tolaymat and Bonnie Moradi in the Journal of Counseling Psychology in 2010, results from a path analysis indicated that individual differences in wearing the hijab were related negatively with reported sexual objectification experiences. Sexual objectification experiences, in turn, had significant positive indirect relations with body surveillance, body shame, and eating disorder symptoms, primarily through the mediating role of internalization. Internalization of cultural standards of beauty also had a significant positive direct relation with body shame and significant positive direct and indirect relations with eating disorder symptoms. By contrast, the direct and indirect relations of body surveillance were significant only when the role of internalization was eliminated. This suggested that internalization of cultural standards of beauty subsumed the hypothesized role of body surveillance in the model. These results support some of objectification theory with this specific sample of U.S. Muslim women, and points to the importance of internalization of dominant cultural standards of beauty within that framework, suggesting the utility of considering individual differences in wearing the hijab among U.S. Women. (Tolaymat, 2010)
Further supporting this notion that hijab serves as a protective factor for body image and disordered eating is a replication of this study performed by Sevag K. Kertechian and Viren Swami published in the Journal of Mental Health, Religion and Culture in Volume 19, 2016. In the study performed, 450 French Muslim women completed measures of hijab use, disordered eating, body image-related constructs, weight discrepancy, religiosity, perceived support from Allah, and perceived discrimination. Controlling for support from Allah and religiosity, women who wore the hijab reported significantly lower weight discrepancy, body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, anxiety related to social physique, internalization of the thin and muscular ideals, and pressure to attain ideals from peers and the media. However, they also reported significantly higher perceived discrimination than those who didn’t wear the hijab. (Kertechian, 2016)
In a study published by Wilhelm et. all, titled “Thin Media Images Decrease Women’s Body Satisfaction: Comparisons Between Veiled Muslim Women, Christian Women and Atheist Women Regarding Trait and State Body Image,” researchers experimentally investigated whether the body satisfaction of veiled Muslim women (n = 66) decreased after exposure to thin media images compared to pictures of furniture as a control condition. Christian women (n = 90) and atheist women (n = 74) were included as control groups, and participants were randomly assigned to the two conditions. Prior to the experimental session, participants’ trait body image was assessed using an online questionnaire comprising questions about body satisfaction, thin-ideal internalization, pressure to be thin, and physical appearance comparisons. It was found that veiled Muslim women had a more positive trait body image than did Christian women and atheist women.
Researchers found in this experiment that Muslim women who wore hijab actually had a more positive trait body image than did Christian women and atheist women. Accordingly, they reported lower levels of thin-ideal internalization, pressure to be thin, and physical appearance comparisons than did Christian and atheist women. Body satisfaction decreased in the experimental condition and not in the control condition, but no significant differences were found in pre-post changes between the three groups. The results of these findings may positively influence body image in the long term. (Wilhelm 2019)
Finally, we should take a look at the overall life satisfaction of Muslim women as an abstract measure of whether or not they’re oppressed psychologically by Islamic teachings.
In the following study, the Religious Support Scale was modified, and the reliability and validity of the new Multi-Faith Religious Support Scale was assessed with 539 Muslim women in the United States. The Multi-Faith Religious Support Scale replicated the Religious Support Scale’s three-factor structure and subscale reliabilities. The three subscales assess perceived support from religious peers, or fellow adherents, from religious leaders, and from Allah. Even after controlling for social support, support from religious leaders and from Allah were both related to overall greater life satisfaction. Support from Allah was also associated with less depression. In addition to this, African American Muslim women who converted to Islam suggest that the social support that was afforded by their religious community helped mediate the discrimination they received from greater society. The study cited in this research suggests that the Mosque becomes a source of pride, a refuge, and a means of social status in the community, particularly when the psychological aspects that build self-esteem are not available in the larger society. (Bjorck, 2011)
While assessing the validity of the new Multi-Faith Religious Support Scale, researchers found that Muslim women rated support from Allah highly, and it correlated with more life satisfaction and less depression, as predicted. Moreover, the relationships between support from Allah and both emotional functioning variables remained significant even after controlling for age, spiritual importance, family status, and social support.
The expected relationship was also found between support from religious leaders and greater life satisfaction and less depression. These effects remained significant after controlling for age, spiritual importance, and family status. In addition, the effect of leader support on depression was maintained even after also controlling for social support, but the effect on life satisfaction was not. These results suggest that leader support might be a more robust resource for Muslim women than for Christians because the effect of leader support became nonsignificant for Christians when controlling for social support.
