Understanding the Woman in the Hijab
America's librarians are encountering a more diverse clientele each and every day. As professionals, librarians need to serve our multicultural patrons with great care and understanding. We must demonstrate significant cultural awareness and sensitivity with every service we provide. One group of immigrants that seems to be growing is young Muslim women who have immigrated from the Middle East. These women often feel conspicuous because they are typically dressed modestly from head to toe -- wearing floor-length skirts and covering their hair with headscarves called hijabs. There are several considerations librarians must take when helping this population with their information needs.
Many Americans feel unsure how to approach a young Muslim woman. At best, the tendency is to avoid the young woman, and, at worst, to inadvertently insult her. As Mazrui explains, "Westerners tend to think of Islamic societies as backward-looking, oppressed by religion, and inhumanely governed."1 Combining that general thought with the pervasive anti-Muslim political and cultural climate that has arisen in America post 9/11, it becomes easy to understand how this population of young Muslim women struggles with the issues of assimilation and acculturation especially when wearing a hijab in public.2 Librarians need to see beyond the typical American stereotypes of Muslims, and to recognize and transcend these biases.
Not only do Americans have their prejudiced views against Islamic culture, but Muslims themselves are resistant in adapting to their new surroundings. These women cling to their own heritage in the face of our permissive, liberal American lifestyle. Hu, Pazaki, Al-Qubbaj, and Cutler conducted a study on first-generation Muslim women immigrants in the US. In their report, they conclude that these women "have resorted to traditional cultural and gender-specific norms and practices to negotiate their identity, as an alternative to succumbing to the dominant American culture."3 These findings indicate a great awareness of the conspicuousness these women experience when they go out in public, and it shows that they resort to the predictable and comfortable structures of tradition when faced with anxiety from adjusting to cultural dissimilarities.
Some young Muslim women's resistance to become more integrated into American society also exacerbates the problems they face within their own culture. As a result, it is even more difficult for librarians to work with them because of the multidimensional kinds of emotional distress they constantly undergo. In addition to their issues with negotiating their identities in their new surroundings, there are other psychological struggles for young women within the Muslim community. In their article, "Women's Mental Health in the Muslim World: Cultural, Religious, and Social Issues," Douki, Ben Zineb, Nacef, and Halbreich, find that, as a result of their traditionally subordinate role, Muslim women are at a "greater risk of developing mental disorders such as depressive, somatoform, anxious or eating disorders, as well as suicidal behaviors."4 This means that a patron from this population would need to be handled very delicately and with a greater understanding of the emotional anguish they continually suffer on so many levels and in so many ways as both outsiders and insiders.
As a result of their subordinate role in Islam, young Muslim women have typically had a traditionally submissive, quiet role in their formal education. In their culture, the teacher -- or in this case, the librarian -- is the authority and the learner passively and politely accepts all new information that is communicated to her without inquiry or exploration. As Seggie and Sanford (2010) point out, "they were not taught to be outspoken."5 These are library patrons who do not know what to do with the information you are helping them find. They may not really know how to ask for the information they think they might need or, even further, they may be unsure as to what information they are seeking in the first place. What they think they need and what they actually need may be two entirely separate entities. This dynamic can cause frustration for all parties involved.
The issues with effective communication extend well beyond the simple dynamics of the interactions with this population. It is also the medium of communication itself that poses complications. Quite simply, English is not their first language. As a result, all communication has to be made comprehensible to the patron. This means using simplified vocabulary, trying to drawing on the patron's background, use visual or pictorial information, paying careful to articulation of words (slower pronunciation), and placing a strong emphasis on nonverbal cues to get your point across.6 Typical communicative responses, such as politely nodding and smiling, may not indicate agreement or comprehension. The patron will probably not readily understand most basic library terminology, and the culture of the library itself may be an entirely new experience as well. Concepts like call numbers and due dates may be unfamiliar to them. As a result of these linguistic obstacles, and confounded by their tendencies to assume a submissive role in their interactions, there will be times when librarians may not know if they are even helping these patrons at all.
While the culture of the library itself poses unique and significant challenges for these young Muslim women, there is another important factor that even further complicates the process of trying to serve this patron population -- technology. Many of these women will have minimal computer literacy skills, if any at all.7 They may not know how to use a mouse or be able to type a search term into the OPAC or a web search engine. It would be a surprise if they had an email address to use when applying for a library card. In short, librarians may end up teaching them basic computer skills before even attempting to help them access the information resources that motivated their trip to the library. The particular combination of their passive disposition and the alien culture of the library itself (with its heavy emphasis on computer usage) could be yet another source of frustration.
There are many complicated factors to consider when providing services to young Muslim women of Middle Eastern origin. Between their fragile psychological states and the alien culture of the library itself, librarians need to use great care when approaching this patron population. We will have to be continually asking direct, probing questions to fully grasp the intent of their visit. We should use simple words and phrases to explain and demonstrate the process of information searching. We cannot make any assumptions about their understandings of the library system. We must approach the situation delicately, making a great effort to see things from the patron's perspective even when they are reluctant to reveal information about their background and understandings.
1. Ali A. Mazuri, "Islamic and Western Values," Foreign Affairs, 76 (1997): 118.
2. Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine, "Hyphenated Selves: Muslim American Youth Negotiating Identities on the Fault Lines of Global Conflict," Applied Developmental Science, 11 (2007), 151-163.
3. Chin Hu et al., "Gender Identity and Religious Practices of First-Generation Muslim Women Immigrants in the U.S.," Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity, 11 (2009), 58.
4. S. Douki et al., "Women's Mental Health in the Muslim World: Cultural, Religious, and Social Issues," Journal of Affective Disorders, 102 (2007), 177.
5. Fatma Nevra Seggie and Gretchen Sanford, "Perceptions of Female Muslim Students Who Veil: Campus Religious Climate," Race, Ethnicity & Education, 13 (2010), 69.
6. Fang Xu, "Comprehensible Input and Listening Comprehension," US-China Foreign Language, 7 (2009), 56-60.
7. Leslie Eaton, "A New Universal Language; In Class of Many Tongues, Computer Skills Are Focus. New York Times, October 20, 1999, accessed September 9, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/20/nyregion/a-new-universal-language-in-class-of-many-tongues-computer-skills-are-focus.html.