Tell me I’m Wrong About the Hijab by Maniza Naqvi

One of the biggest mistakes people make when talking about Muslim women, rather than talking to Muslim women, is to assume that Muslim women are all the same, think the same, to ignore the diversity of thought, experience, opinion. Don’t condescend to the women, call them oppressed or slaves. Understand their mindset. So many of them are fiercely intelligent. One of my best students a young woman who covered her face. I struggled all semester but her intelligence still shone through. As for the idea that their voices are missing from public debate, this isn’t true either. They speak, but nobody listens to them. Search out their voices. They are there. Start here:

I found this essay by the Pakistani writer Maniza Naqvi on the hijab very passionately argued and provocative. I’m reproducing it here as a guest post.

I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. I wrote similar post on Facebook and now want to engage you here in this debate. So tell me am I wrong and why.

The issue about the hijab, burka and now burkini is not simply about its presence on the beach or in public institutions and spaces including schools, or about the presence of Islam in public spaces in Europe or about freedom of choice there. The issue is about the hijab, burka and burkini becoming the symbol of Islam and all that there is about Islam. A garment now defines Islam. A cloth, has become Islam. The issue is that modesty and virtue have been reduced to the abundance or lack of abundance of a garment. And that indeed is a shame.

It isn’t that the space for hijabs and niqabs is threated to be reduced. It is Islam that is being reduced. Reduced to a piece of cloth. And who is responsible for this?

Those responsible for doing so are Muslim women who wear it. Indeed it is about misogyny and patriarchy. Those who promote it are women. And they are predominantly articulating themselves to the West. They are reducing themselves, reducing the air around them, the light, the conversation, and they are reducing the faith that they profess to belong to by this reductionist action.

They have reduced Islam to a piece of cloth. There were two American Muslim women who participated in the Olympics and won medals. NBC and the media only played up and focused on one. Yup, the one wearing the hijab. Regularly, those women invited to speak about Muslims or Islam or represent Muslims are wearing hijabs. Those appointed and recruited to police and surveil and provide security duties are in hijab. Why?

Modesty, virtue and religion now symbolized by hijabs, pre-Islamic tribal garb for men and women. So are the women who are Muslim who do not wear this garb, not Muslim? Not modest? Not virtuous?

Is the hijab, burka, niqab, abaya and now the burkini a symbol of Islam and of religion?

Or is it a prop for communicating modesty and religiosity. The women that I know who wear hijabs wear them because they think it’s conveys religion and modesty. All of them are new to wearing the hijab. Most of them have something to hide or to not deal with intellectually. They are hiding, their sense of ugliness, they are hiding aging, they think it’s a way to instantly communicate that they are not only Muslim but also good Muslims, it allows them an easy pass through their neighborhood streets that are controlled by thugs and bullies, they are transmitting a demand or a plea to be treated better or differently than everyone else, they are hiding past bad behavior and keeping that tendency under check. It hides the shame of old clothes and not being able to keep up with the Jones. It helps women emerge from deeply patriarchal and authoritarian relationships and families. Whatever. It hides. There are a myriad of reasons for wearing the hijab. And all of them are deeply lazy and narcissistic.

The niqab deceives. It deceives foremost its wearer. The hijab and the niqab do not relay modesty or humility, they relay the opposite. It is a deeply narcissistic act that screams look at me! Look how different I am. Look how virtuous! I don’t need to do anything else to prove how good and moral I am. It allows a woman to hide her own idol, herself, inside her cover.

So a good Muslim woman wears a hijab or a niqab? Ask these women and push comes to shove they’ll say yes. They will indeed sit in judgement of other Muslim women, who don’t.

The police on the beach gave the woman a ticket and fined her for ‘not respecting good morals and secularism.” Poor putz of a policeman simply carrying out the decree of the Mayor, ends up scribbling and mixing up good morals with secularism. One a religious concept and the other supposedly not. So in doing so the police on the beach in Nice becomes the morality police—which has very little to do with secularism unless secularism in France means being naked. Not everyone being naked. Just women. Preferably only the good bits. Bare breasted women. That’s secularism?

Or did the policeman by writing ‘Not respecting of good morals’ actually inadvertently point to something very basic—a piece of garment is not the symbol of faith nor of goodness. It is in fact the symbol that you are weak of faith and goodness and must cloak yourself.

