Marwa Berro was raised as a Lebanese Muslim. She now lives in the United States. Recently, from my vantage as a feminist and former Christian fundamentalist, I wrote an article asking whether the hijab is a symbol of diversity or oppression of women. Marwa wrote back and let me know gently but firmly that she and other women from Muslim backgrounds have their own thoughts on the subject.
Head and body coverings for Muslim women have become powerful political symbols in recent years in North America. To the American Right, the hijab and burka are visible indicators of a violent clash of cultures or an immigrant invasion. For the political Left -- which is reacting against the oppression of Palestinians, American aggression in the Middle East and Right-wing xenophobia -- hijab has become a symbol of diversity, as in Coca-Cola's super bowl ad. To further complicate the matter, "religious freedom" has become a political and legal trump card used by conservatives seeking to roll back gay rights and family planning, and to secure government contracts or funding for religious institutions. However, the same people arguing for religious freedom often are uncomfortable with the free exercise of Islam.
Within Islam, perspectives on veiling vary. Middle East scholar Marnia Lazreg argues that hijab is not one of the pillars of Islam and that the resurgence of veiling has been systematically driven forward as a matter more of politics than piety. On the other hand, Saudi religious police recently banned a book entitled, A History of Hijab, deeming debate on the topic anti-Islamic.
In all of the back and forth, questions of women's rights and wellbeing often become pawns, excuses to do or not do something that serves the purposes of men, nation states and ideologies. The dominant voices are not those of women who wear or have worn the hijab, nor even women's advocates more broadly.
Recently, several articles have highlighted the perspectives of Muslim women who experience their use of the hijab or abaya as voluntary and feminist. By contrast, this article gives voice to three women who have left Islam. In it, they look back on their combined 32 years in the hijab, examining their own experience and offering their perspectives on the current debate.
Marwa Berro (a pen name) is a Lebanese-American writer and philosopher. She grew up between Saudi Arabia and her native Lebanon and lives now in the United States. She writes narrative essays and reasoned critique of the societal structures that govern Muslim-majority societies at Between a Veil and a Dark Place, and she offers support to other women questioning Islam at Hi Reddit!.
Reem Abdel-Razek, is a twenty-one year old Egyptian blogger and translator who lives in New York. She writes the blog for the Centre for Secular Space, a transnational think tank which aims to strengthen secular voices, fight religious fundamentalism and promote universality in human rights.
Heina Dadabhoy was raised Muslim in the United States. Now a self-described atheist, she writes for Skepchick blog and is a sought-after speaker on topics including Islam, feminism, skepticism, gender, culture and the intersections of the above.
How did you come to wear the hijab, and what did it mean to you at the time?
Marwa: I grew up in a very conservative Shia family, who believe it to be fardh (required) for young girls to begin to wear the hijab by their 9th lunar year birthday. I was asked if I wanted to wear it, and said yes -- as if a child is capable of comprehending the implications of such a decision. The rhetoric surrounding it when I was a child was simple and easy for me to find appealing: the hijab was protective, like an oyster around a pearl, keeping the most precious and special things safe and guarded. It was a matter of dignity, pride, joy.
In my fifteen years wearing the hijab, I progressed through many stages of my understanding of the hijab, especially as I became circumspect enough to realize that the beautiful concept I had appreciated as a child was based on a flawed, dehumanizing analogy of comparing women to objects, such as pearls and wrapped pieces of candy. So in short, the hijab meant many different things to me at different points in time, and the journey to leaving it behind was a long one of exploration, questioning and self-examination.
What were the advantages to wearing hijab?
Heina: I wore hijab for a decade (ages 8 to 18). It seemed like the right thing to do to please my parents, many of my older relatives, my teachers at my religious school (a headscarf was part of the uniform for the Islamic girls' school I attended in London for a year), and, of course, Allah. I was also a very literal and devout child. I wanted to make sure that I obeyed Allah as much as possible. As I got older, my body image and Western upbringing began to play a more important role in why I covered myself. I have been overweight ever since I could remember, and anything that could take attention away from my body was welcomed by me. I saw the Oprah shows on eating disorders and attended the Killing Us Softly assembly at school. As the fat girl subjected to merciless teasing, they really spoke to me. I unwittingly adopted Western second-wave feminist rhetoric in my conceptions around wearing hijab: I thought that I was fighting against the beauty myth by focusing on my mind and spirit instead of my looks.
