'Trusting Doubt' and 'Deas and Other Imaginings'; Founder, WisdomCommons.org
Berro was raised as a Lebanese Muslim. She now lives in the United States.
Recently, from my vantage as a feminist and former Christian fundamentalist, I
wrote an article asking whether the hijab is a symbol of diversity or
oppression of women. Marwa wrote back and let me know gently but firmly that
she and other women from Muslim backgrounds have their own thoughts on the
and body coverings for Muslim women have become powerful political symbols in
recent years in North America. To the American Right, the hijab and burka are
visible indicators of a violent clash of cultures or an immigrant invasion. For
the political Left -- which is reacting against the oppression of Palestinians,
American aggression in the Middle East and Right-wing xenophobia -- hijab has
become a symbol of diversity, as in Coca-Cola's super bowl ad. To further
complicate the matter, "religious freedom" has become apolitical and
legal trump card used by conservatives seeking to roll back gay rights and family
planning, and to secure government contracts or funding for religious
institutions. However, the same people arguing for religious freedom often are
uncomfortable with the free exercise of Islam.
Islam, perspectives on veiling vary. Middle East scholar Marnia Lazregargues
that hijab is not one of the pillars of Islam and that the resurgence of
veiling has been systematically driven forward as a matter more of politics
than piety. On the other hand, Saudi religious police recently banned a book
entitled,A History of Hijab, deeming debate on the topic anti-Islamic.
all of the back and forth, questions of women's rights and wellbeing often
become pawns, excuses to do or not do something that serves the purposes of
men, nation states and ideologies. The dominant voices are not those of women
who wear or have worn the hijab, nor even women's advocates more broadly.
several articles have highlighted the perspectives of Muslim women who
experience their use of the hijab or abaya as voluntary and feminist. By
contrast, this article gives voice to three women who have left Islam. In it,
they look back on their combined 32 years in the hijab, examining their own
experience and offering their perspectives on the current debate.
Berro (a pen name) is a Lebanese-American writer and philosopher. She grew up
between Saudi Arabia and her native Lebanon and lives now in the United States.
She writes narrative essays and reasoned critique of the societal structures
that govern Muslim-majority societies at Between a Veil and a Dark Place, and
she offers support to other women questioning Islam at Hi Reddit!.
Abdel-Razek, is a twenty-one year old Egyptian blogger and translator who lives
in New York. She writes the blog for the Centre for Secular Space, a transnational
think tank which aims to strengthen secular voices, fight religious
fundamentalism and promote universality in human rights.
Dadabhoy was raised Muslim in the United States. Now a self-described atheist,
she writes for Skepchick blog and is a sought-after speaker on topics including
Islam, feminism, skepticism, gender, culture and the intersections of the
did you come to wear the hijab, and what did it mean to you at the time?
I grew up in a very conservative Shia family, who believe it to be
fardh(required) for young girls to begin to wear the hijab by their 9th lunar
year birthday. I was asked if I wanted to wear it, and said yes -- as if a
child is capable of comprehending the implications of such a decision. The
rhetoric surrounding it when I was a child was simple and easy for me to find
appealing: the hijab was protective, like an oyster around a pearl, keeping the
most precious and special things safe and guarded. It was a matter of dignity,
my fifteen years wearing the hijab, I progressed through many stages of my
understanding of the hijab, especially as I became circumspect enough to
realize that the beautiful concept I had appreciated as a child was based on a
flawed, dehumanizing analogy of comparing women to objects, such as pearls and
wrapped pieces of candy. So in short, the hijab meant many different things to
me at different points in time, and the journey to leaving it behind was a long
one of exploration, questioning and self-examination.
were the advantages to wearing hijab?
I wore hijab for a decade (ages 8 to 18). It seemed like the right thing to do
to please my parents, many of my older relatives, my teachers at my religious
school (a headscarf was part of the uniform for the Islamic girls' school I
attended in London for a year), and, of course, Allah. I was also a very
literal and devout child. I wanted to make sure that I obeyed Allah as much as
possible. As I got older, my body image and Western upbringing began to play a
more important role in why I covered myself. I have been overweight ever since
I could remember, and anything that could take attention away from my body was
welcomed by me. I saw the Oprah shows on eating disorders and attended
theKilling Us Softly assembly at school. As the fat girl subjected to merciless
teasing, they really spoke to me. I unwittingly adopted Western second-wave
feminist rhetoric in my conceptions around wearing hijab: I thought that I was
fighting against the beauty myth by focusing on my mind and spirit instead of
I de-veiled, going out without hijab subjected to me to a lot more scrutiny of
my body type, size and styling choices; it felt overwhelming at times.