Nakedness. Nothing to hide. Open societies, bodies and minds. That’s a pretty good definition of morality and secularism isn’t it? Indeed the policeman shames the fully clothed woman, forcing her to take off her covering. Shames her in the name of good morality and secularism and does while being heavily clothed with body armor and had weapons. Did he reach deep inside his intellect and calling upon the entire Western Canon? Canon by the way, I have just learned, comes from the Arabic word, caanoon. Meaning, law. Come to think of it—modesty and morality for the French State is therefore the definition of what the Abrahamic God intended it to be—one where nakedness is the perfect state—and the unease with it—Shame, a crime.

Or does secularism in France mean ‘not Muslim’ Europe is being goaded to turn on itself, divide itself along religious lines. But this is not a fight within Europe. It is a conflict between women and their judgements of each other.

Wear what you want to but don’t tell me you do so in the name of ‘modesty’. Who decides what modesty is and what is virtue? Someone dressed in a burkini, hijab, burqa, or niqab? I say no. Do not argue the case of wearing a burkini or anything else in the name of modesty. If you do this then you are providing a judgement on what constitutes modesty and virtue and that those who do not don this garb are immodest.

It can be argued that a hijab, a niqab, a burka and abaya is a heightened and elevated sense of immodesty and titillation, bordering on pornography. It is a prop that constantly introduces sex and the danger of being raped into the public sphere when no such idea is even present. It suggests in a public sphere that a woman is covered because she is in danger of being molested or that if she were uncovered she would incite a molestation of her. Covered in the public sphere as these women who are wearing niqabs and burkas in Europe and the US where there is no social or cultural history for its presence these women are introducing the concept of being constantly stalked or in sexual danger or being the cause of it if they were uncovered. It is if not ridiculous, psychologically unstable. To cover herself is to suggest a constant pre-occupation with sex.

OH MY GOD! Oh my God what am I saying? How insulting of me! Is it? I am only repeat what we know from the Old Testament, the Bible and the Koran–what God said to Adam and Eve when God deported them, exiled them to earth, threw them out of Paradise–for their transgression, their loss of innocence–meaning their loss of equality, their loss of a sense of unawareness of any difference between them–a loss of their sense of freedom, their loss of an ultimate superiority which today we refer to as feminism. The acceptance of the burka and niqab is an acceptance of a loss of freedom, not its expansion.

If at a society’s level it is accepted that the covering from head to toe of a woman is her freedom of choice—to separate herself out and not interact with others, see them, but not be seen, create an unfair and unjust environment, a conversation that is only and only a perversion of sexuality, then why does she chose this? Does she make a moral judgement? The answer will be yes. Women who wear this, point falsely to religion for reason. They make a false claim to religion as well as to morality. Our ethics demand that she not impose her morality or the lack of it in our public spaces on us.

For to allow a woman in a full cover, the niqab and burka, to do so, makes her exception, the rule, her judgement valid and makes us all immoral, non-secular and unethical.

Erasing Cultural Diversity in the Muslim World

This collage of photographs really doesn’t need much explanation. On the left, women in Saudi-style abayas and niqabs. They’ve been convinced or coerced into wearing this uniform. They’ve been told that this is the way to paradise. Or they’ve been threatened with violence, or fines and jail if they don’t comply. For many of them, this is the only way to leave the house.

On the right, the beautiful array of traditional clothing for women that you can find all over Muslim countries. Not one of these outfits is immodest or obscene. Some include a head covering, some don’t. Yet they have all been deemed sinful, and a deliberate effort is going on to suppress and erase women’s traditional clothing (and in many cases, men’s, in favor of the Arab-style thobe and skullcap).

This is not Islam. This is cultural imperialism, mixed with misogyny.

As Inas Younis wrote in her deeply insightful essay “The Moderate Muslim Misogynist,”

…he too believes that God has created him to be a rational being,  except when it comes to his sexual capacity, where he is totally helpless and inclined by nature to gravitate towards the path of least resistance.  And to prevent him from falling into the deplorable world governed by loose women, he demands that all women exercise whatever degree of modesty he needs to maintain a state of chemical castration.   All women must, for the benefit of preserving his dignity, and the dignity of his society, act as one organism and not as individuals.  In some places this is taken so literally that all women are legally required to dress exactly the same.  In other societies they are expected to be completely desexualized.  Naturally this has had the opposite effect,  by hyper- sexualizing  the most benign and innocent expressions of female beauty.   And  if a woman  should step out and express her individuality,  it is perceived as an invitation to violently put her  in her place.