After I de-veiled, going out without hijab subjected to me to a lot more scrutiny of my body type, size and styling choices; it felt overwhelming at times. Additionally, I came to realize that my non-white appearance affected others' treatment of me. Before that, I assumed that people othered me because of my headscarf, not because of perceptions of my race...In the U.S., I was subjected to street harassment when I wore hijab, along the lines of men yelling out "Osama bin Laden!" or "fucking Arab, go home," at me, but nothing sexual. After I de-veiled, I started getting sexually harassed. That said, I have noticed that Muslim men in the UK sexually harass women with or without hijab, or even niqab.
Why and how did you stop?
Reem: I had started wearing hijab at ten and took it off just before I turned eighteen. I wore it at my father's request in a desperate attempt to win his approval. At the time that was all it meant to me, approval. I wasn't aware how drastically it would change my life. Not long after wearing it at ten did my parents pull me from karate class, soccer practice, school plays, yearbook photos etc... Family members started coaching me on how to act shy, fragile and dumb. They said hijab is not merely a head covering, but a lifestyle. And what a miserable lifestyle it was for me! Things like running and laughing started to become a distant memory. I wasn't quite aware of it at the time but I was slowly disappearing.
Over time I became severely depressed. I felt empty, like a robot or a zombie, but not truly able to pinpoint the reason. One day, I got an email from my father and aunt with an ad for hijab in which the hijab acted as a protective barrier between a lollipop and flies. And I had an epiphany, there it was, the reason I felt nonhuman. I was, according to the email my own family members sent me...a thing. And it occurred to me that the only way I could take my life back was by unveiling, not only my hair, but also my true nature. I would have to obliterate the persona that I was so carefully molded into in order to discover who I really was.
Marwa: There is so much complexity regarding the ideology of the hijab, and my stances regarding it can only be summarized here. I stopped, in short, because I took severe issue with the ideology behind it. At first, I thought it to be humanizing, a defense against being treated as a sex object, a guarding and preserving thing. I later realized it did the very opposite of those things. As a child, the hijab hyper-sexualized my body, and I understood this at first through the way my body was regarded but not with discretely worded concepts: I had not even developed breasts yet, but my arms and hair and legs had to be obscured by wide swaths of cloth in case any of those things might be considered tempting or alluring.
I first attempted to take it off when I was thirteen-years-old. At this point in my life, I was living in Saudi Arabia, where I attended an American international school with an expat community from all over the globe. There were only a handful of girls who wore the hijab in the entire K-12 school, and I was tormented and bullied for it. So one day I took my scarf off in the cafeteria at school. My parents found out, of course -- only a child would be naive enough to think something like that could remain hidden -- and I was punished severely. I was beaten, interrogated, my hair sawed off (literally, with a knife, not even the courtesy of scissors) and I was banished to the storage room to sleep in and do my homework for a few weeks. At the end of the school year, my dad shipped me and my mom and siblings off to Lebanon, where I was enrolled in a strict Islamic school. The urgency and severity of such a reaction helped me realize that although wearing the hijab was always presented as a voluntary choice, there was really only one viable option to choose, which was compliance.
How did your family members react when you decided to uncover?
Reem: The initial reaction was sheer rage. My aunt called and said I was no longer welcome in her house, my father said that I was no longer his daughter and that he would never be seen with me in public again. They felt hurt and betrayed. I tried explaining that this had nothing to do with them, that I wasn't trying to hurt them, that I was trying to find my self but they didn't want to hear any of it.
Heina: I continued to wear a headscarf to family gatherings for quite a while post-deconversion in order to avoid making waves. When I finally attending a family gathering uncovered, the reactions were mostly positive. Most of the trouble I got from family had to do with being an open and out atheist rather than directly to do with wearing a headscarf.
I once saw a comment from a former Muslim woman on Facebook who said, simply, "for ten years I never felt the wind in my hair." As a woman who loves to be out in nature, that hit me hard. Looking back, are there similar experiences that stand out for you?
