Late last month, as I stepped out from behind the curtain onto the stage of Fullerton Hall at the historic Art Institute of Chicago, I scanned the audience of about 100 guests assembled in the theater before me and tried to deepen my shallow breathing from my chest to my stomach. The night before, I had texted a friend, “I’m scared.” I was there to speak on a panel, for the Chicago Humanities Festival, headlined “Politics and Clothing: The Hijab.” It should have been a civil conversation. Yet, unknown to the audience, an off-duty Chicago police officer guarded the stage.
The fact that I had felt inclined to ask for police protection for this event, and that it was provided, reveals the tyranny of thought that has overrun so many of our Muslim communities from Bangladesh to the banks of Lake Michigan, hijacking civil discourse, slaying critical thinkers and usurping courtesy with nastiness.
Those of us who argue that the headscarf is not Islamically required but is, in fact, a symbol of political Islam, or Islamism, face a hostile backlash that we call “hijab shaming,” a dynamic in which even so-called moderate Muslims attack, ridicule and berate anyone, including co-religionists, who don’t believe women and girls are too sexy for their hair — or accept the many other restrictions put on women as an extension of the purity culture of “hijab.” This week, for example, when I supported the Citadel’s decision not to include the headscarf in its uniform for an incoming Muslim student, a Muslim “civil rights” leader equated the Muslim Reform Movement that I cofounded to “Islamophobic hate groups.”
Women and girls, whom I call “enforce-hers” and “Muslim mean girls,” are not exempt as attackers, going so far as to call women who don’t cover fully “ho-jabis,” instead of “hijabis,” using the shorthand for “whore.” In a brave article, “Why so many Iranians have come to hate the hijab,” an Iranian writer, Denise Hassanzade Ajiri, recently chronicled how women and girls are called “prostitutes” for “laughing loudly on the street.”
Late one morning, two weeks before “the Great Hijab Debate,” Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, a recent Rutgers University graduate and the Palestinian-American founder of a website, Muslim Girl, sent out a message on Twitter: “.@AsraNomani is debating one of our #MuslimMeanGirls in Chicago this month @hodakatebi.”
That afternoon, my co-panelist, University of Chicago senior Hoda Katebi, a Iranian-American who wears a headscarf and writes a hijab-friendly “activist fashion blog,” responded, “Shit’s goin down~”
She followed up a minute later: “#Muslimmeangirl reporting for duty!”
My eyes widened. I thought I’d signed up for a constructive conversation. I wrote an email to festival organizers, my co-panelist and the moderator and told them I found the tweet “disturbing.”
Katebi responded soon after and said she meant to “express my excitement, in colloquial terms” and “was not implying anything further.” She “apologized for the misunderstanding.”
I accepted her apology, but remained wary.
Al-Khatahtbeh declined comment.
Since this past December, when I co-authored a piece with journalist Hala Arafa, asking non-Muslim women not to wear the headscarf, as some have taken to doing in “solidarity” with Muslim women, we have been called everything from “clinically delusional” to “leeches” and “dajjal,” the Muslim equivalent of the proverbial anti-Christ. We’ve faced ridicule from academics, including researcher Nathan Lean, at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, funded by Saudi billionaire Al-Waleed bin Talal, and from officials such as Ahmed Rehab, executive director in the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group insiders call “the hijab legal defense fund.” At a public event in Washington, D.C., when I asked Lean to comment on his characterizations of me, he answered: “We’ll take another question,” and refused to respond. When I asked Rehab about his comment, he said, “Listen, you need to stop being a hypocrite.” CAIR and Rehab didn’t return queries seeking comment.
On Facebook, a Brooklyn activist, Linda Sarsour, attacked “white-washed feminism” and wrote: “Proud of my hijab and my faith and don’t need Asra Nomani to tell me what to think. She has an agenda, and she is bankrolling on it.” (I received $200 for writing the article.) Earlier, when I had debated a friend of Sarsour’s, Dalia Mogahed, who also wears headscarves, Sarsour wrote: “I wanted to punch my TV every time Asra opened her mouth.” Sarsour didn’t respond to queries that I sent her asking her to explain her comment.
At LoonWatch, an anonymous blog run by Muslims, “DrM” called me a “Zionist media whore” and “Jekyll” mocked me as “Whorenami,” after “Emporer” reposted an article that that misrepresented my analysis on how militant groups require women and girls wear the headscarf.
