“Merey dard komjo zaban milay (If My Pain Finds a Voice)”–Anonymous

Second Place, Non-Fiction

Tu Kay Nawaqif-e-Adabey Ghulami Hai Abhi

(You are unaware of the mannerism of slavery)

Raqs Zanjeer Pehan ker Bhai Kiya Jataa Hai

(You can dance even when you are chained)


When Quran, the Holy text of Islam, ordained Prophet Muhammad PBUH, “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them. That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful,” it did not mention how to “draw their cloaks” (Haleem 271). This verse was revealed to Muhammad, the religious leader and symbol of Islam, more than 1400 years ago. It is one of the most quoted verses in Islam which led to the adoption of hijab as a practice for Muslim women now days. Hijab is a common practice throughout the modern Muslim world, but it was not a Muslim practice at the advent of Islam. Hijab is unique to the culture it is practiced in today as a lot was left to the imagination of people who wanted to adopt hijab as a practice from Quran. The ambiguity of this verse led each culture and generation in the Muslim world to interpret it according to their own times, cultural perception, intellect, imagination, understanding and sometimes personal interest.

The hijab may be very multi-faceted outwardly, but as a cultural icon, it is a very single- faceted perception. Intertwined with the ideas of virginity, elitism, exclusiveness and piety, it creates an altered sense of space for people who practice it (Al-Guindi 74). It creates division, exclusion and seclusion at multiple levels. Moreover, it creates an atmosphere of secrecy and concealment.  In the pursuit of becoming the perfect woman, not human but divine, the ideas mentioned previously have been used as a weapon against Muslim women, robbing them of their basic birth rights like equality and humanness. Barricaded in this loneliness and trying to achieve the impossible, Muslim women are facing tons of emotional and psychological issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, and depression as mentioned in “Women and Human Rights”( Cooper 358).These issues need to stay under the rug as Allah’s Will is the last nail in the coffin of equality for Muslim women. If Muslim women want to be treated equally with men at a personal, familial, cultural and global level, they should look into the practice of hijab critically. It is time to abandon hijab and liberate women of Ummet e Muslimah, a nation of Islam, from the prison it has become. Hijab is a cultural practice not a religious requirement. How this symbol became the modern Muslim woman’s identity and the cause of her downfall at the same time is an important question. Before doing so, it will be helpful to explore the idea of hijab and what the hijab is to the followers of Islam.

Hijab is a word of the Arabic language that means barrier or partition when translated literally.  According to Professor Gerry Mackie, Associate Professor at UC San Diego, traditionally hijab is a head covering that Muslim women wear or observe and differs according to the country, culture, and society they are living in. Women who observe hijab are called Hijabis. Hijab goes beyond the physical appearance; it is more than covering the human body. Hijab is a way of living; it is a mode of conduct. It is an intellectual concept of modesty that includes lowering one’s gaze in public places. It is a responsibility of all Muslim men and women without any exception according to Quran. The lack of a definite characterization of hijab, without a universally and clearly defined dress code, led diverse Muslim cultures all around the world to assume different meanings of hijab.  There is a wide range of words used to characterize this modern Muslim phenomenon.

According to Minault the act of “drawing the cloak” is also called Purdah, Naqab, Hijab, Chador, and Burqa in different Muslim countries, and it now means veiling and secluding only Muslim women in the Islamic world at different levels (556). It might come in all shapes and sizes with distinctive names but with the same concept of division and female exclusion along with seclusion behind it. Before discussing the division which leads to exclusion and seclusion, it is very important for us to recognize what hijab symbolizes for women who observe hijab and how dependent this symbolism is on the cultural perception of people.

Hijab has been turned into this constant and lifelong quest of purity, piety, exclusiveness, virginity, youth and unattainability for Muslim women. These eternal human perceptions of “best ever” combined with cultural models of “greatest” have been used against Muslim women in Islam to surrender equality: a promise of equality made to women by the divine text of Quran. When in Quran it is stated at five different places that men and women are created equal, how could we allow something as simple as hijab to take away this basic birthright from Muslim women?