Additionally, I came to realize that my non-white appearance affected others'
treatment of me. Before that, I assumed that people othered me because of my
headscarf, not because of perceptions of my race...In the U.S., I was subjected
to street harassment when I wore hijab, along the lines of men yelling out
"Osama bin Laden!" or "fucking Arab, go home," at me, but
nothing sexual. After I de-veiled, I started getting sexually harassed. That
said, I have noticed that Muslim men in the UK sexually harass women with or
without hijab, or even niqab.
and how did you stop?
I had started wearing hijab at ten and took it off just before I turned
eighteen. I wore it at my father's request in a desperate attempt to win his
approval. At the time that was all it meant to me, approval. I wasn't aware how
drastically it would change my life. Not long after wearing it at ten did my
parents pull me from karate class, soccer practice, school plays, yearbook
photos etc... Family members started coaching me on how to act shy, fragile and
dumb. They said hijab is not merely a head covering, but a lifestyle. And what
a miserable lifestyle it was for me! Things like running and laughing started
to become a distant memory. I wasn't quite aware of it at the time but I was
time I became severely depressed. I felt empty, like a robot or a zombie, but
not truly able to pinpoint the reason. One day, I got an email from my father
and aunt with an ad for hijab in which the hijab acted as a protective barrier
between a lollipop and flies. And I had an epiphany, there it was, the reason I
felt nonhuman. I was, according to the email my own family members sent me...a
thing. And it occurred to me that the only way I could take my life back was by
unveiling, not only my hair, but also my true nature. I would have to obliterate
the persona that I was so carefully molded into in order to discover who I
There is so much complexity regarding the ideology of the hijab, and my stances
regarding it can only be summarized here. I stopped, in short, because I took
severe issue with the ideology behind it. At first, I thought it to be
humanizing, a defense against being treated as a sex object, a guarding and
preserving thing. I later realized it did the very opposite of those things. As
a child, the hijab hyper-sexualized my body, and I understood this at first
through the way my body was regarded but not with discretely worded concepts: I
had not even developed breasts yet, but my arms and hair and legs had to be
obscured by wide swaths of cloth in case any of those things might be
considered tempting or alluring.
first attempted to take it off when I was thirteen-years-old. At this point in
my life, I was living in Saudi Arabia, where I attended an American
international school with an expat community from all over the globe. There
were only a handful of girls who wore the hijab in the entire K-12 school, and
I was tormented and bullied for it. So one day I took my scarf off in the
cafeteria at school. My parents found out, of course -- only a child would be
naive enough to think something like that could remain hidden -- and I was
punished severely. I was beaten, interrogated, my hair sawed off (literally,
with a knife, not even the courtesy of scissors) and I was banished to the
storage room to sleep in and do my homework for a few weeks. At the end of the
school year, my dad shipped me and my mom and siblings off to Lebanon, where I
was enrolled in a strict Islamic school. The urgency and severity of such a
reaction helped me realize that although wearing the hijab was always presented
as a voluntary choice, there was really only one viable option to choose, which
did your family members react when you decided to uncover?
The initial reaction was sheer rage. My aunt called and said I was no longer
welcome in her house, my father said that I was no longer his daughter and that
he would never be seen with me in public again. They felt hurt and betrayed. I
tried explaining that this had nothing to do with them, that I wasn't trying to
hurt them, that I was trying to find my self but they didn't want to hear any
I continued to wear a headscarf to family gatherings for quite a while
post-deconversion in order to avoid making waves. When I finally attending a
family gathering uncovered, the reactions were mostly positive. Most of the
trouble I got from family had to do with being an open and out atheist rather
than directly to do with wearing a headscarf.
once saw a comment from a former Muslim woman on Facebook who said, simply,
"for ten years I never felt the wind in my hair." As a woman who
loves to be out in nature, that hit me hard. Looking back, are there similar
experiences that stand out for you?
Too many to count! The sun, the wind, the rain. Especially on my skin.