“They are afraid of us,” says Arafa, my co-author. “We are exposing the truths they are working so hard to hide. They hide the fact that their movement is new and doesn’t represent Islam. They hide the fact that the headscarf is not Islamic. The very fact that they are calling on Muslim women to wear headscarves means they weren’t wearing them with the approval of the Islamic religious authorities. They want to hide the fact that their movement, which started in the early 1980s, is in fact the resurgence of political, fundamentalist Islam.”
The Sunday before the talk, my son, 13, slept in the passenger seat of my father’s Lincoln, after a long day at a fencing tournament, as I drove along I-495 North. I recalled how, three years earlier, a turn off 495 onto 270 North took me to the home of the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston marathon bombers, radicalized into extremist Islam. Staring at the traffic in front of me, I thought of the innocents murdered that day and how important it is that we find the capacity to have civil discourse on the struggle for the soul of Islam in the 21st century, from issues of the “hijab” to extremism. I thought about the Chicago talk and started sobbing. My son awakened.
“Chicago,” I said. “I’m afraid.”
“You got this, mom,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder.
That week, we learned that militants had hacked a gay rights activist to death in Bangladesh. I met two Iranian-American women who rejected Iranian theocracy and its laws. One did my hair. “Be strong,” she said.
When I landed in Chicago, nervous and uncertain what the day would bring, I tried to align myself with the moral compass with me, not to mention my sense of humor. I posted a Facebook photo of myself with my son, a pink scarf flying behind me, and the hashtag, #MyStealthyFreedom, to support a campaign by Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad to get Iran to repeal its mandatory headscarf law. “We’re here in Chicago now,” I wrote, “to talk hijab and women’s rights. In Saudi, Shibli, 13, would be my mahram, or legally required chaperone for me to travel. Here, I just bought him a shake.”
A new email landed in my in box from my father, my other mahram. “Everything will be great,” he wrote. “As usual maintain coolness and be strong.”
“It’s ugly,” says Nushin Arbabzadah, an Afghan-American lecturer in communication studies at UCLA who wrote a New York Times opinion piece earlier this year, chronicling the poisoning deaths of girls at her childhood school in Kabul. Islamic militants said the girls weren’t properly covered.
“When conducted in English, the pro-hijab faction appeals to our own liberal values, to our sense of fairness and compassion for those in need of empowerment,” says Arbabzadah. “The appeal to apparently shared values in addition to the emotional plea for compassion make resistance to the idea of hijab difficult. The combined effect is that we feel intellectually disarmed and emotionally discouraged to resist such arguments. Even feminists who would normally balk at the idea of hijab feel persuaded through the subtle guilt tripping that is the emotional impact of such rhetoric.”
The result has been a virtual “hijab fetish,” I noted during the debate Saturday night, in which fashion houses and magazines from Dolce & Gabbana to Marie Claire, Teen Vogue and Pop Sugar have romanticized the headscarf, making a virtue out of the disturbing concept that women and even young girls must cover their hair so that they are not a sexual temptation to boys and men. Huffington Post just launched a hashtag photo campaign, #HijabToMe, to “show how beautifully diverse the hijab can be.”
A while ago, a conservative American-Muslim cleric, Omar Suleiman, even noted, “Some hijabs actually are a tease. They’re more of a tease than they are a covering.”
- Dolce & Gabbana announced a new hijab and abaya collection for Muslim women in January, 2016.
- Malaysian entrepreneur Vivy Sofinas Yusof and her company FashionValet launched a new line of high-end headscarves “for stylish ladies who appreciate a dash of luxury in their lives.”
- Japanese casual wear designer and global brand Uniqlo brought its 99-piece line of hijabs and other modest attire — produced with visual artist and designer Hana Tajima — to the U.S. in 2016.
- In the fall of 2004, Rana Abdelhamid, a 22-year-old New York native and graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, started social media project Hijabis of New York.
Guilt tripping is very much the dynamic that unfolded Saturday night. I argued that a modern day Islamist movement, sanctioned by the governments of Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with other countries, has indoctrinated many Muslims today with the idea that Muslim women shoulder the burden of being the vessels for “honor” in society. I noted that the assumptions of the headscarf lead to deeper misogyny, gender inequity and sexism. Katebi continued returning to the message with which I agreed, that women have a right to “choice.” Yet she launched into personal attacks, accusing me of “vilifying” women who wear the headscarf and daring to “homogenize” the world’s “1.6 billion Muslims.”