Hijab as a cultural Islamic icon has diverse symbolic interpretations among various Muslim cultures and nations. In my interview with a Muslim hijab observer named Zeenah, I asked this very question, and the answer I got from her was, “Hijab symbolizes modesty.” And yet, there was nothing modest about her appearance. She was wearing a very tight, body hugging, silk dress; she had a lot of makeup and jewelry on. She further informed me that as a child, she was told by her mother that Hijabi is like “a pearl in an oyster.” She needs to protect herself from the world as she is exclusive for one man. She is carrying the name and honor of her family. This expression “pearl in an oyster” actually denotes the notion of virginity in a highly patriarchal society. Virginity is holding cash value to the inhabitants of Hijabi culture. Virginity escorts hijabis to this amazingly fascinating concept of unattainability.  Amazingly you don’t have to be pious to wear hijab. When I asked her if she will ever give up hijab, her answer –although shocking– did not stun me at all. She said, and I quote, “Only if I have a death wish hanging over my head or if I want to commit suicide.” She did not have the right to choose something as simple as hijab for herself. She told me that she will be ostracized, no one will marry her, and her parents will lose their face if she ever gives up on hijab. Of course, her parents want her to get an education, but not to the point that she gives up on hijab. Hijab alone is enough for her to be considered pious and sacred, and for her family, as long as she is wearing hijab, she is marriageable and acceptable in the society.

Mah Munir comes from a very religious Iranian Shiyaat family. She used to wear chador like me. Chador is a very long single sheet of fabric which women put on to cover their bodies from head to toe. She was told by her grandmother that chador means honor, honor for which we Muslims give or take life. A hijabi is for one special man; for the rest of the mankind, she is unachievable. Munir gave up hijab as she got sick and tired of the hypocrisy of Chador. She fled Iran, married out of her family and now is trying to get political asylum in the USA (Munir). If she decides to return to Iran or is forced to go back to Iran, she has to face her brother who will kill her for honor. She rebelled against the values of hijab. If she had a choice about hijab, her actions would have been different.

According to Professor Mackie, families who practice hijab make personal decisions and choices with one thing in their minds, keeping hijabi culture intact no matter how high the stakes are. I was born into a very religious family carrying a name very special for Muslims in Punjab. . . . This name required me to wear Chadur, I was not supposed to talk to Namahrum (any man I can get married to). My aunts wore Burqah (a full-body covering with a small opening for the eyes). I was spared this torturous tradition because my parents were educated people. This did not spare me from the hijabi mentality. I was conditioned to believe that I need to hide my faults from the world or anyone I know, an attitude which I know in my bones is a result of my natal family’s practice of hijab. At the age of five, Burqah became a symbol of hiding my flaws from everyone. It is no wonder that when I got married, I did what my hijabi upbringing taught me to do. In a world where my social status was dependent on my husband, I hid his abuse from my family and the phrase that I used to cling to was my naqabi grandma’s axiom “Put hijab on it.” No wonder when my ex-husband raped me, I wrapped hijab around it; when he beat me up, I covered it up with hijab; and when he left me and divorced me, my family in Pakistan placed – and continues to place — hijab on it. When I fought back and asked my parents, “Why don’t you tell people in Pakistan I am divorced?,” my mom said it is not her family but my dad’s family. So I asked him. My dad’s response was “Don’t worry. You don’t live in Pakistan anymore.”  My mom is helpless in that culture. My dad and his family are not people she will ever pick a fight with. He is the protector, whereas my mom is the protected, a mentality mentioned by Cooke in her article “Deploying the Muslim Women” (91). My dad is never going to admit he made a mistake in choosing my ex-husband for me. So putting “purdah” on it is the solution. Hiding and not admitting faults as a mindset is so deeply embedded in cultural values of hijab. Tradition of hijab takes precedence on this important personal issue.

