The hijab and niqab worn by some Muslim women have hit the news lately, especially after France’s ban on the veil worn by some Muslim women (niqab) went into effect, and after death threats against a British imam who held that wearing hijab (a scarf covering the hair) was a woman’s choice (he also held that evolution and Islam need not be at odds). Some sort of headcovering for women is a common feature of Middle Eastern cultures (orthodox Jewish women cover their hair, too, and the men wear a hat or yarmulke at all times), which doesn’t make it automatically good or bad, but it does make it different in other cultures, and that causes some tension. And some women wear it to avoid threats from fundamentalists in their community, and that’s absolutely not OK (but note that the French law has a separate penalty for that, and that women who wear niqab voluntarily face punishment simply for expressing this part of their own cultural identity).
Today, NPR has a video and a series of audio interviews with American Muslim women who’ve chosen to stop wearing hijab. It’s fascinating listening, both for an understanding of why they chose to wear the headscarf, how people treated them when they wore it, how it made them feel to wear it, and why they ultimately took it off. The overarching message for me is that many of them chose to wear it because of a combination of social pressure and an genuine sense (mostly) that this was what it meant to be Muslim. As they investigated Islam itself, they found that the headscarf wasn’t obligatory, and they could continue to practice without covering their head.
I found that via Nadia El-Awady, an Egyptian journalist who wears a headscarf, and who wrote a fascinating essay about how people treat her because of it:
Muslim women in Europe and the United States who choose to wear a headscarf or face veil are placed under tremendous societal pressures almost every day. On the streets, some people look at them as if they are freaks of nature….
The struggle of the veiled Muslim woman in Europe has reached the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world, including mine. Her struggle is their struggle. A woman has the right to choose, we all shout. Muslim women do not wear the headscarf/face veil out of oppression, we explain. In so many cases, they wear it as a matter of choice.
A woman, we shout, has the right to choose.
But do we Muslims really believe this or do we use this argument when it suits us?…
In recent years in Egypt, a growing number of women are deciding to take off their headscarves. …
These women are immediately analyzed to their faces and behind their backs. Their original reasons for wearing the hijab were the wrong reasons. Her faith is weak. She has been moving in circles of friends who have tainted her soul. She has no proper understanding of the Islamic faith. She has opened too many doors to the devil and this is the result. The list goes on and on. …
The right to choose has all of a sudden gone to hell along with this woman who has chosen to take off her hijab.
These women I refer to above – those living among semi-liberal family and friends – are the lucky ones….
Women who come from more conservative circles barely stand a chance….
A piece of cloth – a simple piece of cloth on the head or the face – has come to have too much power over society, whether a woman’s choice is to wear it or discard it.
Everyone is trying to save the Muslim woman; Western society must save her from Islam and Islamic society must save her from Western influence.
No one – NO ONE – assumes that the Muslim woman can make up her own mind about what is best for her.
On Twitter, El-Awady summarized: “In Muslim societies, I’m made to feel that I’m the successful Muslim woman in hijab. In non-Muslim societies, I’m the odd woman in hijab,” and “I’m judged by both societies because of a head scarf. I would LOVE to see the day when ppl judge me for my person and not for what i wear.”
To me, this is the essential challenge to confront in talking about headscarves, or about religion in society more generally. There’s plenty to debate about headscarves in principle, and plenty to be said about the role of women in Islam (and the effects of various forms of Islam on women). But we can’t let these abstract arguments lead us to the error of labeling and judging a woman by her choice to wear a headscarf, or we begin down the same path misogynist fundamentalists blazed long ago.
A headscarf is a piece of cloth. Policies like France’s banning it or the Taliban’s requiring it both elevate it to something more than that, and that is one of the many failings of both policies. If we look past the scarf and listen to the women wearing it, we’ll that they choose it for a variety of reasons. Some may be dubious, but many are no less reasonable than my reasons for wearing sandals rather than wingtips, and no more a cause for judging those women, let alone jailing them. My thanks to NPR and to El-Awady for helping educate me and so many others.