Religious participant support was also associated with less depression and more life satisfaction, as hypothesized, and these findings remained after controlling for age, spiritual importance, and family status. Clearly, the women in the sample of this study viewed their faith as a significant source of support from Allah, their religious leaders, and their fellow Muslims. Moreover, their religious support was linked with better emotional functioning, even after controlling for general social support. Together, these findings provide a contradiction to the oversimplified stereotypical assumption that Islam oppresses women.
Overall, it appears through research in cultural psychology and comparative religions both suggest that there is an underlying psychological reasoning and benefit to being a Muslim woman, and religiosity is correlated to these findings. In addition, although the hijab was found to decrease women’s perception of facial attractiveness, it remains true that Muslim women who implement the hijab in their lifestyle, regardless of their school of thought or outlook on the necessity of the hijab, were found to have decreased levels of depression, a more positive body-outlook, a more positive self-image, and experienced less social pressure to internalize the thin-ideal than non-Muslim women, and Muslim women who did not implement the hijab in their lifestyle.
As a Muslim, I carry some biases when conducting a research analysis on a topic such as the psychology of Islam and women. My insight is skewed due to having had years of experience as a Muslim, as well as studying Islam in depth (to a small degree) at a professional religious teaching institution. It should be noted that my mother is a convert to Islam who had adopted the hijab at a young age, however, my sisters do not wear the hijab, and neither do my other non-married family members. In addition, the entirety of my family is not Muslim, and although I was born into a Muslim family, I do consider myself a convert. My reasoning for this is that although born into an Arab-Muslim culture, and having been taught Islamic fundamentals since birth, I didn’t truly adopt the faith until I began to question it from a scientific lens. My goal with this research analysis was not to validate my own beliefs, however, the research I found regarding the topic at hand did just that, which was unintentional on my part. Although I intended on providing scientific evidence to refute my beliefs in order to eliminate (or attempt to diminish) the level of bias in my analysis, I only found research supporting the notions that Islam has a positive psychological effect on Muslim women in multiple ways, be it self-image, rates of reported depression, correlation between religiosity in practicing Muslims and overall life satisfaction, and the effects of hijab on women psychologically- both the wearer and the observer.
Bjorck, J. P., & Maslim, A. A. (2011). The Multi-Faith Religious Support Scale: Validation with a Sample of Muslim Women. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 6(1). doi: 10.3998/jmmh.10381607.0006.105
Clay, R. A. (2017, April). Islamophobia. Retrieved November 18, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/04/islamophobia.
Happiness Definition: What Is Happiness. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/happiness/definition.
Islam. (2018, June 30). Retrieved from https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/religions/islam.
Masci, D. (2017, January 31). World Muslim population more widespread than you might think. Retrieved November 18, 2019, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/31/worlds-muslim-population-more-widespread-than-you-might-think/.
Mernissi, F., & Lakeland, M. J. (2006). The veil and the male elite: a feminist interpretation of womens right in Islam. New York: Basic Books.
Mussap, A. J. (2009). Strength of faith and body image in Muslim and non-Muslim women. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 12(2), 121–127. doi: 10.1080/13674670802358190
Mussap, A. J. (2009). Acculturation, body image, and eating behaviours in Muslim-Australian women. Health & Place, 15(2), 532–539. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.08.008
Sevag K. Kertechian & Viren Swami (2016) The hijab as a protective factor for body image and disordered eating: a replication in French Muslim women, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 19:10, 1056-1068, DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2017.1312322
Tolaymat, L. D., & Moradi, B. (2010). Muslim Womens Body Image: Links Among Hijab and Objectification Theory Constructs. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e629832010-001
Wilhelm, L., Hartmann, A. S., Becker, J. C., Kisi, M., Waldorf, M., & Vocks, S. (2019). Thin Media Images Decrease Women’s Body Satisfaction: Comparisons Between Veiled Muslim Women, Christian Women and Atheist Women Regarding Trait and State Body Image. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01074
Yekani, H. A. K., Jordan, T. R., & Mercedes Sheen. (2018, October 5). Investigating the effect of wearing the hijab: Perception of facial attractiveness by Emirati Muslim women living in their native Muslim country. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0199537.