When I asked Katebi onstage about her tweet, she responded, “Shit is going down.” Later, in response to a query for further comment, she continued to insist my critique of the politics of the headscarf “vilifies Muslim, hijab-wearing women.”
The moderator, Duaa Eldeib, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune who wears the headscarf, asked me to answer Muslim critics, many of them the “enforce-hers,” who charge that I stole the “agency” of women who cover their hair by critically examining the headscarf.
I responded dispassionately that such a tactic is a typical strategy, trying to discredit critical thinkers. But, internally, the attacks truly disturbed me.
In the audience, a neuropsychologist, trauma specialist and friend, Orli Peter, watched the dynamics carefully and later she helped me understand why the experience was so emotionally grueling.
“By threatening you with a barrage of personal verbal attacks, they are activating your flight-fight-freeze system, and making it more difficult for you to access brain regions required for analytic and rational thought,” Peter told me afterwards. “To be able to think clearly again, you have to deactivate this system and find your empowerment in the face of their threats.”
On stage, my hour battling arguments that gender inequity in Muslim countries is the result of “American imperialism,” was an exercise in mindfulness and cerebral empowerment.
I had come armed with a white binder full of data on gender equity conditions for women and girls in Muslim countries, not to mention a Saudi translation of the Qur’an, which adds words not found in the Qur’an’s original Arabic in chapter 33:59, rewriting it to add parenthetical phrases that demand the face veil: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the disbelievers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way).” Muslim women face some of the lowest rates in the world for pay equity, literacy, employment and parliamentary representation. Although I never cracked it open, I had the data seared into my heart, giving me courage.
For the debate, I wore a traditional beaded kurta, or tunic, and pajama, or pants, with special meaning in my struggle for women’s and girls’ rights. Years ago, I had worn the outfit, riding to my village of Jaigahan in northern India on a Hero Honda Splendor motorcycle. There, I had met a cousin who, like many of my family members, wasn’t allowed in public without cloaking her face and body in the black burka. They weren’t allowed to feel the sun on their faces except in the privacy of their courtyards. One day, my cousin’s parents agreed to let her ride with me to a local circus. She had never gotten permission before. The rains had ruined local train tracks and my motorcycle’s tires snagged on the tracks, making us spill to the ground. My cousin was a tumble of black and blood.
I asked her: “Should we go home?”
She said: “I want to go to the circus,” and we did.
Watching the trapeze artists with my cousin, so happy beside me, I thought about how I could never again take for granted the freedom of movement denied so many millions of Muslim women and girls in this world, because of this false assumption that we must be “protected” as vessels of honor in society.
In her opinion piece, Arbabzadah notes the parallels between what we confront in Indian villages and my experience at the panel in Chicago: persuasion and propaganda techniques aimed at getting women to cover their hair. “In Islam’s own vernacular languages, from Arabic to Urdu and Farsi, persuasion over the hijab takes a dark and sinister turn,” she says. “Here the method is psychological and even more powerful as it uses terror and shame to make women wear the hijab. Urban legends, public billboards, images that appear on social media compare bare headed women to zombies, to rotten vegetables, to candies on which insects feast, stigmatizing women as threats to public health, as carriers of diseases.”
She adds, “The two campaigns, in English and in vernacular, might appear profoundly different but in reality, they are the two sides of the same coin. They represent a carefully crafted strategy to make sure that absolutely every single Muslim woman all around the globe wears the hijab so that they all become an anonymous mass. So that not one of them stands out as an individual through their clothing.”
Indeed, as the evening wrapped up in Chicago, with enough time for one last question, a University of Chicago student, Nur Banu Simsek, wearing a headscarf, stood up, leveled random charges against me and then asked bluntly, “Why are you still Muslim?”
I took a breath. I resisted the impulse to flee, fight or freeze. I accessed the part of my brain that processes rationally and explained to the audience that the question was emblematic of the tactics used to try to throw critical thinkers out of Islam. I wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t going to be afraid. I wasn’t going to be silent.
As the evening closed, audience members coming to the stage to talk to us, I caught the eye of the off-duty police officer. I took a photo with the moderator and co-panelist. And, then, I did something I hadn’t been able to do in days. I took a deep breath, and I smiled.