By Eman Quotah
April 24, 2019
When non-Muslim women across New Zealand draped scarves on their heads last month to show their solidarity with Muslims a week after the horrific massacres at two mosques in Christchurch, it was touted by many as a feel-good story in the wake of unbelievable tragedy.
The women who took part in the nationwide gesture wanted to tamp down the fear among Muslim women who cover their hair, many of them rightfully worried that bigots might target them with new acts of hatred.
And yet, when non-Muslim women cover their heads in the wake of a tragedy or on World Hijab Day, they ignore the fact that whether women must wear a headscarf as a matter of faith is controversial even among Muslims.
I am a Muslim woman. I do not wear a headscarf. And I urge those who want to ally themselves with Muslims to do so in a way that includes many Muslim women who choose not to cover (including 42% of U.S. Muslim women) and acknowledges Muslims’ healthy internal debate over many issues, including modesty.
To Cover Or Not To Cover
Many of my Muslim sisters, like Rep. Ilhan Omar, view wearing a scarf on their heads as a religious obligation, a personally empowering choice or meaningful cultural practice. I stand up for their right to practice Islam as they see fit, no matter where they live, and I respect their point of view. But I don’t share it.
Growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s, whenever I left the house I had to wear an Abayah — a loose, often black, full-length cloak — and a tarha, or headscarf. But even in that time and place, in private I had a choice. Covering up in public didn’t mean I was "muhajjabah," as we called women who chose to dress modestly even in private. In my own home, at my grandmother’s house, in the homes of my parents’ friends, and at the bowling alley where I played in a children’s league, I mingled bareheaded, bare-armed and sometimes even bare-calfed with male cousins, my aunts’ husbands, my fathers’ friends and the teenage sons of family friends.
These were categories of men who, according to those who called for women to cover, should not see any part of me but my face and hands. Some would say any part of me at all.
The fact that we called some women muhajjabah is proof that not all of us were. At the gates to my all-girls’ school, where students waited for the gateman to call our names on a bullhorn when our fathers, brothers or drivers arrived to pick us up, teachers stood sentry. They made sure we had wrapped our scarves tightly around our heads, with not a strand of hair showing. But once girls left school grounds, many would slide their headscarves back, revealing their teased and frosted '80s bangs, the better to flirt with boys through car windows as their drivers ferried them home.
Back then, I spent hours in my bedroom wrapping strips of aluminum foil around twists of my hair to frizz it out. Other times, I lay on my bed wondering whether one day, God would give me the conviction to become muhajjabah. I thought that because I didn’t cover in my private life, I was not Muslim enough.
By the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, a wave of religiosity had hit Jeddah, usually considered more “liberal” than other parts of the country. Suddenly, more and more women were veiling not just their hair but also their faces, and even wearing gloves to keep their hands hidden, habits that had not been common in my city.
Allies Can't Define Muslim Womanhood
I made up my mind on covering soon after I came to the United States for college, in 1991, just after the Gulf War ended.
That year, Moroccan feminist and scholar of Islam Fatima Mernissi published her groundbreaking book, “The Veil and the Male Elite,” which argued that hiding Muslim women behind walls and veils was a project of patriarchy, not Islam. Mernissi convinced me that I could be Muslim and let my hair loose.
God might not have granted me a belief that I should cover myself, but he has given me other convictions. I abstain from alcohol. I do not eat pork. I believe in the oneness of God. My decision to eschew a hijab is not due to spiritual laziness, ignorance or lack of faith. I strongly believe that Muslim women should not have to wear it.
Even so, I would never stand in the way of those women who do. No government or its proxies — police, religious authorities, schools and other public institutions — and no father, brother, mother, husband, boss, fellow student or random stranger should demand that a woman wear or not wear a hijab.
By all means, I want non-Muslims to join with Muslims in the fight against hatred and violence. I appreciated the messages I got from friends who were thinking of me on the day so many people needlessly lost their lives in Christchurch. I also want non-Muslims to understand more about our faith and cultural practices.
But allies have no place defining Muslim womanhood. That’s for Muslim women to do for ourselves.
Eman Quotah is a Saudi-American writer and editor living in Rockville, Maryland. She works for a communications firm in Washington, D.C.