Friday, July 6, 2012

curtains: why i don't wear hijab

on one of these shimmering hot summer afternoons, i was standing outside the israeli coffee shop on the end of west broadway and franklin talking to a guy who was trying to get some shade under the scaffolding.

he said to me, "if you're a muslim, why are you wearing regular clothes?"

i said, "because i'm an american muslim."

he was just making conversation. wondering. not trying to be provocative or offensive. but it made me think.

i am a practicing american muslim woman.

i don't cover my hair (or face) nor do i feel the need to.

one disclaimer:

lots of bright, educated, independent women i know personally do cover. they do it, not because anyone is forcing them to, but because they believe it is important. since - from what i've read - the practice of headcovering comes from byzantine christian and early jewish practice, my friends who cover include muslims and jews of various stripes. 

as a muslim, what is forbidden is getting in the way anyone else's practice or connection with the Divine - unless, of course, it involves harming or oppressing others - so i only speak for myself here.

let me explain further. the word "hijab" in arabic means a "screen or curtain." in current usage, it refers to the veil or scarf that covers the head. in the vernacular, women who cover are called, "hijabis." (if they cover their heads while working their lashes, lips and hips to advantage, one of my favorite muslim stand-up comics, maysoon zayid, calls them "hojabis.")

most muslim women wear a ritual headcover in while performing their prayers, as a sign of reverence or respect for the sacred space or conversation. however, the majority of muslim women in the world do not wear a hair covering on a day-to-day basis. 

certainly, no one should be forced or feel pressured to cover, just as no one should be forced not to. for my sisters who are recent converts or reverts, wearing a headcover can make you feel like part of your new group, but it can also isolate you from your old friends. 

i agree that there's political and social value in the headcover as a statement of solidarity. as a child and a teenager, i wore a black armband when john lennon died and then an interview magazine t-shirt to mark the death of andy warhol. (yes, my causes were lightweight then but so was i).

in the years after september 11, when so many american muslims were frightened of identifying themselves, i proudly walked the streets wearing my "one more muslim for peace" t-shirt. i gave them to friends, i sold them online.

in my world of lower manhattan, wearing a scarf over one's head sets one apart. it's not a red flag, but a clear identifier, nonetheless. walking through soho the other day, i passed two singers: m.i.a. in a kuffiyeh and courtney love in her regular blond hair. everyone (even people who clearly didn't know who she was) was looking at m.i.a. while courtney walked by without turning any heads. (admittedly, m.i.a's very pretty, no matter what's on her hair but the headcover really made her stand out.)

the two Quranic verses most often used to describe the required dress for muslims of all genders suggest that we attempt to be modest. the goal is not to distract your fellow humans from their path or disconnect them from their relationship with Source. the verses come sura an-nur (chapter 24 in a traditional quran).* i'm using three translations here so that i am clear:

30: Tell the believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts. There is for them goodness in this. God is aware of what they do.

31: Tell the believing women to lower their eyes, guard their private parts and not display their charms except what is outwardly apparent and cover their bosoms with their veils not to show their finery…

30: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity – [and] verily God is aware of all that they do.

31: And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof, hence let them draw their head coverings over their bosoms.

translation by Muhammed Asad

30: Tell the ones who believe to lower their sight and keep their private parts safe. That is purer for them, truly God is aware of what they craft.

31: Say to ones who are female believers to lower their sight, and keep their private parts safe, and not show their adornment, except what is manifest of it; and let them draw their head covering over their bosoms, and not show their adornments.

in recent times, the suggestion is that the Quranic "man" or "believer" refers to all muslims male and female. thus Laleh Bakhtiar's translation updates those references. hers is the first official translation by a woman.

in Muhammed Asad's brilliant footnotes he says that the code of dress is deliberately left vague so as to encompass all the cultural changes to come. if the Quran is to be seen as guide throughout the ages, then it must remain relevant and we shouldn't confuse cultural mores for religious duties.

clearly, flashing the breasts in public is not allowed for muslim women ever (apparently, it was common for women to go barechested in those times). but there is no suggestion that one should cover one's hair or face. 

instead, it's possible that women are being told to take that veil off their heads and put it over their chests. 