Hijab is a major cause of dividing people at personal, familial, and cultural levels. A divided nation or gender can never work together. To get rid of the division of hijab, we need to work together as hijab is a complete contradiction of unity. This division is causing a lot of issues for men, women and families at various levels. Hijab as a concept has been turned into something very tangible. It was decreed upon Muslim men and women both, and yet it has been distorted and established for one specific gender only which is, of course, women. It has instigated a huge barrier between Muslim men and women, as well as good and bad women, based on one and only one thing, which is Hijab. Instead of values, hijab has become the tangible icon of goodness for women in Islam. If a woman wears a hijab, no matter who she is as a person, she is good. On the other hand, if a woman gives up on hijab, no matter how good she is, she is evil. I remember a year and a half ago talking to a hijabi girl outside the science building at my community college. I mentioned the name of a mutual friend who had recently given up hijab. This girl, who does not want her name to be mentioned, said, “Oh, you are talking about her. She used to be like us but not anymore. Do you know what she has done? She gave up hijab!” The disgust in her tone and voice was apparent. It took her all she had to restrain herself from calling our friend a whore just because she stopped wearing hijab (Anonymous).  I found through her that a lot of people are not friends with this girl anymore since she gave up hijab, and she is not considered a “good girl”. As stated in “The Argument in Favor,” the face-covering Muslim girls are the good ones, and girls who don’t cover their faces are the bad ones (Chesler 33). For a patriarchal culture like Islam, a girl’s foremost job is marriage; the chief contribution a woman can make after her marriage is to bring good sons of pure blood into this world for her husband. It is a civilization that is exceedingly dependent on the virginity of their daughters, forcing parents to differentiate between hijabi and non-hijabi daughters, thus causing a huge division in the family and emotional hurt for kids. A marriageable Purdah-daar girl is the salvation of her parents, so why should she not be treated like a queen?  And yet ironically, the hijabi queen is not taken seriously as no one wants to listen to a gender that is “sitting home” away from outside world. How could they know what is happening in the outside when they are barricaded inside the four walls of their houses?  This is a question a lot of my Muslim male relatives and friends ask me all the time.  Exactly what Eman told me, when she said that “if we wear hijab we are good but stupid, but if we give up hijab then we are bad and too liberal to be consulted on any important issue.” What the Islamic world is failing to see is that something as simple as hijab is excluding men and women at levels unsigned to the world of Islam at this point, creating this atmosphere of misogyny. A culture which elevates Mother next to God is practicing hijab, a symbol of inequality.  This division and discrimination is unworthy of any living thing, and yet as Muslims, we are proudly sporting veil as our salvation. This personal misogyny among men and women is profoundly affecting how they function inside and outside their culture.

Teitel writes about the fear of discrimination that adoption of hijab on public television in Egypt has caused women to talk about the mentality of supremacy and exclusion that come with this practice (54). Women are afraid that they will be ridiculed, harassed and forced to either adopt hijab or leave the workplace. Veiling is supposed to make people modest, but when did offending and attacking someone and forcing them to make a choice become a modest act? Embracing the practice of veiling to a point that it becomes a social norm does divide people into good and bad creating illusions of good when we are committing bad. After reading this article, I am wondering what to think about good and bad; are we redefining these words in Islam as well though hijab? This division of good and bad leads us into a hierarchy of genders that is simple to look at but very complex in practice and more difficult to understand. The first level of division that comes with Hijab is between men and women, and then it further divides women into good and bad. A man is superior to a woman in every sense of the word in a hijabi culture; he is the protector. A woman who is hijabi is better than a non-hijabi woman. This division causes a lot of exclusion and seclusion as a result. Hijab is the focal point of excluding non-hijabi women from mainstream Muslim culture and making them unholy in a seemingly holy war. In the world of hijab, it is a religious duty of Muslim women to wear hijab. What kind of progress can anyone expect from a society that makes division at every possible level a religious duty? If a woman is raised to believe that she has nothing to offer but her piety and nothing to get except protection from her male relative in return for that piety, how can she contribute towards her life, let alone raise a family of confident, caring, independent children? When people are caught up into trivial issues like “hijabi is better than non-hijabi,” then they are bound to divide and exclude each other leading them to chaos as Egypt is facing these days. According to the article “Egypt Prepares for the Twenty-First Century,” Egypt is in rubble while women are preparing to make hijab legal there (Habeeb 78). People of Egypt are so caught up in issues like hijab and what kind of hijab one should wear that they have stopped thinking about problems like economic growth, education, jobs etc. This division paves the way for seclusion at a personal, cultural, and an economic level.

