Let’s Talk about HIjab: The Thousand Stories of Hijab

This week’s Let’s Talk about Hijab post is a video from The Poet Nation, a Somali art and poetry hub. The Poet Nation is an on-line community that brings together Somalis from across the world to share and promote their art. This is an incredibly talented and unique group of people and I have had the privilege of working with the founder and contributing occasionally to the site. This particular video is performed by a young Minneapolis-based woman named Chaltu Berentu.

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Remember this post that talks about how hijab is deeper and more than merely clothing? How it is a matter of the heart? Whether you wear hijab or not, what’s one of your hijab stories?


Other Posts in the series:

Let’s Talk about Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau

Rethinking the Veil by Marilyn Gardner

Let’s Talk about Hijab: Rethinking the Veil

Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is by Marilyn Gardner. While I’m thrilled about the fantastic posts in this series, the best part of it personally has been connecting with and meeting such unbelievably incredible women from all over the planet. I have only known Marilyn via email, Twitter, and blogs, and only for short time but she has challenged me to write better, think deeper, and love wider. Enjoy her post, Rethinking the Veil.


In May of last year Dr. Leila Ahmed, a well-known professor at the Harvard Divinity School published a book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America. The idea for the book was born one evening in the late 1990’s when Dr. Ahmed was walking with a friend in her Cambridge neighborhood. As they passed by a park, they noticed a group of women, all in hijab.

Dr. Ahmed was raised in Egypt during the fifties and sixties. At this time in Egypt, the veil was rarely seen – not only in Egypt, but also in other Muslim-majority countries. That particular evening, she was shocked and disturbed to see the hijab, symbolic to her of patriarchy and oppression, fully alive; revived and walking in her neighborhood. More shocking was to see the hijab worn in a country that allowed freedom of expression in both speech and dress.

As a Muslim feminist she set out to study this phenomenon and the result is a thick volume published by Yale University Press.

Her findings should be a lesson for all of us, particularly those with little understanding of the hijab– those who tend to box and stereotype the Muslim world in general and Muslim women in particular.

The interviews showed a variety of reasons why women choose to wear hijab. From “raising consciousness about sexist messages in our (American) society” to national pride to rejecting negative stereotypes, the reasons were well thought out and articulated.

The hijab was worn with both knowledge and pride.

photo by Pari Ali

photo by Pari Ali

Along with that, her research revealed some of the characteristics of a “living” religion like Islam – namely that they are ever-changing, never static, not easily put into a box. The hijab is just one example of this dynamic.

In Pakistan I grew up with Muslim women surrounding me and friendships were formed at early ages, some that continue to this day. I well remember when my childhood friends entered puberty and with that rite of passage, put on the burqa. Because of this history, I’ve often been put in a posture of defending those who wear hijab, or burqa, or other head coverings. And my defense rightly comes from knowing so many women who have chosen to wear the veil – not because they are forced or coerced, but for many of the reasons that Dr. Ahmed cites.

I am also humbly aware that my words and thoughts are inadequate to the complexity of the role these women play on the local and world stage.

But there is one thing I can say with surety: Muslim women are not monolithic. Just looking at the vocabulary that surrounds the veil is proof of the diversity present in the Muslim world. The image often conjured up of a fully veiled woman walking behind her husband is only occasionally correct.

As a non-Muslim, I hesitate to speak with too much authority. It seems arrogant to speak for women who have chosen to wear (or not wear) hijab. But too often those in the west criticize the veil without having met a Muslim, without ever interacting on a personal level and that I can speak to.

In the course of her research, Dr. Ahmed confronts her own assumptions and beliefs as a “progressive” Muslim. She says in an article from the Financial Times published in 2011 “My own assumptions and the very ground they stood on have been fundamentally challenged” This serves as a lesson for me, and I hope for those reading. Being willing to have our assumptions challenged is not easy, but it is critical, particularly in a world too often driven by stereotypes promoted by those with the loudest and most insistent voices.


