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.
Unveiled Part 2: Marwa Berro
Unveiled Part 3: Reem Adbel-Razek
Unveiled Part 4: Heina Dadabhoy
Is the Hijab a Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?
Two brief (possibly off-topic) stories come to mind.
I heard that when the veil was made mandatory in Iran a decade or so ago, the loudest protests came from the women who had been wearing the veil! Before the law, they had been able to say “God is great” with the veil. Afterwards, it only meant, “I’m following the law.”
About a century ago, after the fall of the Manchu empire in China, men were no longer required to wear the queue (long ponytail) to show loyalty to the Manchu emperor. But old habits die hard, and many continued to wear what had become a part of Chinese culture.
Suppose you told a Muslim woman, “You don’t have to wear a hijab anymore!” or “You don’t have to be in a polygamous marriage anymore!” Many might not like the change. But how do you tell what is cultural coercion and what is simply a preference (like the queue)?
I haven’t read the entire series, and you may well address that further down. Interesting topic!
Those are great questions. Culture creates its own set of pressures. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if all women were genuinely free to choose–including free of coercion from their own families.
Thanks very much for this series. I just read it this morning, and it’s great to hear from exMuslims who used to wear hijab, who are often left out of this conversation. Though I did not wear hijab, there were some situations (like during Islamic Sunday School) during which I had to wear it, and I always found it discriminatory and shallow. Muslims were judging me based on appearance while saying that secular society judges people on appearance (fashion magazines, revealing clothing, etc.). It was just one example of how I felt I was treated as inferior due to my gender. Hearing from fellow exMuslims has made me feel that there are others out there who understand.
Thank you again!
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It would have been interesting to read or get an input from western females who have accepted Islam out of conviction.
While the very few Muslim women who leave Islam get a lot of media coverage, very little or almost nothing is broadcasted about the thousands of white western women who revert to Islam.
To be neutral is impossible for any human being and that is why women in the world of Islam follow the command of Allah on modesty.
The hypocrisy of the western media is apparently as good as the hypocrisy of believing in the “Right to Religion”.
I have seen young women wearing hijab and very tight jeans, high heels. My question is where do you think the eyes of men are on the head or the lower back of a woman’s body?