After months of struggling to understand why so many American Muslim women are taking off their headscarves, I have come to this conclusion: that women of all shapes and sizes, cultures, and religious denominations undervalue themselves. And, contrary to Western feminists’ romanticized notions that the stripping off of one’s headscarf is inevitably a moment of rebellion against patriarchal institutions, I have found that, a great deal of the time, when an American Muslim woman takes off her headscarf it is likely a moment of surrender to a combination of social, political, cultural, and self-imposed pressures. Rather than it being a triumphant moment in which she seeks to define her spirituality beyond the confines of her wardrobe, or seeks to distance herself from a construction of her religious identity that seeks to contain her, it is most likely a moment in which she becomes overwhelmed by the growing weight of a society that labels her as an oppressed terrorist and a religious community that labels her as particularly virtuous and likely socially awkward.
You see, if and when an American Muslim woman puts on a headscarf out of her own free will, it is a unique moment in which her private relationship with God is manifested in a very public way. Unlike prayer, fasting, or even reading the Qur’an, when a Muslim woman chooses to cover herself she is suddenly putting a piece of her religiosity on display. There is a saying that some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Well, for an American Muslim woman who covers her hair as a personal choice, to some extent she wears her spiritual heart on her head. She bows her covered head in prayer five times a day in submission to God, and chooses to prolong these moments of prayer by keeping her head covered throughout the day.
Although women of many religions cover their hair - including Orthodox Jews and Catholic Nuns - the idea that a woman’s spirituality is a function of how many yards of fabric she wears is an interesting concept, and one that does not sit well with mainstream society. In fact, in insisting on an increased modesty, an American Muslim woman who covers offends many Western sensibilities. And, adding to her challenges, she is also placed under a heightened level of scrutiny by a religious community that imposes an unrealistic construct of virtue upon her. Her community suddenly expects her to adhere to rigid rules and regulations, and she is in turn both resented and loved by her community as she struggles to adhere to these mandates.
In the end, an American Muslim woman in a scarf really has only one place to go for solace, for strength, and for peace – back to God. The society that she lives in writes her off as complaisant to her own oppression and the community that she belongs to insists that her worth lies not in the personality that the scarf contains but in the scarf itself. In either arena she is reduced and the headscarf is misappropriated and misunderstood. As much as a Muslim woman’s headscarf is no one’s business but her own, the headscarf has become everyone’s business and is on everyone’s mind.
PS: The next time you hear a brother giving a lecture to sisters on wearing hijab, make sure he's read this. Many of them have great intentions but have no clue what it's all about.