I read those words yesterday, but it was the photograph above that really made it hit home. Younis goes on to write, about Muslim women who take part in this travesty, “Nevertheless, women in Islam continue to fulfill their part of the social contract, by feigning weakness as a sign of spiritual strength.” But Muslim women who take up the abaya and niqab by choice also are complicit in the lie perpetuated by misogynists (who can be found the world over) that they are responsible for keeping men from sinning, by erasing every inch of their bodies so that they do not tempt men.

I have met women who attended Al-Huda classes who refused to wear perfume for fear of arousing strange men, as if men would turn around and sexually assault them if they got a whiff of Chanel No 5. In some countries women’s voices are silenced from public broadcasts because of the fear that men will become aroused listening to them. Salafi interpretations of the Quran add to the verses instructing women to draw their outer clothes over themselves with a parenthetical instruction to cover their faces entirely so that only one eye can see the way.

When Muslim women believe in this sort of nonsense, they imprison themselves, and they insult men. They deprive men of the opportunity to practice exerting self-control over themselves. They do not allow men to deal with their temptations and conquer them and emerge better men. Even our prophets had to deal with these very human urges and control themselves. By hiding themselves away, women contribute to the sexual immaturity and underdevelopment of the men in their society.

And it’s not as if those urges go away; when repressed, they emerge even more strongly and destructively in the form of sexual violence.

Women have a responsibility: to be normal, and to move in the world normally, so that men can also be normal. Carrying yourself in the world as if your very existence is a sin will never allow that to happen.

PS: Don’t use this post to justify anti-Muslim bigotry or prejudice, or anti-immigrant racism. That’s not what this post was meant for. Also, I have no problem with women wearing the hijab; it’s the complete erasure of women that I protest.

Here Comes the Burqa Avenger!

I’ve just watched the first episode of Burka Avenger GEO TV’s new cartoon for children about a woman called Jiya, mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, who dons a burka in order to fight villains in her village. They’re corrupt baddies who try to shut down the girls’ school and wreak all sorts of havoc on the villagers because, well, they’re villains. Accompanying Burka Avenger on her adventures are three children and a goat, who may well turn out to be the surprise star of the series because he’s so darned cute.

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack! (Theme song by Haroon and Adil Omer)

The animation is slick, the production values high (way too many commercials, though!), the motivation behind the series noble: pens and books are more powerful weapons than guns and bombs. It was funny, and quite cute, and spreads a good message, coming at a time when Malala Yousufzai and education activists and millions of school-going children are trying to prove that Pakistan is a more fertile ground for education than for terrorism.  It’s a brilliant idea, too, because rather than lecturing children from a position of adult authority, it has the potential to get children excited about going to school, placing within the context of a fight between good and evil. This way, the show can teach them values they’re easily primed to grasp because of their previous exposure to cartoons and superheroes.

I’m especially pleased that the superhero is a woman, not a man. Pakistani society is hypermasculinized: children are used to seeing men in positions of power and authority, as leaders, military men, policemen, et cetera. They absorb this as the natural order of things from such early ages that it’s almost impossible to undo this conditioning later in life. Whereas the women of Pakistan are the silent heroes on the frontlines of the war we’ve got ourselves involved in today: schoolteachers, health workers and human rights activists are targeted by extremists and attacked and killed for going out and doing their ordinary jobs. It’s wonderful to see a woman being feted for something so true to life, and also to see that when her job is threatened, she doesn’t succumb to the aggression but instead fights back and triumphs. The children of Pakistan need this lesson as well.

The show has to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes: I was troubled by the idea of one of the villains, Vadero Pajero (although the name does make me laugh when I hear it out loud) – which may lead children to think that all rural authority figures are evil and want to stop children from going to school. In reality it’s the Taliban who are closing down girls’ schools, not the waderas, but while the show’s producers shy away from naming the Taliban, they’re happy to name a wadera as one of the main villains.  It also conflates waderas (literally, influential people in a rural community) with zamindars (landowners), which I find troubling in its inaccuracy.

Perhaps children in the city will swallow this easily as most urban-dwelling people think of rural landowners as the root of all evil in Pakistan, but rural children who watch the program will become confused about their parents’ employers, who may or may not be the same as the evil landlord portrayed in the cartoon. I think the producers of the show could do some thinking about this for future episodes, and perhaps introduce a balancing character, a zamindar more sympathetic to Jiya’s cause, for example. In our divided society, it’s of utmost importance that we introduce harmony between the rural and urban populations, not sow more seeds of division and misunderstanding.