BOTH men and women are admonished not to look lustfully at their fellow humans. 

we are told to "lower our gaze" to avoid seeing anything that we shouldn't. in my understanding, that also means we are not meant to judge each other - for good or bad. our gaze carries our criticism and disapproval as well as our desire. perhaps the eyes are not the mirrors to the soul, but one of the ways the soul slips out to the dangers of the physical world.

if the headcover is cultural tradition, then it carries no moral weight. i'm not a better person or muslim for wearing a hijab, nor am i worse. (and there are those who would say that no hijab could have saved me from my wayward self. it's just a strip of cloth, after all.)

the great thing about living in today's layered, connected world is that we can choose the part or parts of the world's cultures that best fit our identities. we can all get hennaed hands or feet, or wear saris or skirts or t-shirts. we can choose what our tattoos mean and wear cowboy hats even to walk dogs in manhattan.

for me, i am a new yorker and that means dressing like one. which means sometimes a dress and sometimes a shalwar or a sari or jeans.

one morning at school drop-off, i told a muslim friend that, when my days got really busy, i prayed while i did my early morning laps. she was shocked.

"in your bathing suit? how do you cover your head?" 

i swim in a public pool so i am required to wear a swimming cap, but i answered, "God's seen the top of my head before." the respect comes from inside, from my focus and my remembrance, not from my scarf.

from my understanding of Islam, the goal is not to draw attention to myself, which i would do if i was the only person doing the crawl in a burkini in the college pool. i can only imagine how much attention i would draw on a crowded summer beach in a coat and hat. out in the world, as opposed to a house of worship, one is dressing for utility, not ritual. 

and what about the heat?

i was on a webchat discussing women and fitness and "modesty" recently. amongst the other participants was a jewish woman who had started a "modest" bathing suit company. one woman complained about all the stares she got on the beach when she tried to dress "modestly." 

i said something about "modesty" being a relative term and about making a statement and then wondering why people respond. the bathing suit woman disagreed, "[when you cover] you are dressing the way God wants you to. you aren't dressing for anyone else. so who cares if they stare?"

i disagree. in my understanding of Divine Love, you are adored in totality (including every inch of skin and flesh with or without adornment). all you have to do is love back - as well as loving and respecting your fellow creatures. on the other hand, what you do with this flesh is about your relationship with the material planet. how you help and inspire other beings in the world.

these verses have a clear historical context, thus they are less relevant in the life of a muslim woman today.

in verse 53, the new muslims are asked to address the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) from behind a curtain or screen, i.e., the "hijab," to maintain a degree of propriety. in other words, we should be especially respectful of the wives of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) and keep a distance - to allow them their space and safety.

and in verse 59, muslim women are told to "draw your wraps about you so you will be recognized" and protected when out in the street. again, at that time, women of the new and burgeoning were often harrassed when abroad. thus, wearing a covering allowed them a degree of safety. 

however, in both verses, whether it was a screen or a wrap, it was a kindness, an intercession for the women's comfort and ease. it was not an obligation or a duty for them. 

i saw a video on youtube where a young woman experiences her headcover as liberating her from the oppression of fashion and men's glances. her righteous self explains that fashion is just fitting into men's ideals. she's going to stop worrying about her appearance and start focusing on her soul. with a hijab on her head, she belongs to no one but herself. 

the flaw for me was that i do think one's appearance is important. partly out of respect for one's fellow human beings and partly for the pleasure of adornment. it is fun to get dressed up. and the people you get dressed up for are usually happy you made the effort. 

so let's get rid of that theory about fashion existing just to please men. if that were the case, we wouldn't be wearing balenciaga and dior. most fashion designers are gay men who turn us into pretty, elegant shapes but not man-magnets.  your girlfriends appreciate your chanel boots a million times more than the guys. when you hobble along in painfully tall alexander wang shoes, your self-inflicted punishment only pleases you and the men doing the books at the shoe company.

fashion is also blamed for causing anorexia and bulimia, and it is clear that those sharp pointy collar bones and ribs do nothing for the stimulation of most men.

on the other hand, i do believe there is an oversexualization of children. like this onesie printed with a bikini, i don't believe adult expectations should be imposed on children. if children are (correctly) not seen as sexual beings by adults, then why do we see two and three year-old girls with tiny head and body wraps? what do they have to hide or reveal?