Swimming, biking, sunbathing. Wearing clothes that just flow around my body,
breezy and comfortable. Touching people! Holding hands! Hugs! Dancing! Running,
running, running in the warm, warm rain. Just walking down the street without
having to check and adjust that not even a sliver of wrist is showing. Last
summer my neck exploded in freckles from sun exposure. It's never done so
before because it's never had the chance, and it was a strange and interesting
thing to see a potential my body has always had suddenly blossom.
Oh yes, after years of been hidden under layers upon layers of thick black
cloth in the scorching heat of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, after many summers spent
at the beach, sweating bullets and watching all the boys dive shirtless in the
water, feeling the wind in my hair for the first time was an incredible
are your thoughts about the question of how many women wear the hijab, abaya or
burka voluntarily -- or even what this means?
Physically and legally, it's easy to see where a woman can choose to cover. In
countries where women are forced to cover by law or through cultural and filial
shame, it's very clear that the term "choice" is not terribly
meaningful. The same can be said for women who live in non-Muslim-majority
areas but whose families pressure them to adhere to Islamic modesty laws. Their
inability to choose is inhumane and unacceptable.
of those contexts, the question becomes far less obvious. Islam itself can be
seen as shaming women who do not cover and threatening them with eternal
damnation if they do not. Despite that, there are plenty of women who
self-identify as Muslim without covering themselves. In my view, it's not my
place to question a woman who covers within that context. Covering oneself as
per Islamic law is hardly the only anti-feminist choice that some women make.
It's not a free choice unless you're free to choose otherwise. There were
several points in my life, even after the incident in Saudi Arabia, when I had
thought myself to voluntarily cleave to the ideology of the hijab. At that
point in my life, I would have angrily challenged anyone who implied that
wearing the hijab was not my choice, or who would have demanded I take it off.
The fact remains that in Muslim-majority societies where the hijab is
normalized as proper, good, and morally incumbent, women do *not* have the free
choice to wear it. It's not a free choice if choosing otherwise leads to
ostracization, disowning, sanctions, punishment, legal repercussions and/or
violence, and if women do not have the rights or resources to remove themselves
from that society in order to make the choice to not wear it.
are your thoughts on the political debate about hijab?
While I still vehemently oppose anybody asking a woman to take off or put on a
piece of clothing that she actively chooses to wear if it does not pose harm or
discrimination to others, I'd like to challenge the ethics of continually
heralding the hijab as a free choice when it actively drowns out the
experiences, testimonies and legitimacy of women who do not have that free
choice, presenting their experiences as anomalous, unrepresentative, or the
results of misinterpretation of Islam. Defending Islam as an ideology from
criticism often obscures an honest examination of the injustices done to women
in its name.
All too often, the women who are actually affected by hijab and attitudes
around it are left out of the conversation. Both women who truly want to wear
hijab and women who have been coerced into it are often silenced, the former
because many cannot imagine wanting to cover and the latter because Muslims
want to claim that coercion isn't "true" Islam. There is also a lack
of differentiation between the plight of women in Muslim-majority countries and
that of women in Western ones. It is possible for a woman in a Western country
to make the choice to not cover, whereas that's hardly the case for women in
many if not most Muslim-majority countries.
kind of support do you want from other liberals or feminists?
Enable our voices. Let us speak for ourselves. Questioning Muslims, progressive
Muslims (especially LGBTQ Muslims), and Ex-Muslims, especially women, have yet
to be normalized as legitimate voices in mainstream media. Because we are
viewed as defectors and deviants, we are often discounted as inauthentic
commentators on the societies and belief systems that governed our entire
lives. We are thus often silenced or our silence is enabled in favor of those
who would deny our experiences.
we do not need white liberal feminists to speak for our experiences and obscure
and misrepresent them. After all, we are the ones who have the requisite
knowledge and background to speak to those experiences. We have lived these
things. Allow us to speak for ourselves.
Yes. There needs to be a better effort to speak to us and to promote our voices
rather than to talk over us or for us. The Internet is full of resources,
individuals and groups who are not only willing to speak, but who want to be
found. Liberals and feminists need to ensure that they are not promoting a
monolithic, condescending approach towards Muslim or ex-Muslim women.
Note: This article excerpts fragments from a series of deeply personal and
nuanced interviews with former Muslim women, and it in no way does them
justice. For those who want to read their fiercely beautiful and sometimes
painful stories, full interviews can be found at the following links: Marwa
Berro, Reem Abdel-Razek, Heina Dadabhoy.
Valerie Tarico on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ValerieTarico