Some people in Pakistan have been questioning the celebration of the Burka in the cartoon, which is a tool of oppression for women in Pakistan.  I hold the same opinion about the burka – the burka is a cultural instrument, not a religious one, and has been used to hold women back. It use restricts you from doing any physical activity, keeps you shrouded in anonymity, and came into fashion when people wanted to look more like Arabs than South Asians. Is it right to take the burka and make it look “cool” for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burka gives you power instead of taking it away from you?

There’s no simple answer to this question. First of all, the show’s producers have made the burka a special outfit to be worn only when there’s tough work to be done: Jiya doesn’t wear a burka when she’s teaching in the school or going about her daily life.

Also, they’ve done something rather tongue-in-cheek: women wearing burkas often get compared to ninjas. “Ninja Turtle” is a common epithet for burka-wearing women who behave aggressively in public, thinking that the burka gives them the religious superiority and moral authority to break every rule in sight, especially while driving. There are gangs of burka-clad women shoplifting and pickpocketing shoppers in Pakistani shopping malls. The head of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad wore a burka to escape being killed during the siege.

The producers decided to turn this on its head and make the burka wearing Jiya an actual ninja who uses a special kind of martial arts (pens and books instead of nun chucks and swords) against her enemies. She can leap up and levitate in the air, fly from tree to tree, has the moves of Neo from the Matrix combined with an Olympic gymnast. In real life you couldn’t do any of that wearing a real burka, but Jiya’s burka is magic (and also less voluminous – and she wears black nail polish to match, a cool touch). And a superhero needs her invisibility cloak. Haroon has said it’s a step up from the tight costumes of Western superheroes, like Catwoman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

The superhero’s costume is such an integral part of his or her identity that it’s hard to escape from the question of whether or not the burka is an appropriate choice for Pakistan’s first female superhero. Yes, the burka is oppressive, and not even religiously mandated. However, we also can’t deny the fact that in super-conservative areas of Pakistan (not just rural and mountainous – many women who don’t wear a burka in their own villages will wear one in Karachi or Lahore because it’s a big city full of strangers), the burka provides women with a modicum of agency. Women who would be confined to their houses are allowed to go out if they are wearing a burka.

I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Should we perpetuate the idea that women are strong when they put on the burka? Definitely not. Pakistani girls and women need to know that their natural state of being is not hidden away, shrouded by yards of black cloth to make their presence in society acceptable, safe, or halal. They need to learn that modesty can be interpreted in many different ways, and that a simple shalwar kameez and dupatta are good enough for us, because we’re Pakistanis, not Arabs (“Why not Dupatta Dhamaka, which is more in keeping with who we are?” asks writer for the New York Times Huma Yusuf). It will horrify me if little girls start wearing burkas in imitation of their hero, because that would be indoctrination of the worst kind.

Note:My perfect ending to the Burka Avenger series would be that after the villains are vanquished, Jiya hangs up her burka in the closet and never needs to wear it again.

You can read about Burka Avenger in the New York Times here. I’m quoted in the piece.


Here are Adil Omar‘s lyrics for the theme song, “Lady in Black”, which I adore wholeheartedly.

Camouflage, shadows and darkness

No guns, but got ammo regardless

A backpack so she’s coming prepared

To leave the opposition in submission, running in fear

Yeah – superhero got ’em kicking and screaming

In hysterics, these clerics had envisioned a demon 

A spirit so quick to deliver a beating

To the enemies of peace, love, logic and reason

Yeah – hit ’em with a logical reason

Kill extremism, corruption and just stop it from breathing

The way it was, she’ll be taking it back

So tune in for the story of the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Lean, mean, covered from her head to her toes

In a one piece, slick invisibility cloak

She got her eyes visible so she can give you the look

And lay the smack down on all these dirty killers and crooks

Like a panther going in for the attack and the win

The lethal weapon in her hands is a book and a pen

The silent ninja, vigilante in the dark of the night

Would never roll over, cause she has to stand up and fight

Her fists banging harder than the drums in the song

Reminisce about the time before the guns and the bombs

The way it was, she’ll be taking it back

so stay tuned for the story of the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack