In the series of deeply personal interviews that follow this introduction, three women look back on their combined 32 years in the hijab, telling the beautiful and painful stories that inform their perspectives on the current debate.
Marwa Berro was raised as a Lebanese Muslim. She now lives in the United States. Recently, from my vantage as a former fundamentalist Christian and advocate for women, I wrote an article asking whether the hijab is a symbol diversity or oppression. Marwa wrote back and let me know gently but firmly that she and other women from Muslim backgrounds have their own thoughts on the subject.
Head and body coverings for Muslim women have become powerful political symbols in recent years in both North America and Europe. To the American Right, the hijab and burka are visible indicators of a violent clash of cultures or an immigrant invasion. For the political Left—which is reacting against the oppression of Palestinians, American aggression in the Middle East, and Right-wing xenophobia—hijab has become a symbol of diversity, as in Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl ad. Recently, for example, a fundraiser for a Seattle healthcare organization featured a young girl in traditional North African garb, covered head to toe except for her face. The focus was on her beautiful smile and clothing—not on health-related questions like her freedom of movement and ability to exercise. Simultaneously, an alumni magazine for a university medical center showed healthcare workers in hijab. Again, the aim was to communicate openness to diversity and demographic change.
In Europe, debate about Islamic restrictions on women, and veiling in particular, has been fierce, and bans have been proposed against religious symbols in some public places. Liberal Europeans have largely sided with Muslims, opposing efforts to force girls and women out of the veil. They have challenged bans even on full facial covers in public facilities, decrying the infringement of immigrant rights and individual liberty, and have supported gender segregated seating—arguing that such accommodations are a matter of cultural respect. By contrast, those who support the bans argue that public safety is an issue or that civil law and human rights trump religion. They point out that Syrian women are being forced to “hijab up” and that, even in the West, girls and women who wear the hijab or veil do so under some level of pressure from conservative religious leaders and family members. They argue that a society made up of small, insulated subcultures is inherently unstable. They argue that the European way of life is being lost.
To further complicate the matter in the U.S., “religious freedom” has become a Right wing political and legal trump card used by conservatives seeking to roll back gay rights and family planning, and to secure lucrative government contracts for religious institutions. Catholics and Evangelicals are arguing in court a wide range of religious privileges including exemption from anti-discrimination laws and health service obligations like contraceptive access and miscarriage management that the United Nations considers universal human rights. However, the same people arguing for religious freedom often are uncomfortable with the free exercise of Islam. Within Islam itself, perspectives on veiling vary. Middle East scholar Marnia Lazreg argues that hijab is not one of the pillars of Islam and that the resurgence of veiling has been systematically driven forward as a matter more of politics than piety. On the other hand, Saudi religious police recently banned a book entitled, A History of Hijab, deeming debate on the topic anti-Islamic.
In all of the back and forth, questions of women’s rights and wellbeing often become pawns, excuses to do or not do something that serves the purposes of men, nation states, and ideologies. The dominant voices are not those of women who wear or used to wear the hijab, nor women’s advocates more broadly.
Recently, several articles have highlighted the perspectives of Muslim women who experience their use of the hijab or abaya as voluntary and even feminist. By contrast, this series gives voice to three women who have left Islam.
Marwa Berro (a pen name) is a Lebanese-American writer and philosopher. She grew up between Saudi Arabia and her native Lebanon and lives now in the United States. She writes narrative essays and reasoned critique of the societal structures that govern Muslim-majority societies at Between a Veil and a Dark Place and offers support to other women questioning Islam at Hi Reddit!.
Reem Abdel-Razek, is a twenty one year old Egyptian blogger and translator who lives in New York. She writes the blog for the Centre for Secular Space, a transnational think tank which aims to strengthen secular voices, fight religious fundamentalism and promote universality in human rights.
Heina Dadabhoy was raised Muslim in the United States. Now a self-described atheist, she writes for Skepchick blog and is a sought-after speaker on topics including Islam, feminism, skepticism, gender, culture, and the intersections of the above.
In the deeply personal and nuanced interviews that follow, they look back on their combined 32 years in the hijab, telling the beautiful and painful stories that inform their perspectives on the current debate.