Is Wearing Hijab a Feminist Statement?

This video, via The Guardian’s Comment Is Free and featuring Hanna Yusef, was brought to my attention by Nathan Zwierzynski (transcript):

Speaking as someone who also used to wear hijab and claim it was a bold feminist act, I will say that there is a lot to unpack here, none of which can be addressed without nuance and care.
Continue reading “Is Wearing Hijab a Feminist Statement?”

Is Wearing Hijab a Feminist Statement?

Reducing Ourselves to Numbers: When More Is Less

Content Notice for Body Image & Eating Disorders

Once upon a time, society told me that my worth began and ended with my body. More precisely, I, like everyone else in my context, had been born into a society where other people thought that a designated-female person’s body held the beginning, the end, and everything in between when it came to her value.

I grew up in a particular version of Purity Culture where more was less in terms of how much of your body you revealed; the more you covered your body, the better of a person you were assumed to be. Women and girls were judged by the fit of their dresses, the opacity of their leggings and tights, the arch of their brows, the polish on their fingernails. Their faces were scanned for traces of makeup and religious teachers consulted about the Sharia legality of brown eyeliner on brown skin. A secret point system existed that was used to assess the merit of female human beings and decide how they were to be treated: Avoided, Befriended, Befriended Closely, Befriended Closely Enough to Ask for Marriage to a Male Relative.

In the broader context of society, the point system was more obvious, the scale by which my value assessed more literal. My awareness that less was more began with playground bullies, some of whom were relatives, and was later confirmed by doctors and other medical professionals. Before that, my higher-percentile height and weight were considered assets, signs that I was growing up healthy and strong and fast. At some point, the numbers began to weigh my value down, what once indicated success mutating into an a sign of failure. “Big girl” went from being a compliment to a slur practically overnight. Continue reading “Reducing Ourselves to Numbers: When More Is Less”

Reducing Ourselves to Numbers: When More Is Less

Allah’s Little Ambassador: What Hijab Is & Isn’t

A few weeks back, I gave a talk at the first Sexy Secular Conference in Akron, OH, with the title Virgins, Raisins, & Sexy Serving Boys: Decoding Female Sexuality in Islam.

I had a lot of fun giving the talk and attending the con — shout-out to the organizers who put the it all together. Even disregarding the fact that it was just their first year doing it and that they are students, it was a remarkably smooth, well-run, well-organized event that I look forward to attending again.

If you watch the video, you’ll notice that the videographer, Rob of Hambone Productions, was cool enough to caption and cut out the questions during the Q&A rather than include them, for which many of us are grateful. In a conversation following my talk, the asker of one of the questions hit upon a disconnect worth noting: the difference in what a non-Muslim sees when they behold a woman in hijab versus what she might be expressing by wearing hijab.

You see, the asker explained, he did not feel that he was singling out Muslim women by asking them about their religion. He does the same with Christians wearing crosses, Jews wearing Stars of David, and so forth. He thinks that it’s interesting that they choose to wear a symbol of their faith and believes that doing so invites him to ask them about their beliefs.

So, there are two problems here.

Firstly, this is a gendered matter. Women are often treated as if we exist for the benefit of society rather than as individuals. I have personally felt the effects of this assumption quite heavily. When I wore a headscarf, I was condescended to, gently chided, yelled at, ignorantly questioned, rudely interrogated, violently accosted, and have otherwise had my day disrupted thanks to my headscarf. After I de-veiled, I assumed that I could be normal, blend in, and live my life without being bothered. Not so — street harassment of the more sexually racist kind replaced the garden-variety racism I had experienced before. Until women are generally treated as people rather than as representatives of their gender or any other such category, it’s important to keep in mind what we are doing when we expect a woman to serve as ambassador for an entire group of people — doubly so when that group is a minority one.


Secondly, conflating the headscarf with any other religious symbol is at least somewhat fallacious. The reason that Muslim women wear headscarves is not so that they can be Allah’s ambassadors to the world. Indeed, dawah, or calling people to Islam, is traditionally done by men if it is for the benefit of men. Stricter interpretations of Islam, i.e. the sort that many scarf-wearing Muslim women follow, limit the amount and type of interactions that might occur between men and women. This brings us to the underlying reason why Muslim women cover, according to Islam: to live in accordance to Islamic standards of modesty. For a practicing Muslim woman who adheres to that interpretation of Islam, putting on a headscarf is as essential as putting on a shirt. While a Christian woman can choose to not wear a crucifix because she happens to not want to wear one that day, a Muslim woman who has committed to hijab wears her headscarf as part of her basic wardrobe.

There do indeed exist Muslim women who wear the headscarf as a way to portray Islam in a more positive light who would be happy to talk to you about their choices and their faith. There also exist Muslim women who, for whatever reason, are uninterested in being an open-source educational resource to the public. Assuming that a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman exists to satisfy the curiosity of strangers is to both play into gender myths and misunderstand what covering up means to most Muslim women.

Allah’s Little Ambassador: What Hijab Is & Isn’t

When the “Experiment” Never Ends

Tonight (or last night, depending on whom you ask, as the whole Hijri calendar thing is very complicated) marks the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Too many people think that Ramadan is Muslim Christmas. It isn’t: Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, is. Ramadan is more like Lent or Yom Kippur, except longer and involving less in the way of the permission to drink water during the day.


There are those who misconstrue Ramadan, and then there are those who see only part of it and decide that it would be fun to try it out. Similarly, there are non-Muslim women who try out their own versions of Islamic “modesty” for set time periods (it’s a little played at this point). Lacking a Muslim background means that such people get to waltz into and then out of their own personalized versions of Islamic practices. Invariably, they are praised for their open-mindedness by fellow non-Muslims and by Muslims alike . They adopt the most showy (read: Other) aspects of Islam, like “modesty” or fasting, abandon them, and then write about it to the applause of the audience.

How brave. How novel.

Except that there’s nothing novel about it. Plenty of people engage in Islamic practices that they later stop doing, and then start again, and then stop again. They’re called “Muslims” and they’re far from an insignificant portion of the world population. As for the alleged bravery, some people leave Islamic practices behind not to the praise of all, but to severe consequences. My personal “modesty experiment” lasted for about a decade and a half. It was my life. I couldn’t walk blithely away from it when I was done, Salon feature in hand. Due to filial pressure and its accompanying personal guilt, I wore a headscarf and dressed according to Islamic law for quite a while after becoming an atheist.

The difference between the experimenters and me is that I actually belong to the community from which such practices originate. When I was a Muslim, taking up a religious habit and then abandoning it meant experiencing a great deal of shaming and even threatening behavior from the community. As an apostate of Islam, while I do not personally subject myself to Islamic rules, I still have to adhere to them to some extent in order to interact with the Muslims in my family and my community. When I don’t, it’s painfully obvious that I am a pariah.

No time is this more true than during Ramadan. I can’t say that I miss the fasting, but I do miss the sense of solidarity, of collective ritual. I could pretend to fast but that might give the Muslims who love me some unfair and totally unrealistic hopes regarding my converting back to my former faith.

My “experiment” with Islam wasn’t chosen by me, lacked in cherry-picking, lasted for 18 years, and hasn’t ended even though, more than seven years ago, I publicly declared myself to be an atheist.

There isn’t necessarily something inherently unethical with trying out different things, even if those things are originally sourced from another culture and/or religion. Visiting another place doesn’t instantly make you a bad person. That said, there is a reason tourists haven’t exactly the best of reputations among natives — and that they are especially maligned for cluelessness.

When the “Experiment” Never Ends