Lifting the Veil

I needed flour to bake cookies one Sunday morning, but I was in Germany, where the stores are closed on that day. The Dutch, fortunately, believe in Sunday shopping, and I could ride the bus from Aachen, Germany to Vaals, Holland. Midway through the 15-minute journey, three Muslim women got on board. They seemed to float down the aisle in their black abayas, their moving feet obscured by the cloaks that covered them from head to toe. They took their seats opposite me, the sun shining on their black headscarves. One woman wore a niqab over her face; only her eyes glinted in the light. Another woman’s exposed face sparkled with the sheen of melon-colored lipstick and layers of green eye-shadow. I found myself self-conscious of my skirt. Did they think I was immodest? Even as I scrutinized them, I worried about being judged in turn. I wondered how the woman revealing only her eyes and the woman exposing a painted face could believe in the same idea of modesty, in the same Islam. It troubled me that I thought of them as a flock, as anonymous women wearing oppressive shrouds. As a woman of color and a feminist, I was surprised to uncover the limits of my cultural understanding. In search of some answers, I turned to the voices of five Muslim women at Yale.

The warmth of Altaf’s smile radiates from her expressive brown eyes as she says hello to every other person we pass on our walk. An ethnic counselor for freshmen and one of the most vocal members of the Muslim Students Association and Asian American Students Association, Altaf is a prominent campus presence. She is half Iranian and half Iraqi, a Shia Muslim who grew up in California. When she was about 14, she chose to wear the headscarf along with her sister. It was a decision she had often considered, one that she has reevaluated ever since. But her reasons for wearing it have only strengthened over the past eight years. “Wearing the headscarf removed me from the world where I was constantly judged for physical reasons. And who I am as a person is more important than my physical characteristics,” she says.

The headscarf has also grounded Altaf in her faith and brought her closer to God. When she gathers the folds around her hair every morning, she is reminded of what her faith means to her. “I like being tied to a tradition,” Altaf says. “In a family it is natural to wear it. You see its significance to the people you admire and care about.” The headscarf, which immediately identifies her faith, connects her not only to her nuclear family but also to a larger Muslim one. “There’s an immediate sense that you’re Muslim. No matter where I go in the U.S., I feel like I’m going to have an immediate community.” Although wearing the headscarf can subject a woman to stereotypes and racism, it has actually allowed Altaf to confront those assumptions. “People assume that you are quiet and shy…that the headscarf makes you anonymous,” she says. “For me, it’s a way of asserting my identity. But there are women who don’t assert their identity and who see the headscarf as mandatory.” Altaf is not one of them. For her, it is about choice—the choice to wear the headscarf and to explore her faith and identity in relation to it.

Zahreen’s parents are from Bangladesh, a country that is home to the world’s fourth largest, mostly Sunni, Muslim population. Traditionally, Bengali Muslim women wear saris and do not wear the headscarf, though this pattern has changed in recent years. When Zahreen’s mother immigrated to the U.S., she chose to wear the headscarf for the first time in her life. In America, unlike in Bangladesh, she felt the need to affirm her Muslim identity. Zahreen did not follow suit. She tucks her glossy hair behind her ear as she explains her own choice. “Wearing a headscarf would not make me more Muslim, but maybe more Muslim, physically, to others,” she says. “People think that if you wear a headscarf you are more religious.” Zahreen, who prays five times a day, fasts, and tries to practice Muslim ethics such as being charitable, refraining from gossip, and dressing modestly, resents this misinterpretation. Part of the reason she does not wear the headscarf is to challenge others’ perception of Muslims as a monolithic group. She believes in a spectrum of Muslim practice, subject to individual interpretation. I ask her if feminism and the headscarf can be woven together. “Part of the fervor around the hijab,” she says, “comes from the conception that it is only women who have to wear it, and the West is obsessed with how the rest of the world treats women. Freedom of choice is the ability to make choices, not the choices you have.”

