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The Symbolism of Deciding to Wear a Muslim Headscarf

I knew the hijab (the scarf Muslim women cover their head with) is symbolic, but I hadn't given much thought to just how meaningful the decision whether or not to don it is until I read this piece in Slate. Especially for Muslim women living in America, covering up or not varies just as often as someone might switch jobs or leave a relationship, and it's just as life changing.

The author of the piece tells of her own decision to cover and shares other's stories, too. One woman originally covered up as an act of rebellion, a way to stand out — but decided to unveil later after being set up with potential dates who thought her hijab broadcast a submissive attitude toward marriage whereas her education had prompted her to examine roles for men and women laid out in classical Islamic law. To see it applied in modern times,


The Quran has two verses dealing specifically with women's dress. And though they seem vague to a modern ear, the rules lead 51 percent of Muslims in the United States to wear a hijab all or most of the time. One of the modern interpretations resulted in a Facebook group called "Just Because I Don't Wear Hijab Doesn't Mean I'm Not Muslim."

The author sums up the decision beautifully saying:

Wearing hijab or not wearing hijab — just like owning a gun or driving a Prius — says something fundamental about your beliefs and aspirations. And in America, at least, beliefs have a funny way of changing.

Do religions that have outwardly visible cues require a higher level of faith? Could wearing a hijab be liberating? Is wearing one a rebellion just as not wearing one is? Would you look differently at a woman in a hijab knowing she's made a conscious decision to wear it?

