NPR: Lifting the Veil
It’s always so powerful and inspiring for me to hear people tell their own stories in their own words. Included in the multimedia presentation for this NPR story are 12 Muslim women explaining their choice to unveil. So many of the themes of doubt and questioning and negotiating recounted in their stories resonate with me even as I choose to continue wearing hijab.
Kim Joseph, a convert to Islam, remembers that before she even took her shahada, the phrase which one utters to enter into the faith of Islam, the Muslim women around her put a hijab on her head. She wasn’t even Muslim! It seems the priorities were mixed up. And Joseph now says without hijab, she is able to “develop her faith from the inside out rather from the outside in.” I don’t think there needs to be dichotomy between the external and internal parts of faith, yet when the internal meshes with the external, they seem to reinforce each other. Before I converted to Islam, when I was simply delving into learning about the faith, I test drove several mostly unorthodox hijab styles. I just wanted to see what it’d be like to wear hijab were I to convert to Islam.
Sana Javed looked familiar to me, she attended the University of Maryland and was involved with the on-campus Muslim events so I’ve probably have seen her around. She expresses a sentiment that is felt by many, that as long as you look the part of the ideal muslimah, hijab and demeanor, it’s all good but once you challenge those stereotypes, you can expect a wave of negativity directed at you to force back into the orthy box. Hijab in that sense, is seen as a “litmus test” for one’s piety. Which brings up the issue of the assumptions and expectations that go along with wearing hijab.
Hijab is a religious, political, and social statement. It means different things to different people but no doubt those many statements, assumptions, and expectations come to the fore. People, both Muslim and non-Muslim often see the hijab before the woman. For some, this is preferable and desirable and for others it becomes a burden, a hindrance, and brings much unwanted attention. And for some of us, hijab is a little bit of both. Samia Naseem mentions how she actually feared for her safety while wearing hijab in this sometimes hostile environment post 9-11. And I think it’s important not to diminish these voices, a garment that is supposed to offer a form of protection does also quite visibly at times put women at risk of physical harm and abuse. Despite her own choice, Naseem doesn’t want her unveiling to be used as support or encouragement for other Muslim women to unveil. The choice, which every woman should be free to make is deeply personal.
For Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, wearing hijab is akin to being forced to be a public and visible representative of the Muslim community at all times, which is not a role every woman wants to assume for herself. It’s remarkable how easily many Muslim men can blend in and are even encouraged to blend into society, to not stick out, and live public lives nearly indistinguishable from the non-Muslims around them. For Muslim women, one of the only ways to do that is by choosing not to wear hijab.
Nadia Shoeb expressed that she felt naked the first time she went outside without her hijab as if she had gone shirtless. I think this is something many of us can relate to, either being asked to remove our hijab in public or having a man unexpectedly walk in on us without our hijab. Such an experience can be deeply embarrassing or humiliating. Shoeb also noted something interesting, that the experience of these Muslim women chronicled in the story is “distinctly American.”
America is a religious nation but one where faith is shaped and negotiated by the cultural nuances of the land. Islam in this time is so exciting for me because we see everyday how our faith and its practice, often imported from overseas, is being shaped and melded into something new and uniquely American and it’s hard to predict where this journey will take us as individuals and as an American Muslim community.
Asma Uddin, a lawyer and founder of the blog altmuslimah, says hijab was a hindrance to her spiritual growth. She wore hijab, as many of us do, wanting to please God and out of a fear of doing something displeasing to God. This is one of the most common reasons given for wearing hijab. Yet, hijab, as Uddin notes, has obvious “political and social overtones,” which affect the woman wearing it. She becomes a symbol, sometimes a playmaker and sometimes a pawn in a “political game” that she may not always agree with or even know about.
I’m reading Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America and the author has some very insightful commentary, which I hope to elaborate on in a future post, insha’Allah.
One thing, which strikes me in listening to the various stories of why Muslim women choose to veil or unveil or re-veil is how important faith is to many of them. Many but not all, regardless of veil status, will describe themselves as devout and committed to their faith in Islam even as they question and negotiate and seek to more fully understand their faith. They continue to search for an understanding of Islam that resonates with authenticity for themselves. Just as we wish to move away from the stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed because of their dress, I think it’s important to move away from that other oppressive stereotype that those who choose not to veil are less than or weak in faith or impious.
Education is also another common thread running through these stories. As women continue to become more highly educated in whichever field they choose, they will be empowered to question and think critically and challenge interpretations and reasoning, which do not accord with them. And these empowered women with their diverse educational, career, and life pursuits will continue to chart a course for themselves, with or without the veil.