In a controversial article appearing in the Washington Post, journalists and Muslim women Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa denounce the headscarf as a sexist misinterpretation of the ideals of Islam. They confront non-Muslims who have chosen to stand in solidarity with the Muslim population by covering their hair as mistakenly expressing their support by enforcing an oppressive ideology. They make a request, on behalf of women who do not cover – “Do not wear a headscarf in ‘solidarity’ with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with ‘honor.’ Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.”
This is my response.
Asra and Hala, as a Muslim woman who chooses not to cover, I’m calling your bull.
I do not cover my hair. It is a decision I have made after careful thought based on what I interpret my religion to require of me and what does and does not bring me closer to God as a worshiper. It is a conscious decision for which I apologize to no one. I have made this decision not to fit in, nor to stand out, but because it is what I believe. I do not profess to refrain out of weakness, or hope to one day become “strong enough” to cover. I am already strong in the choice I have made and ask for forgiveness only from God, as with every choice, for any unintentional misstep. I wish the same for others – whoever you are, whatever your creed, that you may choose the path that rings true in your heart and stand behind your religious and worldly decisions with the confidence that you have done the best you can with what you have and what you know – come Hell, high water, or Donald Trump.
So, I do not cover my hair. That being said, I am decidedly, vocally, unashamedly Muslim. Scarf or no scarf, I wear my faith on my sleeve. I talk about it frequently and with fervor, and the ideals and practices of Islam permeate every aspect of my life and interactions – from what I choose to put in and on my body to the language and behavior I choose to use with others.
Still, in this tense sociopolitical climate in which it is apparently acceptable for a billionaire to run for president on an unconstitutional platform that unearths an age-old form of hatred, I am not encountering even half the discrimination, resistance, and challenges that confront covered women on a daily basis. My sisters in Islam are being ridiculed, slandered, physically assaulted for the way they look and the way they express their love for God. All this, in a country whose men and women have given their lives in foreign battles for foreign innocents in the name of a universal freedom – a freedom of which its own citizens are now being deprived. In acts of utter disregard for this country’s principles and the sacrifices of its soldiers – many of whom practice Islam – Muslims around the country are being attacked for their faith. No one is more vulnerable to the violence than the women who can be mistaken for nothing else, who have essentially written “M-U-S-L-I-M” on their foreheads because they believe it is what God has asked them to do.
I can think of nothing braver.
The headscarf is indeed a symbol of modesty and dignity, of religious values and of piety – for an act of faith is made so by intention, irrespective of religious mandate: “God will not call you to account for thoughtlessness in your oaths, but for the intention in your hearts; and He is Oft-forgiving, Most Forbearing” (Quran 2:225). Covered women choose their dress with their principles in mind, just as I choose out of modesty and dignity my own clothes every morning. Covering one’s head – or any other body part for that matter – has nothing at all to do with sexuality or the preposterous idea that men are undisciplined pigs who must be shielded from womanly wiles. It is the Quran in fact that gives men a “degree of responsibility over women,” enforcing that not only are they capable of controlling their own gaze but of protecting their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers from those with lazier morals (2:228). Covered Muslim women do not – I do not – choose clothing fearing cat-calls or sexual advances or rape. We do not plan our days or our lives based on the sort of men we may encounter.
We choose what we wear because it is our God-given right to protect ourselves and our modesty, our dignity in any way we may elect to do so.
My flesh is my own, not for just anyone – sexist or saint – to view at any given moment, whether for just a moment before he looks away or for as long as he may please. It is especially not on display for someone who sees it as simply flesh. And so I choose to cover – not to hide, not to blend in, not to minimize my beauty – but to cover my body to whatever degree I please, out of respect for myself and my autonomy: You may choose to look, but I choose what you get to see. The headscarves of covered women, like my own clothes, are not burdens borne because of the careless instincts of men but identities, donned proudly and without shame: We are women, daughters of Adam (pbuh), and we will not be trifled with.
If in spite of this you ogle, that is on you – and society help you, because Heaven certainly won’t.
To think that anyone would question this choice – a covered woman’s choice – is heinous. But that another Muslim woman would question this choice – a woman who chooses not to cover challenging a woman who does – is suicidal.
First, a cautionary word to Mses. Nomani and Arafa and to any woman who may agree with their point of view:
You may write and speak what you please. You may plaster your personal opinion all over the media, denounce another Muslim woman’s choice to cover more skin than you think appropriate. But do not, then, bemoan unequal pay. Do not lament rape culture or the glass ceiling or the stain of domestic violence plaguing our communities today. Do not complain about access to birth control or abortion, about American or Saudi or Afghani or Pakistani women being deprived of education or healthcare or the right to drive/vote/marry as they please.
Do not turn to men or society or the government and accuse one or all of them of taking away your rights – in not protecting your sister, you have given them away for free.
Because feminism, you see, is indeed a basic tenet of Islam. It is promoting for women the same rights and privileges afforded to men, indeed sometimes more – but before even that Islamic feminism is supporting for your fellow sister in Islam the same courtesy and respect irrespective of how she expresses her love for God. Regardless of how she chooses to believe, feminism in Islam lies in not believing yourself to be higher than her. If you do not grasp this basic concept, you do not grasp Islamic feminism, nor can you speak for the majority of Muslim women – covered or not. You cannot speak for me.
Then, a few requests:
First, to the women who do not cover – Stand unfalteringly beside your sisters who do. More than once, they have taken a snide comment or a dirty look from someone who would have thrown it your way if only they knew. Far too often they have been judged from a distance, without being given the right to speak as you have been. The level of courage it takes them to step out of the house every morning – that it takes my mother and mother-in-law to step out of the house every morning – you and I may never know, unless we one day of our own free will choose similarly.
Next, to the women who do cover and are deciding how to respond – Do not judge the women who choose differently. Do not accuse us of not following God’s command. Do not charge us with weakness or incomprehension or indifferently impious self-exposure. Your anger in response to the article in the Washington Post is understandable, but do not make the same mistake of generalizing your sentiment. Remember that you cannot glance at us and know our faith any more than a non-Muslim can glance at you and know yours. Support our decision, because we have not made it lightly.
Finally, to the non-Muslim men and women who want to help – I, as a Muslim woman who does not cover, ask you to wear the hijab if you do so in solidarity. I ask you to decorate your churches and your synagogues, to say something to the family/friends/strangers who may endorse discrimination in your presence. I ask you to support Muslim businesses and find the Muslims – covered and uncovered – in your communities and social circles and approach them with polite curiosity and an open heart. I ask you to speak in our favor, to take every action you can think of to stand with us against bigotry and hatred, because we, too, are brothers and sisters. Because when one of us falls victim to an act of discrimination, we all assume the responsibility and stoop a little closer to the ground. Because the blood of slavery, the Holocaust, and Japanese internment is on the hands of every single person who had the choice, and chose silence. Because our flesh is equally precious. Because we all reap the benefit of a single success, a single act of love that brightens the future of the generation to come. Because the God I believe in “verily will not suffer the reward of the righteous to perish” (11:115).
I humbly ask you to stand with us in our peaceful choices. Asra Nomani can say what she wants.