Marwa: Too many to count! The sun, the wind, the rain. Especially on my skin. Swimming, biking, sunbathing. Wearing clothes that just flow around my body, breezy and comfortable. Touching people! Holding hands! Hugs! Dancing! Running, running, running in the warm, warm rain. Just walking down the street without having to check and adjust that not even a sliver of wrist is showing. Last summer my neck exploded in freckles from sun exposure. It's never done so before because it's never had the chance, and it was a strange and interesting thing to see a potential my body has always had suddenly blossom.
Reem: Oh yes, after years of been hidden under layers upon layers of thick black cloth in the scorching heat of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, after many summers spent at the beach, sweating bullets and watching all the boys dive shirtless in the water, feeling the wind in my hair for the first time was an incredible experience.
What are your thoughts about the question of how many women wear the hijab, abaya or burka voluntarily -- or even what this means?
Heina: Physically and legally, it's easy to see where a woman can choose to cover. In countries where women are forced to cover by law or through cultural and filial shame, it's very clear that the term "choice" is not terribly meaningful. The same can be said for women who live in non-Muslim-majority areas but whose families pressure them to adhere to Islamic modesty laws. Their inability to choose is inhumane and unacceptable.
Outside of those contexts, the question becomes far less obvious. Islam itself can be seen as shaming women who do not cover and threatening them with eternal damnation if they do not. Despite that, there are plenty of women who self-identify as Muslim without covering themselves. In my view, it's not my place to question a woman who covers within that context. Covering oneself as per Islamic law is hardly the only anti-feminist choice that some women make.
Marwa: It's not a free choice unless you're free to choose otherwise. There were several points in my life, even after the incident in Saudi Arabia, when I had thought myself to voluntarily cleave to the ideology of the hijab. At that point in my life, I would have angrily challenged anyone who implied that wearing the hijab was not my choice, or who would have demanded I take it off. The fact remains that in Muslim-majority societies where the hijab is normalized as proper, good, and morally incumbent, women do *not* have the free choice to wear it. It's not a free choice if choosing otherwise leads to ostracization, disowning, sanctions, punishment, legal repercussions and/or violence, and if women do not have the rights or resources to remove themselves from that society in order to make the choice to not wear it.
What are your thoughts on the political debate about hijab?
Marwa: While I still vehemently oppose anybody asking a woman to take off or put on a piece of clothing that she actively chooses to wear if it does not pose harm or discrimination to others, I'd like to challenge the ethics of continually heralding the hijab as a free choice when it actively drowns out the experiences, testimonies and legitimacy of women who do not have that free choice, presenting their experiences as anomalous, unrepresentative, or the results of misinterpretation of Islam. Defending Islam as an ideology from criticism often obscures an honest examination of the injustices done to women in its name.
Heina: All too often, the women who are actually affected by hijab and attitudes around it are left out of the conversation. Both women who truly want to wear hijab and women who have been coerced into it are often silenced, the former because many cannot imagine wanting to cover and the latter because Muslims want to claim that coercion isn't "true" Islam. There is also a lack of differentiation between the plight of women in Muslim-majority countries and that of women in Western ones. It is possible for a woman in a Western country to make the choice to not cover, whereas that's hardly the case for women in many if not most Muslim-majority countries.
What kind of support do you want from other liberals or feminists?
Marwa: Enable our voices. Let us speak for ourselves. Questioning Muslims, progressive Muslims (especially LGBTQ Muslims), and Ex-Muslims, especially women, have yet to be normalized as legitimate voices in mainstream media. Because we are viewed as defectors and deviants, we are often discounted as inauthentic commentators on the societies and belief systems that governed our entire lives. We are thus often silenced or our silence is enabled in favor of those who would deny our experiences.
But we do not need white liberal feminists to speak for our experiences and obscure and misrepresent them. After all, we are the ones who have the requisite knowledge and background to speak to those experiences. We have lived these things. Allow us to speak for ourselves.
Heina: Yes. There needs to be a better effort to speak to us and to promote our voices rather than to talk over us or for us. The Internet is full of resources, individuals and groups who are not only willing to speak, but who want to be found. Liberals and feminists need to ensure that they are not promoting a monolithic, condescending approach towards Muslim or ex-Muslim women.
Author's Note: This article excerpts fragments from a series of deeply personal and nuanced interviews with former Muslim women, and it in no way does them justice. For those who want to read their fiercely beautiful and sometimes painful stories, full interviews can be found at the following links: Marwa Berro, Reem Abdel-Razek, Heina Dadabhoy.