Seclusion at personal level has its root in the notion that women who practice veiling are more pious, sacred and supreme than women who don’t observe hijab. This notion of pure and polluted and how isolating this notion is for Muslim woman has been discussed by Cooke (91). She also discusses how Muslim women are conditioned to believe that they are not capable of keeping themselves pure, so they should look out for a protector. It is ironic that the men who were supposed to protect and help the woman need a woman’s protection at multiple times. Eman, a former hijabi from Syria, explains this isolation like nothing she has ever experienced. I have personally experienced the isolation that comes with hijab. My grandfather blocked my admission into a college of my choice just because women in that college were not wearing hijab. My brother, on the other hand, had the choice to go to any school he wanted to go to. I was never to be trusted as a woman around a man, so I had a very limited choice of profession — a teacher or a doctor and that was it. I fought like crazy, threatening my parents to leave school. I hated the college my parents chose for me, but nothing worked. My mom and dad made it very clear to me. I am not an individual; I am a daughter.  I remember before I got married I was secluded to one room when guests would come. The room where girls would wait and stay was called Zanan Khana (women’s room). No male was allowed in that room except my dad, grandfather and brothers. I suffered at a personal level as I could not chose what I wanted to be, and I feel that I am living a life chosen by someone else for me.

During my interview with Professor Mackie, I asked him about his opinion on the seclusion that comes with hijab. He told me that the seclusion of hijab is not only at personal level for Muslim women; it comes at social, religious, and societal level. The act of dividing Muslim women into ranks of purity and piety is turning them against each other. Hijabi is secluded from non-hijabi and vice versa. A woman who wears hijab has to carry the traditions of the family and the culture. Carrying the traditions of a culture is a very isolating act in itself. Women who do not observe hijab are in worse situation as there is no support system for them. At personal level, they are carrying the burden of shame with no one to talk to. At familial level, it can be dangerous for a woman to stand up against the practice of hijab. If a woman choses to give up hijab, she might face a lot of familial pressure to go back to hijab. It is the family’s way to save face in the society. He also said that Muslims are collective societies, and they believe in sticking together. A parent would go to any extent to keep their face in the society, and hijab is the starting point.  As my grandma use to say, “If a girl gives up hijab, then she will do anything except listening to elders.” So women need to stay in the world as hijabi no matter what it takes to keep them hijabi. A woman who wants to go against all these cultural values has a lot to lose, sometimes even life. This dilemma can be very isolating for women who want to give up on hijab in that culture.

It is the idea of seclusion that is making hijab such a burden on Muslim women, directing them towards a life full of misery and melancholy. As mentioned in the article written by Cooper, women in Afghanistan are living under house arrest since espousing the custom of hijab; women face dire consequences if they don’t cover themselves (358).  This seclusion is causing a lot of emotional distress to these women leading to mental disorders like depression and anxiety. The idea of seclusion makes it harder for women to lead a normal life, especially in countries like Afghanistan, particularly after Taliban took over the country; Taliban is by far the worst thing to happen to Muslim women. Taliban imposed this strict dress code and seclusion for Muslim women and then sealed doors to education on them gradually (Masci 251).

I know my daughter will never know the life I had to live as a hijabi woman in a Muslim country or as a hijabi immigrant in USA. I am aware of the fact that brave Muslim women like Eman and Mahmunir, and maybe myself, are only stories for her, and I thank God for that every day. I am also conscious of the fact that millions of Muslim girls outside, and some inside the USA, are not lucky enough to live a life of their own choice. Hijab is not a choice for them like it would be for my daughter.  For millions of daughters in Islam, life is becoming a prison. Hijab is the beginning of this life in prison, and it ends at drastic, heinous practices like female genital mutilation. According to Professor Mackie, there is a correlation in Indonesia between the rise in hijab and the rise in female genital cutting. So should we lose all hope or should we take a step towards the future and make hijab and the mentality of hijab a forbidden and forgotten history?

