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The Guardian’s lead story on May 12 was about a 32-year-old single mother who was allegedly rejected for a job at the National Maintenance and Security Training Company (MTS) because she wears a hijab. The woman has an 11-year-old daughter and a handicapped two-year-old girl as well.
How you interpret this incident depends on your perspective. Muslims will see it as Islamophobia, while secularists will see it as another religious believer claiming unwarranted privilege. But, for an explanatory viewpoint, the economist’s perspective is the most useful.
The economic approach holds that human beings are rational agents, meaning that people seek to attain their goals using the most effective means available in order to maximise their self-interest. This definition passes no judgment on the goals people have, nor does it mean that people don’t make mistakes, since rationality in the economist’s sense is bounded by incomplete information and limited resources. And, crucially, rationality doesn’t even mean that people are aware of their self-interested calculations in making choices.
So the woman told the Guardian, “I have two children and I am seeking employment for them, not to put on fancy clothes and fancy shoes.” Why, then, does she simply not remove her hijab so she can get the job? Applying the economics perspective, the answer would be that she believes she benefits more from wearing the hijab than she would from compromising her religious identity in order to earn money.
This has nothing to do with religious beliefs per se. Economists categorise small religious organisations as clubs—ie, groups in which goods and services are supplied only to members. (Large religious organisations, like the Catholic Church, are classified as firms.) Clubs vary in their entry requirements, and the general rule is that the more stringent the membership demands, the more cohesive the organisation is. This is because the sacrifices required for entry eliminates free riders—ie, individuals who join in order to get the group’s benefits but who give nothing in return. In Islam, membership requires adhering to a certain dress code, attending mosques for several hours every week, and a month-long annual fast. “Signals guide the marketplace,” says writer Larry Witham in his book Marketplace of the Gods. “For religion, what people wear and the rules they follow signal whether they are in one group or another. Who is committed and who is not? The signal reveals who can be trusted in the murky business of life.”
What signal, then, are hijab-wearing women sending? If they are not married, they are displaying their chastity, which they know Muslim men value. If they are married, they are displaying fidelity, which helps bind their marriage by enhancing their husband’s manly status. It is unlikely, though, that a single mother of two children who are separated in age by nine years would be signalling either chastity or fidelity. Instead, it is more likely that Afro-Trinidadian women from hotspot areas who adopt the hijab—and it appears that all Black Muslim women, unlike most Indian Muslim ones, do so—are signalling that they are protected by the Black Muslim community.
It is therefore ironic that the woman in the Guardian report should complain that her hijab prevented her getting a job, for this is in fact a specific function of the hijab. In his book Radical, Religious, and Violent, economist Eli Berman notes that “religious prohibitions tend to distance women in radical religious communities from the market, pulling them back into communities and households, where bearing and raising children is a more attractive activity”.
In Islamic societies in the Middle East, wearing a hijab is a rational choice for women. Islamic apologists often argue that Muslim women are at less risk of rape than Western women because the Muslim females dress modestly. The argument is disingenuous, of course: Western women move about unprotected in public wearing fitted or skimpy clothes but, if this puts them at higher risk of rape, the trade-off for freedom is considered acceptable and, in any case, rape rates in developed nations are very low. (The one in four figure typically cited by gender feminists is a false statistic.)
Since Islamic cultures have a polygamous tradition, elite males often monopolise several women of child-bearing age, which in turn means that there is a permanent underclass of young men who are deprived of sexual relations and marriage. Modest dress and other strictures are therefore cultural devices to protect women from that predatory cohort. In the context of Islamic societies, a woman who did not dress modestly would be sending a signal that she was not virtuous, which would be interpreted by many men (and women) as a justification to attack her.
This is not the case in T&T, however, since most women here are neither Muslim nor modest (because the average Trini woman correctly calculates that displaying her natural assets adds more to her value in the mating marketplace than concealing them). However, within the Islamic sub-culture in T&T, the hijab tells a potential mate that the woman will not object to him taking additional wives or to being an additional wife, as allowed by the Islamic code.
From this perspective, the hijab might therefore be a rational compromise between Trini sexual mores and Islamic values.
Kevin Baldeosingh is a professional writer, author of three novels, and co-author of a history textbook.