It’s Time to Understand the Islamic Veil | Sojourners

It’s Time to Understand the Islamic Veil

From French beach towns banning the burkini to Norway attempting to outlaw the hijab from workplaces to the U.S.’s increasing incidents of discrimination and violence against veiled women, Muslim women’s clothing continues to receive much negative attention.

In a political environment in which the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. is particularly strong, and Europe is facing backlash against refugees and minority populations, a timely new anthology, Mirror on the Veil, offers a refreshing and important look at the very visible practice of veiling among Muslim women.

Faizah Afzal Malik, a fashion blogger, penned the essay “A Million Scattered Pieces” in the anthology, and tells the story of why and how she first started to cover herself five years ago. For her, the hijab was a symbol of piety and closeness to God. Unfortunately, it is not seen as such by many in the Western world. In an interview, Malik told Sojourners about some of the misconceptions of hijab.

“Some members of my family assumed I'd grown more religious despite the only change being that I dressed more modestly than before, and there were assumptions that my husband told me to wear it, which was not the case,” she said.

Since beginning to wear the hijab, Malik said she has experienced a physical and a verbal attack, both of which she considers racially and religiously motivated.

Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi, psychology professor at the University of Houston and co-editor of Mirror on the Veil, has done extensive research on the topic of veiling, including how people outside the veiled community – commonly known as hijabis – perceive them.

“As western media outlets gloss over diversity and portray Muslims as one monolithic nation, the veil becomes symbolic of those people,” she wrote in her introduction to the anthology. “As Islamophobia continues to spread, the hijab becomes even more ingrained as the symbol of Islam the world over.”

This Islamophobia has presented many challenges to Muslim women, in particular those who veil or cover themselves in some form. In the essay “Beautiful,” author Cassie (Nadiya) Madison, a white former atheist who converted to Islam, wrote she understands that the hijab becomes was a symbol of foreignness even for those who are born in Western society. Madison recounts several disturbing experiences, including encountering a New Yorker who shouted “go back to where you came from.”

In an interview with Sojourners, Pasha-Zaidi said she predicts that these incidents will only become more common as the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and America increases. She said she is especially concerned about the anti-hijab legislation that is sweeping Europe these days.

“I think that the more you tell people not to do something, the more likely they are to embrace it. Anti-hijab legislation only adds to discord among people by creating divisions between us and them,” she said.

Rev. Nell Green of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has lived in Muslim-majority countries for much of her professional life. Now back in the U.S., she frequently speaks about Muslim women to Christian audiences with the aim of teaching sensitivity and interfaith understanding. She is aware that in some parts of the Muslim world, women are forced to cover themselves, and that cultural traditions sometimes overshadow the freedom that Islam itself provides in matters of faith.

However, she is also aware of the discomfort that Christian audiences often have when they see the hijab, and part of her work is to help them discover points of similarity between various religious practices.

“Hijab is an open sign or designation of a particular faith,” she told Sojourners. “But Christians should remember that they also have many obvious expressions of faith, whether it is a cross or a T-shirt or a bumper sticker.”

In addition to her work with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Green is the co-owner of a clothing design company, Threads by Nomad, that helps women celebrate diversity through design and provides a sustainable income for refugees. This effort helps, among other things, teach about clothing differences across cultures.

“There is no one-size-fits-all idea about hijab,” she said. “For some it is tradition, and for some it is an issue of faith. For others it is a result of societal pressure. It would be unfair to categorize all Muslim women as falling into only one category.”

Pasha-Zaidi agreed with Green’s assessment. In her conversation with Sojourners, she stressed that the act of wearing the hijab is very different in Muslim-majority countries than it is in the West.

“In the Middle East, religion is not seen as separate from the rest of your life and so wearing the hijab is part of the norm,” Pasha-Zaidi, who has lived in the UAE, said. “The ways in which it is worn represents one's nationality, social class, and ethnic background. Conversely, in the U.S., there is more of a tendency to lump people together into one category because the nuances of being Muslim are often not understood.”

In fact, the hijab fashion and lifestyle internet is exploding at the moment, running the gamut from modest clothing sites to You-Tube tutorials on how to wear a headscarf, and video bloggers to Instagrammers and much more. Click here and here for some amazing hijabi links that will shatter stereotypes and portray all the nuances within the Islamic world.

These nuances are the reason why anthologies like Mirror on the Veil are crucial. They shed a powerful light not only on Muslim women and the intricacies of thought and practice among them: the hijabis who cover themselves, the non-hijabis who reject the veil, and all the shades in between.

Excerpt from the essay “Never Good Enough” by Shaheen Pasha, co-editor of the anthology Mirror on the Veil

I was living in Central New Jersey at the time, a senior at a high school that seemed to be going through some sort of religious revival. The Muslim students I had laughed and joked with just one year earlier were now becoming more outwardly religious. The boys began growing beards and wearing long kurtas over their jeans. And the girls were suddenly covering their hair and taking it upon themselves to enlighten other Muslim sisters in the school to do the same. I was one of their projects.

Putting hijab on my hair became the personal mission of one Muslim sister, in particular. Her name was Yasmeen and she was a convert. She had not only donned the hijab but had also taken to covering her face and wearing a full burka to school. There was no doubt she was serious about her beliefs. And I, with my long hair now worn loose at school in rebellion at my mom’s strict admonitions, was an affront to her.

So she began to call me. Every day.

And in her soft voice, she would lecture me about being a good Muslim. Did I not love God? If I did, how could I take the beauty He had given me and parade it around other men? Did I not realise that every time I walked past men with my hair uncovered, I was disrespecting the other Muslim women? That I was acting as if I was above them and trying to tempt the other Muslim brothers?

“If you were to ever to bother to pray salat, you would know that it’s required to cover your hair when you stand before God,” she argued one afternoon. I jumped on this as the one thing I had a tangible argument for.

“I do pray,” I told her. I was not a bad Muslim, I reasoned.

She simply sighed and said, “Sister, do you think God will accept the prayers of someone who only covers her hair in front of Him but immediately goes back to waving her hair in front of men, seducing them, as soon as she steps off the prayer mat?”

The words struck me like a smack in the face. I considered myself to be religious. I prayed five times a day. I wore loose, baggy clothes that hid my figure and I refused to date, putting off would-be boyfriends with the explanation that it was against my religion to be with a man before marriage. I tried to be a good person to my friends and a good daughter to my parents, believing that I was a good Muslim. But after I hung up the phone on Yasmeen that afternoon, all I could think was that I just wasn’t good enough. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what I did. My worth as a Muslim would be measured only by the piece of cloth that I chose not to wrap around my head.

I refused to admit it for years, but Yasmeen’s words poisoned something inside of me. I developed a very complex relationship with hijab through college and my twenties. Before, I had seen all Muslim women as the same. We were all sisters on different places on the same spectrum. I didn’t judge a hijabi and I didn’t feel judged by one. But that all changed in the aftermath of those phone calls. Suddenly, as more Muslim girls I knew began to don the hijab, I felt isolated. I felt judged. I felt like there was a club that I no longer belonged to. I could observe it but always as a woman on the periphery. Over time, I stopped caring about belonging to that Muslim club.

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