Times‘ Cutesy Guide Veils Humanity of Muslim Women

Image from promo for Showtime's "Homeland."

If you scroll to the bottom of the New York Times‘ ‘World’ page, beneath articles about British political parties, economic news stories, and other matters of international newsworthiness, you’ll find a peculiar section called: “What in the World.” 

Sandwiched between articles on cows belching in India and a cutesy rumination on nicknames for Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, you’ll find an article about what to call that thing on a woman’s head in various Muslim countries.

“What’s That You’re Wearing? A Guide to Muslim Veils,” includes a .gif with seven repeating images of faceless bodies wearing “veils for Muslim women… [of] all sizes, shapes, and colors”; descriptions of these seven ‘types’ of veiling, connecting them to some country/region in the Muslim world (that’s somehow detached from the non-Muslim world); a quick linguistic definition; and a Quranic citation when relevant (for authenticity, of course).

You’d think he was talking about bird-watching.

As you read this section, the assumption is that ‘you’ are a non-Muslim Westerner who has been puzzled about the name of the garment-thing that Muslim women wear in some other part of the world, so ‘you’ are invited to observe the object and ask, more or less: what’s that thing on your head? 

While the writer tries to explain (and I’m being generous here) that in the Quran, ‘hijab’ refers to that which preserves modesty and privacy between the sexes, the article inevitably falls into a practice of othering Muslims in general, and Muslim women in particular.

During a moment when the hijab has been referred to as “a passive form of terrorism” in a recently reissued military paper, this article isn’t doing quite the work the Times may have hoped it would. While some may think of of it as an educational and informative effort to help (again, non-Muslim) Americans understand these Muslims, it is, in fact, a sexist, Orientalist speculation about a thing the writer clearly doesn’t fully understand.

Nowhere does it explain that veiling practices are multifaceted and deeply contextual (as Sarah Eltantawi has described here on RD). That, as Lila Abu-Lughod found in her work, for example, Bedouin women wear the veil in mostly rural settings, but not in urban Cairo, and that also differentiates in terms of whether they are interacting with kin/non-kin men, et cetera. Veiling, similar to any other cultural practices, is a lived experience full of contradictions and with multiple meanings.

But you are unlikely to appreciate this complexity from such a short burst of information.

So why does one relatively minor piece buried in the Times’ World section really matter? It matters because segments of American media continue to believe their problematic, and even sexist, stereotypes of Muslim women, are representative of the variegated and complex experiences and aspirations of Muslim subjects across the world.

Rather than shed light on Muslim women’s lives, these articles contribute to the Islamophobic perceptions and stereotypes, which during this year’s election cycle have turned tragically violent. Attacks against women are often perpetrated against those who wear hijab. By presenting a faceless female figure reduced to her chosen form of veiling, the Times does absolutely no service to Muslim women and no service to readers who may want to learn more.    

Rest assured, dear reader, there are other ways to learn.