The War of Words Over Muslim Head Scarves

     hijab_fetish_by_cainadamssonThe pattern is always the same: A media outlet profiles a woman in a Muslim head scarf, prompting scorn from readers/viewers/listeners who say the woman is (select one) oppressed; depressed; betraying Western values by wearing her covered hair in public.

      To accompany an article about immigrant populations and their impact on a major hospital in Minneapolis, the New York Times showed – on its front page – not one but two women in Muslim head scarves. While it’s too early to gauge the level of reader backlash, look what happened four days earlier, after ABC News reported that a growing number of Iraqi women are removing their hijab, the formal name for Islamic hair coverings. Here’s what a reader named “KatharinaSri” said via ABC News’ public comment page:

      The veil is a political symbol of political Islam, which is about imposing by force or by manufactured consent (as opposed to true freewill of rational consent as argued by Kant), a medieval and highly sexist homogenous identity on women and girls. . . . This is not about personal choice.”

       Really? Tell that to Shagufta Ahmad, a devout Muslim woman who – in an essay at a forum about the subject of hijab – wrote that:

     Although grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted as a symbol of oppression, this icon of modesty in reality is a statement of dignity for the woman. It is a stop sign for her onlookers to judge her for who she is and not what she looks like, to judge her for her mind and spirit and not her body.”

      Still, at the same forum, another essayist, Rabea Chaudhry, reports that more American Muslim women are removing their hijabs – but not for the “liberating” reason that many people might expect. Chaudhry interviews the women and writes that:

       Contrary to Western feminists’ romanticized notions that the stripping off of one’s headscarf is inevitably a moment of rebellion against patriarchal institutions . . . it is likely a moment of surrender to a combination of social, political, cultural, and self-imposed pressures. Rather than it being a triumphant moment in which she seeks to define her spirituality beyond the confines of her wardrobe, or seeks to distance herself from a construction of her religious identity that seeks to contain her, it is most likely a moment in which she becomes overwhelmed by the growing weight of a society that labels her as an oppressed terrorist and a religious community that labels her as particularly virtuous and likely socially awkward.”  

      In other words, the women are tired of the constant barrage of commentary that they’re subjected to in public and in private.  But by talking about the subject – whether at the online forum offered by playwright and essayist Wajahat Ali, or in the new play called the “Hijabi Monologues” that is touring the United States – Muslim women are reminding people that the subject is a complicated one that can’t be reduced to simple truths. The reductive answers are easy to find. Go to a web site such as “Islam in Action” and you’ll find – after a Washington Post report about a bank refusing to serve a woman in hijab – such comments as, “We’re getting tired to these filth, diaperheaded subhuman muslim rodents in the west.”

      hijabThe comment was, of course, anonymous. It would take resolve to post a real name and stand behind the vitriol, just as it takes resolve for hijab-wearing women to stand up for their beliefs at a bank with a “hats off” policy. One thing is certain: The debate over hijabs is not going away. Whether it’s Iraq, Norway (where a hijab burning took place) or the United States, people have strong feelings about a scarf that – like a nun’s veil, or a rabbi’s yarmulke – is an outward sign of an inner devotion to God. 

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