Marilyn Gardner grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fifteen minutes from the International Terminal at Logan Airport.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. She met Dr. Ahmed while she was awaiting the release of her book. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter @marilyngard

Other posts in this series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau

Let’s Talk About Hijab: Through the Eyes of Children

Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series comes from J.R. Goudeau, yet another internet friend, introduced through an internet friend…Someday I will have to leave this small country and meet these fabulous women in person. J.R. blogs at Love is What You Do and doesn’t shy away from deep, think-ful topics. Every time I read a post I feel challenged and changed, including this one. The journey she shares is one adults are often unable to articulate or too proud to confess, and it is beautiful.

photo by Pari Ali, thankful for her willingness to share her pictures

photo by Pari Ali, thankful for her willingness to share her pictures

I understood in theory that it might be difficult for a woman who wears hijab to live out her daily life in a culture that doesn’t understand her choices, but it was not until I became friends with a group of Iraqi refugee women in Austin a few years ago that I began to see how hard it truly is. I cannot say that I understand the difficulties and I want to be clear that, unlike many of the fantastic writers in this series, I am not writing from first-hand experience.

I am writing as an outsider and as a friend. And I am not addressing women who wear the hijab, but other people who are around them, other outsiders, other potential friends. My story is simple: my children were changed by women who patiently helped them see past their differences.

But we didn’t start off that way.

I work with a group of Burmese refugee women in an apartment complex near downtown Austin. Over time, several other refugees moved into the area and we began to hang out with them and their children. There were refugees from Afghanistan, Cuba, Somalia, Nepal, Burundi and Iraq. It was like a small United Nations when the kids played pick-up soccer. For several years, our non-profit and others rented an apartment and offered tutoring and other community service programs in the apartment complex.

We never knew who would walk in next. My co-founder Caren and I are raising kids in what seems to be an unorthodox way (at least in our little corner of the world). Our kids have been exposed to all kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds. We talk about skin color, hair color, eye color, cultural differences. Our oldest kids are the same age and together they’ve eaten spicy noodles, Cuban cookies and Nepali tea. It’s what’s normal for them.

Which makes the cultural faux pas that happened one night when they were three so particularly terrible to us.

A woman walked in to meet us; she had been a translator for the U.S. army and she was coming to the community center to see if we could help her revamp her resume. She was wearing a dark hijab and a dark dress. We were chatting and asking questions about her cute little girl and her new apartment.

My husband heard the little three-year-olds whispering as they pointed at the woman. He managed to catch our daughter but not my friend Caren’s daughter.

With all her three-year-old bounce, she ran up to our new friend and said in a bright little voice, “You’re a witch!”

We could have died.

The woman handled it beautifully. She leaned down and got on the little girl’s level and talked sweetly and calmly about her hijab. Caren knelt as well, gently explaining that we don’t use that word, that our friend was wearing a dark dress, that she was not a witch.

Her daughter, confused, seemed to get it finally. She nodded sagely. “Oh, so you’re a FRIENDLY witch.”

We’ve laughed about that story since then; our friend lived in the apartment complex for a year before moving on to another place. She was gracious and sweet about the whole thing. It was a childish moment, as bad as anything little kids say when they’re first learning about the differences between people. (And to be clear, my husband was having the same talk with our daughter in the other room—they both said it, he just caught her faster than Caren’s daughter.)

Their reaction shows, I think, the way Western kids, at least the ones in my life, are often conditioned to view people who are different from them as bad or evil or Other. In our girls’ lives, the ideas they associated with a long dark dress and dark hijab came from the depictions of “evil” characters in Snow White, The Wizard of Oz and other movies where the witch is dressed in dark colors. At three it was understandable, even if it was horrifying to their parents. And we are working like crazy to overcome those prejudices in the lives of our own children.

It was another woman, whom I’ll call Noori, who truly made a difference for our girls. During our weekly meetings with the Burmese refugee artisans, we hired Noori, who was also an Iraqi refugee, to babysit the kids. Week after week, Noori walked in wearing her hijab and loved on our children. Our daughters had a lot of questions at first, but it soon became Noori’s hijab became normal. They were much more concerned with whether she brought markers or glitter for her to play with.

Once we were shopping at Lowe’s and the woman who checked us out was wearing a hijab. I expected my girls to say something. The oldest got thoughtful, which is usually the sign she’s about to burst out with something inappropriate, but we made it all the way out of the store without her saying anything. Later, in the car, she brought it up.

“Mommy, that woman wore the cloth on her head that Noori wears.”

