Solidarity Through Veiling? Backlash Has Been “Personal, Fierce and Vile…”

Three days ago, on December 28, Asra Nomani entered the 1000+ comment stream to her Washington Post op-ed of the previous week:

Dear Friends,

Thank you so much for your support and intellect on this article. We have received a backlash that is been personal, fierce and vile, at times. The backlash confirms our thesis and reflects, to us, the extent to which the headscarf is a symbol of the ideology of political Islam that we described here. Thank you for reading our article and extending your deep and important support. Please continue to exercise the most important intellectual muscle that we have as an antidote to tyranny of thought: critical thinking.

Best, Asra Nomani

The op-ed, written by two women, Nomani and Hala Arafa—the former well-known to Muslim and western audiences—asked non-Muslims not to express solidarity with Muslim women by wearing the headscarf. As Nomani notes (and as Mariam Durrani discusses here in RD) the piece has been powerfully controversial. Here’s a rough breakdown of the responses I’ve seen so far:

  • Hijab is a religious obligation and those who object to it don’t understand Islam
  • To each their own (truly)
  • To each their own (but I think if you don’t wear hijab you’re actually sinning against God, but that’s your choice, and I feel sorry for you.)
  • To each their own (but I actually look down on you if you wear hijab.)
  • I actually look down on you if you wear hijab and think you’re being duped by the patriarchy/the Islamists/the Wahhabi Salafi cult that’s taken over Islam in the last 40 years.

If I may wade in with some observations:

– It is possible for women to make a free and independent choice to wear the headscarf. The symbol is multivalent and can mean anything from a sign of modesty to an expression of personal piety to a symbol of personal identity to an identification with anti-colonial struggles to an identification with family to much more. The anthropological work on this is plentiful and convincing; the veil is a multifaceted symbol.

– Anyone with family who grew up in the 1930s – 1980s in the Arab world, South Asia including Afghanistan, Indonesia, West Africa, and other parts of the Muslim majority world, or anyone who knows the social history of those places during those times, understands that the headscarf was rare, while personal piety was strong if not stronger during this time period (according again to ethnographic research, biographies, etc.)

These societies were more just and stable and less generally in deep trouble (as they are today) according to every empirical indicator. Sexual harassment in a country like Egypt was rare and a far cry from the pandemic it is today with a <90% hijab rate among Muslims. People who know women from these cultures today understand the tremendous pressure all Muslim women can be under to veil. The pressure can be so severe that one does have to problematize notions of “choice” in some contexts.

– In view of this last point: something happened to change these societies. Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution documents that historical trajectory in detail. There can be no question that a concerted campaign to veil women found deep expression in a group like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who decided shortly after their founding in 1928 to focus on “Islamizing” society. This grassroots movement dovetailed with ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam in the Arabian peninsula which suddenly became the nexus of Islam that was the most wealthy in the entire world. Wahabbis developed a financial and educational strategy to export their version of Islam around the world.

At the same time, Arabs and South Asians began to work in Saudi Arabia in huge numbers and brought a new and more conservative understanding of Islam back to their home countries. Combine this with the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 and we have a significant percentage of the Muslim majority world experiencing this moment.

– In view of these last two points, it is interesting to read the many threads that make the argument along the lines of, “if hijab isn’t fard (obligatory), then all Muslims until this very moment in the liberal west have been wrong!” or “The wives and companions of the Prophet (s) wore hijab joyfully and without any objection!”

The history of Islam is not characterized by one a seamless, uniform costume of pious dress which happens to look exactly like the Arabian jilbab which has only been disrupted by in the past few decades by confused western Muslims. The Wahhabi reform movement (to name but one historical current) has been far more influential in changing Islamic practice than a handful of western Muslims.

The thoughts and actions of the wives of the Prophet are the subject of current research which is painstaking, difficult and fascinating. No one can speak with confidence about what at least some of the wives really thought or even did, much less felt in their hearts. It is safe to say as an assumption through which to read source material that human beings are more contradictory and interesting than they are cartoonish symbols of piety.

– It’s actually difficult these days to project a mainstream Islam that isn’t quite conservative, or indeed to find a community of Muslims that isn’t quite conservative.

– As GOP candidates have vied to outdo one another in islamophobic rhetoric, Muslim women who wear the headscarf have come under threat. It can certainly be asserted that a black woman who wears hijab is among the most vulnerable people in our society today. The bullying of women in head scarves and people of color is an ongoing emergency, one that we must stand up against. As I write this I am watching CNN, where a Trump supporter is saying we’re all being too sensitive and Trump declares himself the “least racist” person he knows—which is making my blood pressure soar.

– In the end I would argue that those who insist that certain groups are actively trying to assert veiling as part and parcel of a particular political manifestation of Islam—an assertion that is true in some cases, though, again, does not describe the sum total of veiling communities—are too often politically compromised (after making common cause with political reactionaries and conservative racists in the west). Another blow for Muslim progressives who are committed to double critique.