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Women wearing head scarves
Some traditional communities frown on working womenImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Feminists in headscarves

March 20, 2010

Much of the mainstream debate on Muslim women in Europe has centered on the headscarf. But there's more involved in many women's struggle to combine their Muslim identity with equal rights at home and work.


It isn't easy being the first hijab-wearing woman to host a talk show in the Netherlands.

Esmaa Alariachi, who started a popular TV talk show with her sisters called "The Girls of Halal," said that at first her aim as a host was quite modest.

"My goal… was to just show people that Muslims are also ordinary people: we eat, sleep, go to the cinema, have lunches, go to the theater," she told Deutsche Welle.

About five percent of the Dutch population is Muslim, according to Dutch government statistics. Still, Alariachi says it took time for people to understand that Muslim women could also be Dutch feminists. Early on, she was often pigeonholed into speaking on certain topics.

"Before, people who looked like me - wearing a headscarf - were only invited to address political and Islamic issues. They just put a stamp on your forehead, 'you are the expert on this, we only invite you for this,'" said the 31 year old.

"Now it is different,” she added.

Traditional roles

In her quest for professional success, Alariachi had the support of her sisters. But for many Muslim women, the fight for equal treatment in the workplace is made harder by their families.

Traditional communities often discourage even highly-educated women from working, says Parvin Ali, head of the Fatima Women's Network in the UK.

Office supplies and baby supplies
Flexible working conditions could help Muslim mothers join the workforceImage: picture-alliance/chromorange

"If the community from which that individual is coming … doesn't actually support these decisions, it can be very, very difficult for the families to then support them," says Ali.

Changing the workplace

Ali, who consults with governmental departments in the UK on gender and diversity issues, says more should be done to help Muslim women integrate into the work place.

Muslim women often want to remain the primary caregiver for their children, says Ali, so employers should focus on more flexible working conditions.

"That means making sure there is flexibility when it comes to taking time for their care responsibilities," she says, adding that a combination of working remotely and from home could benefit many working women, not just Muslims.

As the debate over integration and women's rights continues, it is clear there is still much work to be done. But women like Esmaa Alariachi and her sisters are proof that it is possible to achieve a balance between being a woman, a Muslim and a European.

"I faced many problems, but I made them into a challenge, and now people see us as celebrities in Holland," said Alariachi.

Author: Nina-Maria Potts (smh)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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