“You’re right, she did,” I said. “It’s called a hijab.” I was ready to talk about religious differences or cultural practices, but I was waited to hear her response.

She was quiet for a minute more. “I love Noori.”

To me, it was the perfect response. I love how Noori has changed my kids’ perceptions by being herself.

It’s a small example; I have seen much worse things happen to my Iraqi and Somali friends. People regularly assume these gorgeous, intelligent, brave women are repressed or terrorists or ignorant. As their friend, I am indignant. I also admire them immensely. I cannot imagine the gumption it sometimes takes to wear the hijab in Austin.

But I can say, by being themselves, I think they are quietly changing perceptions.

By loving Noori, by playing hopscotch and jumping rope and coloring with Noori’s kids, our children have learned a lot at a young age. And I am deeply grateful for my Iraqi friends’ patience in not dismissing our kids but loving them despite their frank reaction.

I admire and respect any woman or man who chooses to show their devotion to God through their habits and clothing and life choices. And I suspect that our small story demonstrates a universal truth: being friends with people makes it difficult to objectify them. Perhaps the answer for most Westerners, before judging, is to seek out and listen to women who have good stories and compelling reasons for the choices they have made.

At least for me, that worked out pretty well.

Jessica Scarf Headshot

J.R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found writing about books, babies and Burmese refugees atloveiswhatyoudo.com or on twitter


Other Posts in the Series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab?

Two weeks ago I wrote a post called “Let’s Talk about Hijab” which launched fabulous blog/Twitter/Facebook/email conversations. I encourage you to read the comments for insights from a non-Muslim woman in Africa, a non-Muslim woman in America, and a Muslim woman in Indonesia. That post launched a series I’m calling, big surprise, Let’s Talk about Hijab, in which we, another big surprise, talk about hijab.

Today is the first guest post in the series and I am thrilled Anita Dualeh was willing to contribute. Anita and I recently connected on the blog, but actually first met years and worlds ago in Linguistics courses at the University of Minnesota. I was working on my undergraduate, she on her Masters. Anita is tops on my list of ‘who I want face-to-face time with’ whenever we return to the US. She brings a unique perspective to talking about hijab and I love the way this intro piece immediately sheds light on nuance and variety. Read, enjoy, join in the comments.

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

My first interaction of any depth with Somalis came through a volunteering opportunity in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2003, I began tutoring Somali women in basic literacy skills. On the first day, one of the other Caucasian volunteers wore a head scarf. Without singling her out, the Somali gentleman advising us said we didn’t need to concern ourselves with covering our heads. “Just be yourself,” he said. That sounded like fine advice to me, so that’s what I did. I think it works in this context because I’m a member of the host culture.

Since then I’ve learned a lot more about head covering. It started the day one of the other volunteers, a tall, dark and handsome man, asked me to dinner. I eventually married this persistent gentleman, which meant I married into a culture that currently believes good women cover up.

My husband said when he was growing up in Somalia his mom and sisters didn’t wear the hijab. During the era of Somali socialism, such a practice wasn’t allowed. And prior to socialism, women in Somalia didn’t wear the hijab either. As he sees it, the hijab became popular in the refugee camps as sheiks were preaching that the civil war was judgment from Allah for not adhering to Islamic practices, including modesty of dress.

My husband has never wanted me to wear the hijab. And I have never received any pressure from his family members either. (For the longest time, they were just disappointed that he married me. Before we met, they were hoping that he’d marry a good Muslim woman who would bring him back to the fold.)

Zealous shop keepers have been another story. Once my husband took me to a Somali mall to shop for a dirac (Somali dress). There we encountered a Caucasian woman wearing a hijab, presumably accompanied by her Somali husband. A middle-aged shop keeper stopped us in the hallway to tell my husband he should make his wife cover up. “That other man is better than you are,” she said, referring to the one whose wife was properly dressed. “You’re the man. You’re responsible for her,” she said about me.

I didn’t fully understand this exchange, which took place in the Somali language, but I did understand my husband’s reaction. He was angry. “Let’s get out of here,” he told me. He had been living in the West long enough to wonder at the gall of someone he didn’t know telling him what to do.

That was not an isolated incident. Over time, my husband has come up with some strategies to handle such confrontations. The last time we were at a Somali mall together, the woman who sold us henna powder asked my husband why his wife didn’t wear the hijab. “Why don’t you ask her?” he responded.