i don't force my teenaged daughters to wear hijab (actually, i can't seem to force them to do much of anything these days). i have tried to instill a sense of respect for their bodies and the people around. i've tried to teach them to love and look after their bodies. that includes being conscious of the message your appearance projects. 

we can't pretend that appearance isn't important.

in the veil experiment, florida college students tried wearing a headcover on the street and found that they were ignored in shops and unrecognized by their friends and family. i am not sure that being treated as someone even less than human is the goal either. though that was an exercise in experiencing bigotry.

the nature of being a writer means one is an exhibitionist. whether or not your work is autobiographical, you cannot write - especially not fiction - without exposing the mechanisms of your emotions and a bit of your soul. the details may be made up, but the spirit that embodies them, the breath that makes the story come to life is your own.

thus, perhaps, my choice not to wear a hijab is the thing that makes me quieter, makes my devotion intensely personal. it also makes my cultural choice (in this instance) closer to that of an everyday american. watching the posturing and absurd mudslinging in the current election, that's something that i don't always feel like i am.

re-reading this - here's one of the BEST discussions of hijab I have ever heard online. Thank you also to Samina Ali.

*thank you to my mother, bibi meer, and my aunt, alia hogben (of the canadian muslim women's council) for their help in my research and support in my writing. i am so grateful for the powerful women around me who don't always (or often) agree with my stands but back me up nonetheless.


  1. tina lekas millerJuly 7, 2012 at 1:54 AM

    I liked this article, Ameena. Thanks for writing it.

  2. thank you for the illuminating insights!

  3. Assalamu Walaikum sister,

    I love this article. I, myself, wish to wear the Hijab but not as a religious duty or to avert the looks of men, but as a constant reminder of God's presence with me and in me. I am a convert and sometimes reminding myself, and others that I am a Muslim is easier with a Hijab on. I don't have to tell people, they are not shocked when they hear I'm a Muslim: clearly, they can see it. And while I do not promote the wear of the Hijab, I am happy to wear it and find it a thing of beauty and representation, much like I do the Pride flag attached to my backpack or the cross I used to wear as a child from a Christian family.

    I guess for me, clothes have always been a descriptive: I was goth through my teenage years, or preppy earlier on while trying to fit in, and whore only professional when university came about... So you see, this is another perspective of wearing a head scarf, and that makes me incredibly proud to be identifiable as a Muslim. Your article, however, is going to help me bring light to my friends and family who ask me why I do: well for the same reasons Ameena is not wearing, I'm not wearing it, my reasons are these...

    Thank you!

  4. Amina i never disagreed with you Its not b/c American Muslim should be or consider different than any knowledgeable muslim out side America .There are vilest terrible and worst non American Muslim So i think adding an adjective or hyphen is not necessary .If you have any doubt about my perspective on issues discussed above i will appreciate your opion but i warn you i am not good in english atleast like you .

  5. As-salaamu alaikum! I reverted to Islam 08.08.14 and wear the headscarf. But I've read that Muslimahs like you and Sr. Laleh Bakhtiar do not. I love showing that I'm Muslim, but I fear the Islamophobic reactions and am tempted to go "topless".
    Question: Do you or other non-hijabis pray salt with or without the headscarf? Why or why not?
    Thank you!

    1. salaams khadijah - most of the women who don't veil do cover when they pray salat. but i know some who don't, too. i know, in my case, in times when i am rushing around, i don't always cover because i believe that God/Allah sees my intention. but lots of times, i DO cover when i pray because i feel like it's respectful and puts me in a state of meditation, helps me reach closer into the heart. as for whether or not, you cover, you will have to find the solution that works best for you. but know that your Creator knows what's in your heart, and if your heart and intentions are pure, that's what matters.

  6. As-salaamu alaikum! I reverted to Islam 08.08.14 and wear the headscarf. But I've read that Muslimahs like you and Sr. Laleh Bakhtiar do not. I love showing that I'm Muslim, but I fear the Islamophobic reactions and am tempted to go "topless".
    Question: Do you or other non-hijabis pray salt with or without the headscarf? Why or why not?
    Thank you!