Aside from one cousin and a grandmother who lives in India, Zenah is the only woman in her family who wears the headscarf. After the September 11th attacks, Zenah’s cousin began to wear it, and Zenah, too, soon became curious about the veil. When she read about the hijab in the Qur’an, she interpreted it as a call for modesty. “Wearing the headscarf is a process of finding yourself, and finding identity,” says Zenah, who does not see the tradition as a mandatory practice for every woman, but believes it is mandatory for her. “I wanted to see if it is possible to wear the headscarf in American society and be Muslim. I did not want to become a political emblem; I just wanted to see if I could be visibly American Muslim and integrate into society.” With her green-gray eyes, Zenah could be linked to various ethnicities and religions. Through donning the veil, though, she is immediately identified as Muslim.

Most of her family did not react significantly when she began wearing it. Her mother was initially encouraging. But when Zenah began wearing the headscarf every time she went out, even to dinner at a friend’s home, her mother tried to stop her. For two or three years, Zenah’s mother was upset that her daughter constantly wore the headscarf, but she never forced Zenah to remove it. Now she accepts it as part of Zenah’s identity. Though Zenah did not want to become a political emblem, she has been influential in overturning misconceptions about the headscarf within and outside her family. She has made it clear, even to her mother, that she wears the headscarf by choice. While it is a symbol of oppression in certain countries, it is quite the opposite here.

The first time I discovered that Nisreen had worn a headscarf was during an interfaith service trip to New Orleans. We were sitting in a circle, hanging onto Nisreen’s captivating and articulate narration of her relationship with her faith. Nisreen’s mother is from Malaysia, a secular country where Islam is a dominant religion, and Nisreen grew up in California. She was the only Muslim girl in her school. After the World Trade Center fell, many of her peers approached her with stereotypical comments and assumptions about Islam. For Nisreen, the decision to wear the hijab was a political one. “I wanted to draw attention to the fact that I was Muslim,” says Nisreen, who first donned the headscarf at the age of 14. “I wanted to stand out. I wanted people to come up to me and ask me about Islam. The hijab was an attention-grabber for me.”

During the two years she wore the headscarf, she found herself being cast as the perfect Muslim girl in both Islamic and non-Islamic communities. Becoming a symbol for such a large community was troubling. She also noticed that the headscarf defined who was a “good” or “bad” Muslim; the women who did not wear it were treated as outsiders in the Muslim community. Nisreen began to question her reasons for wearing the headscarf. “When I wore the hijab I felt that I didn’t need to watch what I said. I felt I judged too much. Was I wearing it to show off that I was a Muslim?” Nisreen ultimately decided to take it off. “It is better to act as an upright person than put on a scarf and pretend to be a person I’m not really,” she says frankly. After she stopped wearing the headscarf, people in both communities would ask her if she was giving up on the faith. One teacher even said, “It was really nice to see you make a statement. Why did you stop?” But her decision to stop wearing the veil was a statement in itself—one in line with the various statements she continues to make.

I was worried that I would be attacked when I came here,” Nuru confides. This was two and a half years ago, when she left her home in Botswana to study at Yale. Despite her worries, Nuru has worn the headscarf throughout her time at Yale. She first donned the headscarf at age 13, when her friend’s father required his daughter to wear the headscarf. Nuru, along with several friends, began to wear the headscarf in solidarity. “We were her friends, and so we wore it with her,” she says. The practice wasn’t foreign to Nuru—every woman in her family wore the headscarf, and she had always expected to don it. In Botswana and New Haven, she wears it to identify herself as Muslim and to follow her interpretation of the religious commandments. She believes the headscarf protects women from being viewed as objects and generates respect based on their character, not appearance. Despite the weight it carries, the headscarf, she concedes, is just a headscarf. “It’s a tiny part of the whole idea of modesty, which includes speaking and acting modestly,” Nuru says. “A lot of people just see the headscarf as a symbol of oppression and assume various things about me. Friends have not told me certain things because they think I would judge them,” she says. I thought back to my worry of the woman in full burqa judging me. I realize the folly of my concerns when Nuru continues, “If you look at the scripture, you can’t judge.”

In the Qur’an, the passage about the hijab does not specify which parts of the body must be covered. The specifics come from a Hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad. Literally interpreted, it says that women must cover all but their hands and feet; men must cover from navel to knee. But both Altaf and Zahreen tell me that they read scriptures such as the Qur’an with the historical context in mind. Languages are alive and change, as do interpretations. It is this fluidity that surfaces in these women’s decisions, and which enriches, in turn, their shared religion.

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