If we ever travel to Somalia I’m sure I’ll revisit the issue of head covering. As I see it, it’s a different situation when I’m the foreigner. In the past when I’ve lived in other countries, I’ve always chosen to dress as least as conservatively as the local population. So in Micronesia, for example, I made sure my knees were covered and avoided clothing that would reveal the shape of my thighs. I usually wore a muumuu, the loose dress of Hawaiian origin. From there, it wouldn’t be such a huge step to don the hijab.

Anita Dualeh lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and their two boys. She blogs at 1stteacher.wordpress.com


Speaking of Somalia…this is in Hargeisa and shows a small bit of the variety in how women choose to cover.

The intent of the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is to host an on-line conversation where people are free to ask questions, open to learning, and as a place to share experiences, convictions, and ideas about hijab. As a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country, this is almost a daily topic of conversation and I am eager to hear from people from all around the world.

Let’s Talk About Hijab

Friday, February 1 was World Hijab Day.

Some people love the idea.

Some people find it offensive.

Some people are offensive. Like the St. Paul, Minnesota policeman this article discusses.

This critical article on Patheos: World Hijab Day: Everyone’s Favorite Dress-up Day makes some really good points. In general the western world is highly ignorant, biased, belittling, and stereotyping when it comes to writing about and presenting the hijab.

One of her main points is that wearing the hijab for a day in an attempt to ‘understand’ or empathize or experience the same day-to-day realities for Muslim women is condescending. A lot of the commentary is negative and she links to some in the article. Much of the conversation about hijab patronizes.

An example of the subtle yet pervasive nature of the negative conversation about hijab in western writing popped up last night. I am reading the massively popular A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans and even found mention of the hijab in this. (worth reading, by the way!) In her chapter on modest clothing, she lists some of the ways she has viewed the clothes of others and judged them. “When I saw saw women at the airport wearing the hijab, the first word that came to my mind was oppressed.”

Okay, so she is honest, and later she addresses, sort of, these judgments. But then her husband writes in his journal, “…when I see people wearing conservative clothing. I automatically suspect abuse and control…There are reasons we associate certain clothing (or lack thereof) with certain behaviors and lifestyles. Isn’t clothing a form of nonverbal communication? If so, we should be allowed to judge others by what they “say”.”

In a way, then, he is saying that he is right to make judgments of abuse and control, or that Rachel is right to make judgments of oppression, when they see women in hijab because that is the nonverbal communication these women are presenting to the world.

Excuse me?!

They start with the assumption of oppression and then the clothing confirms it. And the wearer is at fault because, hey, the clothes speak for themselves.


**note: I am not saying RHE or her husband believe all women in hijab are oppressed. This is simply an example of how words are loaded and dangerous things and must be wielded with caution. Of how easily conversation including the veil becomes convoluted.

Terribly fuzzy. From Somaliland, going to school

Terribly fuzzy. From Somaliland, going to school

This all leads to a few questions I have. I asked a fellow blogger at A Sober Second Look and now I want to ask my blog readers. She wrote a post called White Non-Muslim Women and Hijab in which she also criticizes some of these ‘experiments.’ I asked her about the difference between donning the hijab as an experiment and donning it, also as a white, non-muslim woman, when living in a Muslim country. She had a thoughtful response:

Rachel—Thank you for your comment. I agree that it can be quite complicated, depending on where you are and what your role(s) in the communities in question are. But showing respect when you are in someone else’s country is different from carrying out a “burqa experiment” in America. Asking people what is appropriate is a good idea (it sounds like you are doing that).

So, now I’m asking you:

  • How can Muslim and non-Muslim women engage in edifying conversation about hijab (or bikinis)? Can they?
  • Do you have positive or negative examples/experiences?
  • What is the difference between wearing hijab on a day of solidarity and wearing it when visiting a friend, for example, in a conservative Djiboutian slum? Is there a difference?
  • Muslim women, what would you like from non-muslim women? What questions do you have for them?
  • Non-muslim women, what would you like from Muslim women? What questions do you have for them?

I would love to hear from you. I would also love to host a guest post series on this. Please contact me if would be interested in contributing.


By |February 12th, 2013|Categories: Islam|Tags: , , |21 Comments
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