Letter: Stereotypes about female Muslim veiling are inappropriate



Forget what you’ve heard: there is no such thing as “the veil” in Islam. 

Given the current political climate of moral panic, it is a basic responsibility of both U.S. and global citizenship to learn about actual Islam — not just popular slanders against it — and to make an effort to understand what is important to people who live it.  

Many non-Muslims fixate on women who wear head-coverings and treat them as symbols for their religion, or more particularly representations of what is bad about their religion. Like all religions, Islam is diverse in its beliefs and practices and it comes in many versions.  

Muslim women around the world and within the CMU community wear a great variety of forms of dress designed to adhere to religious values of modesty, hijab and do so for a great variety of reasons.     

The Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam, requires modest dress and behavior from both men and women. In practical terms, the most visible sign of this requirement is special dress for women.  

In its simplest and most common form, observing hijab involves a woman covering her hair when in public.  

While outsiders often focus on the niqab (a form of veiling that covers the nose and mouth, in addition to the hair) and the burqa (which completely covers the head and body, with a screen to see out of), these are merely the most complete options for veiling and only specific Muslim cultures normalize them.  

For some, hijab may simply entail wearing modest, main-stream, Western dress. Hijab takes many forms, which are determined by the type of Islam a woman practices, her cultural background, what country she lives in, and her personal style.

Muslim women veil for a great variety of reasons. 

Some point to the Qur’an and their desire to be the type of person that they believe God wants them to be.  Hijab can serve as a reminder of core ethical values and commitments, like a wedding ring around your finger.  

Sometimes women veil because it is the traditional dress of their cultural group. Others veil because they live in a country that requires it, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.  

Especially in America, women might veil to combat Islamaphobia and use it as a way to positively represent their communities to outsiders. Through veiling, their accomplishments and good deeds reflect well on Islam and counteract stereotypes. Some veil because their families require it.  

Women often veil because it reduces sexual objectification, forcing others to focus on their personality and intelligence, rather than their appearance.  Some report that they are treated more respectfully, even gallantly, when they veil: men open doors for them, listen when they speak, address them with deference, take them seriously.

Also related, many women veil because it is the way they feel most comfortable in public, the way they dress to feel safe and confident.  

To explain this factor to Westerners, feminist supporters of Muslim women’s right to veil often employ an analogy: imagine how uncomfortable you might feel if required to show up at work or school without your shirt, an item of clothing you wear regularly and feel like yourself in.  

You could perhaps go about your day without it, but you would feel self-conscious and awkward. Maybe you’d stop going places that didn’t allow you to wear it.  

Perhaps your loved ones would be concerned about people harassing you, becoming uncomfortable with you going out, attending school or work, visiting government buildings, riding public transportation.  

If the practical goal is to support women, hijab can actually be a very useful public tool, allowing Muslim women, and those who care about them, to feel more comfortable with their participation in public space.  

When you see a woman who veils, all you know about her is that she veils.  That’s it.  

You don’t know what type of Islam she practices — and keep in mind that there are cultural traditions throughout the world, outside of Islam, that also promote veiling — you don’t know what her politics are, you don’t know why she chooses to veil. Veiling can mean almost anything.  

Until you get to know her, you don’t know her.

Laurel Zwissler,

Philosophy and Religion Department


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