There Is More to Muslim Women than Veiling

A participant with and without hijab

There always seems to be a fascination with how Muslim women cover. Whether they wear a hijab, a niqab, or the full-on burqa, the intrigue around it never seems to be abate. The interest goes beyond why they cover to why some Muslim women do not cover, and more specifically to why a Muslim woman would put on a hijab and then take it off.

NPR did a story on April 21st called “Lifting the Veil: Muslim Women Explain Their Choice.” The story focused on several Muslim women who had chosen to remove the veil after wearing it for a period of time. It also included a multimedia section where you could listen to each woman’s story and see them with the scarf and without.

There are a number of issues that caught my attention with this story. First, the title. There must be hundreds of books and articles with titles like: behind the veil, underneath the veil, lifting the veil. As a reader, you already know from the first part of the title that most likely the focus of the story will be on Muslim women. Why? Because Muslim women seem to be almost entirely defined by the veil. While the veil is important in some discussions of Islam, Muslim women are concerned with more than just the question of covering.

Second, the images of before and after were a little disconcerting because in a way it relayed the message that by removing the veil, these Muslim women were somehow liberated. In other words, it was as if they were lifting a burden (i.e., the veil).  Some of these women may in fact feel that way, but I don’t understand how the before and after shots help the reader understand their decisions. It just seems to feed into the fascination with veiling and unveiling in a very public manner.

Third, according to the article, 43% of Muslim women in America wear the veil all the time and 48% do not cover their heads. Since, the numbers are fairly close, a story that really explores the idea of veiling should have included women who choose to veil as well. The way the story is set up gives the impression that what is interesting is why a Muslim women removes her veil because we already know why Muslim women choose to cover.

The choice of Muslim women to veil or not is entirely personal. The question for me with this story is why the continued fascination with only one facet of Muslim identity, especially when it comes to women?  The veil does not and should not define Muslim women, but if a story focuses on the veil it should be more nuanced and address the myriad reasons why a women would choose to veil, choose not to veil, or choose to remove the veil. Then, one could understand the complexity and personal nature of the veil and one aspect of a Muslim woman’s identity.

Did you read or hear the NPR story? What was your reaction? Do you think there is a fascination with veiling? Why do you think that is? Do you think that the veil defines Muslim women? Please share your thoughts below.

9 thoughts on “There Is More to Muslim Women than Veiling

  1. The article by NPR may as well have been pictures of Muslims drinking and eating pork. The article furthers the notion that in order for Muslims to fit into Western society they need to abandon all the attributes that make them who they are.

  2. While I choose to wear hijab, I respect my Muslim sister’s right to choose otherwise. I also find it suspicious that whenever a Muslim does something that other Muslims disagree with, they are accused of wanting to imitate Western society. As if they (and it’s often women under discussion) couldn’t choose of their own accord, or there’s only one valid Islamic expression. There are Muslim women of the early medieval period who became famous for their hair style or color. How could they become famed for it, to the point that men would copy it, if they were covered? Did they pop over to Paris, which wasn’t much in the 9th century, to become “Westernized”? Or perhaps to the USA- oh wait, that didn’t exist yet. Perhaps women who choose to uncover are being more old-fashioned than those who do.

  3. Pingback: Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates Challenges Misconceptions Using New Media | UW-Madison Division of International Studies

  4. Wished to bring to your attention my Art Exhibition Sweet Dreams which was my response to attacks on women wearing the niqab in the U.K. at the height of the “Veil’s Row” 2006

    You may also be interested in my Exhibition “What Makes Me Laugh?”

    Kindest Regards

  5. I also had similar issues with the story. There was an assumption that taking the veil off was liberating, and the story didn’t include perspectives of women who chose to wear the hijab. I hope NPR follows up with a story about women who do choose to cover.

  6. I got really frustrated every time I think of this story..especially when seeing a former classmate being one of the participants..
    hijab has become a fashion ..there are many designs of beautiful hijabs that can make you look and feel good that you’re wearing one! (i don’t like some of the participants’ style of hijabs) i know that tabarruj or displaying your beauty to others is not allowed but taking off your hijab and justifying your action in my opinion is worse..Wallahua’lam

  7. I am just viewing and listening to these women tell why they removed their hijabs. I think that they should be able to do this without NPR having to show a “balanced” position from women who veil. It is important for Muslim women (I am one) to think deeply about why they are veiling. Of course it is their right to do so or not to do so. I think that many Muslim women who live in the U.S. are pressured into wearing the hijab by our national and local organizations. I think that the leadership of these organizations promote the hijab as a political statement and make Muslim women who do not wear it feel as if they are letting the religion and the community down. As one woman said: ‘wearing the hijab elicits more attention than not wearing one.’ Clearly what is modest is culturally constructed. Muslim women do need to think about why they feel they must wear hijab and do some research on its origins and provenance.

  8. Muslim women that remove their headscarf are looked upon very poorly…by doing so, they thought they can blend in with Americans…? wearing the hijab is only about modesty and not receiving attention from others… why is that so hard to understand? When non-Muslim women dress immodestly in a Muslim community, we don’t care because that is their right, but when Muslim women walk in public immodestly while wearing hijab, it becomes an issue.

  9. I think it comes down to a man’s insecurities in a community of men on how they define a woman.