Hijab in America

Obstacles to understanding hijab, obstacles to understanding Islam

Sarah Harlan, Member of Advisory Board, MCA

Is a woman in hijab[1] more religious than a non-mohajiba[2] Muslim woman? Is hijab indicative of female subjugation? Is hijab backwards? Is a mohajiba woman really capable of being American? For better or worse in our fair nation, when a woman dons hijab the debate about Islam in America comes to her – whether she invited it or not. The hijab issue is one of the most loaded in the discourse on Islam in America, and in observing the perception and reception of hijab by non-Muslim America – what hijab is not and what it is – can help inform the perception and reception of Islam in America. Hijab and Islam are both deeply misunderstood in the West, and much of the misunderstanding about hijab presents itself in word choice – specifically “veiled” (pass. v.) and “veil” (n.) – and notions about hijab’s capacity and dynamism.

The most deep-seated obstacle to non-Muslim Americans’ understanding of hijab is their passive designation of the mohajiba woman: she is “veiled.” “Veiled” is how non-Muslim American reference mohajiba women more often than not, and this word choice indicates the mohajiba woman has no active agency in her donning hijab. Further, this language ingrains an otherness in the perception of mohajiba women. She is foreign, even if she isn’t. She is unlike us. She is oppressed. She is “veiled.”

“Veil” evokes images of harems and Scheherazade – sensualizing and exoticizing women in hijab. Titles like Harem: The World Behind the Veil[3], Caged Virgin[4], Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women[5], My Forbidden Face[6], and The Jewel of Medina[7] fill the shelves of major chain booksellers, leaving the American public with a biased and two dimensional understanding of hijab and Muslim women. A CNN special on the status of Afghan women was unsurprisingly named “Lifting the Veil[8]” – yet another semantic setback to understanding Muslim women. While the atrocities against Afghan women wrought under the Taliban government should rightly command media attention, reducing these atrocities to “veiling” only serves to demonstrate the systematic misconceptions non-Muslim America has about hijab. The CNN special’s title offends because it does not address the real problems facing women in Afghanistan but instead panders to Orientalist imagery. The “veiling” worldview keeps the non-Muslim community from being able to see past hijab as a symbol to what it really is – a dynamic and individually motivated aspect of a Muslim woman’s identity and religious repertoire.

Hijab is not a monolithic symbol of faith and culture. It is a part – not the whole – of a mohajiba woman’s identity and reflects her faith and as well as her taste in fashion and sense of style.
Hijab means something different to each woman wearing it. For some, they grow up in homes where hijab is the norm, following the lead of their mothers and sisters. For others, they make a more deliberate decision about wearing hijab, with myriad motivations – some women wear hijab as an act of faith, some to make a politically charged statement, and some wear it as a means of connection to a new faith.

Quite often being mohajiba in America invites questions of a Muslim woman about her faith and her motivations. Some simply cannot conceive that a woman – educated, liberated, a part of American society – would make the decision to wear hijab. I have frequently encountered friends and colleagues who cannot understand why anyone, especially a woman, would willingly convert[9] to Islam – surely it is just some sad circumstance others are born into – let alone “be veiled.” What they fail to understand is the capacity of Islam as a liberation theology and wearing hijab as an act of feminism. Islamic feminism, which seeks social justice and equality through an Islamic context, views the “sexual liberation” of Western feminism as a ruse of patriarchy, enticing women to parade themselves under a guise of self-possession and personal freedom. Wearing hijab is not a tool to hide women away from society – it is a way for women to liberate themselves from objectification. Islamic feminism challenges its Western counterpart,and it asserts that Islam and hijab are a means of empowerment for women. Engendering this understanding about hijab and Islam in non-Muslim America is key to Muslim growth in American society and the growth of our nation.

America’s misunderstanding of Islam is best crystallized in its misunderstanding of hijab. Hijab has become the go-to image demonstrating Islam’s incompatibility with American society and values. But 60 years ago, women working outside the home and interracial relationships were incompatible with American society and values. Our conception of being American is (wonderfully) dynamic and expanding. Being Muslim or wearing hijab does not contradict what it means to be American – what it means to be American needs to catch up with its national reality. With engagement and education, America will come to better understand its Muslims, and in time Islam and hijab will become a part of framework of American society.

[1] “Hijab” is commonly understood as a synonym for “veil,” but it refers to a wider understanding of modesty and
privacy. For our purposes, “hijab” refers to the headscarf worn by Muslim women.

[2] “Mohajiba” is a term (from the Arabic) for a woman who wears hijab

[3] Alev Lytle Croutier, 1989

[4] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2006

[5] Geraldine Brooks, 1995

[6] Latifa, 2003

[7] Sherry Jones, 2008

[8] CNN, aired September 15, 2007

[9] Islamic belief informs that all people are born in pure state of Islam that is later adulterated when one is raised inanother faith, so many who become Muslim (are not born into Muslim families) call themselves “reverts” because they have reverted to the pure state of Islam. Still many who choose to become Muslim prefer the term convert.

Both are used in the discourse on becoming Muslim.

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