Join The Conversation
Sophie70 Sophie70 8 years
There are some great insights in many of these comments. As an American Muslim woman who started wearing the hijab "full-time" while in graduate school, I just want to say that you can never judge why a woman is wearing it. You can't assume it's one reason or the other. From the Islamic spiritual standpoint, one is rewarded for one's intentions behind the actions. But that judgement belongs to God, not human beings. What the child is holding is not "propaganda." It reflects the traditional status of the hijab in Islam. If you disagree with it, then it's one's opinion. But telling an observant Muslim woman that she will be forced to take her hijab off (such as in public Turkish universities, French public schools, and in the entire country of Tunisia, and elsewhere) is like telling her she will have to take her shirt off. That's how I would feel, and from the age of 0 to 26, I never wore the hijab except to pray in, or to enter a mosque.
krampalicious krampalicious 9 years
it's a cultural, spiritual, and most importantly PERSONAL decision that a muslim woman must make for herself. it's the same thing as deciding to get your ears pierced or get botox, except it's imbued with much deeper meaning. they have the right to wear it if they choose--and they have the right NOT to wear it if they choose.
bailaoragaditana bailaoragaditana 9 years
LOL @ rac, yet again! :rotfl:
j2e1n9 j2e1n9 9 years
I think evrey one should be able to wear what they want :)
zeze zeze 9 years
EmMoi: I think you misunderstood the message. This woman is in her 40s, married w/2 kids and holds an MBA and is an executive at some company - her reasons for wearing the hijab is not b/c she is scared of how men will look at her or b/c she thinks she will only be seen as a sexual object - her point is to protest the way society views women for the most part. "Isn't it more liberating to stand in all your natural glory and be fully respected as a human being, baring it all in someone's face, and they have no power to make you feel objectified? Sexism is their problem, not ours." I don't really see this as the case in today's world, take the beach for example, most women agonize about how we will look in that tiny bikini, while men enjoy wide shorts below the knee and don't really worry about their guts hanging out. The way the world is, it is not liberating, "bearing it all" comes with all these restrictions on women in the reverse of the restrictions on women in the middle east - I mean, according to social norms, women's t-shirts are tight, short, etc...while men's shirts are loose and sensible, not sexual. I think both sides can be oppressive, and frankly, I can't understand the "act like a sex kitten" to be liberated argument (See the PussyCat Dolls who claim to be feminists). As "western" folks people grow up thinking what they see is right, but it's more complex then that. I mean who is more liberated, the girl getting beer poured on her in the 50-cent video, the girl getting implants b/c she doesn't look "good" in a bikini (good being determined by males over the years) or the woman who covers her hair by choice and is making the statement that even if you wanted to check her out she won't let you?
EmMoi EmMoi 9 years
The hijab isn't a must for every Muslim woman. I hope the propoganda this child is holding is easily recognizable. The headscarf has cultural and personal spiritual applications, perhaps driven by geographical needs. Just as it wasn't wise to eat fatty pork in the desert during ancient times, which Kosher followers still practice today, it's best to cover your head when you live in the desert. For many detractors, it's not the scarves, but the religion they symbolize. Traditionally, in Islam in the middle east, male anxiety and chauvinism are rampant. Women only reveal their hair to other women. Why? Why is everything so over sexed? It's a shame Zeze's friend has to limit the pleasure of her hair hanging wild and letting the sun warm her head because in her head, she's only seen sexually by men. Isn't it more liberating to stand in all your natural glory and be fully respected as a human being, baring it all in someone's face, and they have no power to make you feel objectified? Sexism is their problem, not ours.
harmonyfrance harmonyfrance 9 years
Wait a minute. I don't think that was the right emoticon. Let me try this one. :GRINCH: Ahhhhhhhh that's better.
harmonyfrance harmonyfrance 9 years
:ROTFL: Rac!
zeze zeze 9 years
A lot of Muslim women, especially in the US, UK, France, in places where the hijab is a personal choice rather than a gov't restriction look at the hijab as a sign of feminism. A woman once explained it to me that she wears it as a statement that she is more than an object to be admired and when she enters the office or the conference the hijab serves as a statement that she does not want you to check out her rack or her legs in that pencil skirt. I think most people don't think of it as a symbol of feminism, but rather they see oppression, but it's interesting to compare the hijab (worn by choice) to the outfits worn in music videos and strip clubs, I think it is pretty clear which of the two is more liberating in this case. BTW, Men do have a dress code, I don't think a beard is necessary, but they must cover from belly button to below the knees and any other part of their body if they are showing it for sexual/vain reasons - but they don't have to cover as much because of society, they are not put into the role of subservient sexual objects (there is tons of proof of that from pop culture to the reality that men almost always hold the highest ranks in all fields while women are the secretaries).
raciccarone raciccarone 9 years
Abner, you totally have to meet a friend of mine, Auntie Coosa. You two would totally hit it off.
Abner Abner 9 years
A young relative married a muslim guy fresh off the boat and she wore the hijab religiously - always defending her new found religion. Well, she went to college - finally wised up - dumped him and dumped the hajib in the trash!!
bailaoragaditana bailaoragaditana 9 years
LOL @ Rac - totally! But seriously, I know quite devout Muslims who don't cover, and hijabis who consider themselves Muslim in name only, and obviously vice versa - I don' t think that wearing hijab is indicative of being more pious or fundamentalist or whatever, it's really just a personal or family or social choice. And it's not specifically mandated anywhere in the Qu'ran. "Guard your modesty," I believe it says.
UnDave35 UnDave35 9 years
How do we keep an eye on them if they don't get online? ;)
raciccarone raciccarone 9 years
I think the Hijab is fine, but I still don't trust the Amish. :amish: We need to keep a closer eye on them.
NYFashionista NYFashionista 9 years
I think men are supposed to grow beards (hence the stereotype of the Arab man) as an "equivalent" to the hijab ( really isn't). Anyway, I have my opinions about the Hijab that I like to keep to myself because this it doesn't matter since I'm not Muslim. I most certainly refuse to judge any woman who wears it. I do find it interesting how many of my most secular Muslim friends have decided to wear it (a choice that the majority of them made in College). However I think this had ALOT to do with 9/11 and how the identity of Islam drastically changed as a result. I feel as though their decisions was one not just for religious purposes but one to show unity and pride.
heineken67 heineken67 9 years
I'm fine with Muslim women choosing to wear hijab, just as I'm fine with Jewish men choosing to wear a kippah. I'm not fine with the fact that many people, especially from the part of the country where I grew up (rural red state), instantly judge others negatively for wearing such things.
stephley stephley 9 years
This weekend, I watched a show about Arab-American comedians after 9/11 and I felt the same way then as I do reading this article: these are our neighbors, kids we went to school with, just trying to figure out how best to live and bear some witness to their faith. It's too bad that we demonize each other because Hagee, Wright, bin Laden, pervert priests give faith a bad name. I don't think wearing an outward sign of your religion indicates a higher level of faith. As some of the women in the article indicated, sometimes it's more like training wheels until you feel really comfortable.
megnmac megnmac 9 years
It is pretty interesting to think about how in different communities the choice can communicate completely different attitudes. I have a few friends who did it as a middle finger to their secular parents, near the end of high school or upon entering college, and who have outgrown that teenager attitude and either embraced or rejected covering as an adult with much more care.
UnDave35 UnDave35 9 years
Because that would be the easy thing to do. I don't have a problem with the veil, other than the muslim law requires that women wear it, and men don't have to wear something that covers their faces...
Beauty Beauty 9 years
Back when we were younger, my friend Maysan wrote a great essay about wearing the veil. I've always respected her choice, and I got my eyes opened when I saw how people made certain assumptions about her because of it.
stephley stephley 9 years
Why can't we all just learn to spell-check our signs!!
MartiniLush MartiniLush 9 years
I wouldn't think more or less of a woman who choses to wear a hijab. People should make their opinions based on the person, not an outward appearance. I think to wear anything that, to you, defines your faith is a personal decision. I don't think doing so marks you as more or less faithful than anyone else. Just because I wear a cross nearly everyday doesn't make me a "better" Christian then anyone else.
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