As a former hijabi, I understand the bias I have against this tradition. I have the firsthand experience of failing at a personal level because I could not understand people. How could I? I was never allowed to be around them. Outside in the society, I struggle every single day to understand the system and culture. I can comprehend the arguments made in “The Crusade Over the Bodies of Women” about the Western mentality of colonialism which is blamed for making hijab notorious (Fernandez 271).   The author condemns the West for making hijab a symbol of oppression. Two negatives do not make one positive. Colonialist mentality is not an excuse to look away from the coercion of hijab on Muslim women. Blaming colonist mentality and defending Muslim men is not going to help women who are mugged of their natural birth rights. Women in Islam are oppressed, even the author acknowledges that in her article, and hijab is a way of oppressing women. The only way out is educating and making these women strong enough to stand up to traditions that rob them of their selves.

In “The Pink Hijab: The Arab Revolts of 2011 Have Transformed the Image of the Islamic World. One Young Egyptian Woman’s Struggle Reflects the Scope of Change–and Shows How Long it has been in Coming,” Wright talks about Ziada, a very brave girl who made the difference in the life of her cousin, by saving her from female genital cutting. Ziada fought to save her sister and many others from this female circumcision but failed. She did not give up. She kept on fighting and changed her uncle’s mind thus saving her cousin from female genital cutting (Wright 47).

What if Eman had not given up on hijab and the culture that comes with it? What if Mah Munir had not fled Iran and found refuge in USA? What if I, like a good daughter, started wearing hijab the day my mom asked me to and had not taken the stand and criticism from my own family members? We don’t know for sure what might have happened, but I know that girls like my daughter would not have mothers and Khaltos (aunts) like Eman and Mahmunir to look up to. They would not have this option of choosing. They would have been robbed of something as fundamental as personal choice. As my dad says, “One generation becomes a fertilizer for another one.” We became fertilizers for girls like my daughter. I hope one day every girl born into Islam will be given the choice to be who she wants to be.  It is my hope, my dream, my mission and my life.  It is not easy; it never was. There is a long battle ahead for women like us, but it is so worth it. You see some battles are not won overnight. It takes decades and resistance of generations to make the change, and sometimes you never win a battle; you just keep on fighting till the last moment of life, until you win the battle, as it is the right thing to do.


Works Cited

Al-Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. New York: Berg. 1999.  Print.

Anonymous. Personal Interview. Apr. 2011.

Chesler, Phyllis. “The Argument in Favor.” Middle East Quarterly 17.4 (2000):33+. General One File. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Cooke, Miriam. “Deploying the Muslim Women.” Journal of Feminist Studies in

     Religion. 24.1 (2008): 91. General OneFile. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Cooper, Mary M. “Women and Human Rights.” CQ Researcher. 30 Apr 1999: 353-376. CQ Researcher Online. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Eman. Personal Interview.  Apr. 2012.

The Holy Quran. Trans. Abdel Haleem. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Fernandez, Sonya. “The Crusade over the Bodies Of Women.” Patterns Of Prejudice 43.3/4 (2009): 269-286. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

Mackie, Gerry. Telephone Interview. 26 Nov. 2012.

Masci, David. “Islamic Fundamentalism” CQ Researcher. 24 Mar, 2000: 241-56. CQ Researcher Online. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Minault, Gail. “Purdah.” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Martin, Richard C. Vol. 2. New York: Gale. 2004. 556.Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Munir, Mah. Personal Interview. 26 Nov. 2012.

Salloum, Habeeb. “Egypt Prepares for the Twenty-First Century.” Contemporary Review 270.1573 (1997): 78+. General OneFile. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.

Teitel, Emma. “A Revealing Debate: Head Scarves Have Returned to Mainstream Egyptian Life for the First Time in 50 Years.” Maclean’s 8 Oct. 2012: 54. General OneFile. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.

Wright, Robin. “The Pink Hijab: The Arab Revolts of 2011 Have Transformed The Image of the Islamic World. One Young Egyptian Woman’s Struggle Reflects the Scope of Change–and Shows How Long it has Been in Coming.” The Wilson Quarterly: Summer 2011: 47.General Onefile. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

Zeenah. Personal Interview. 8 Oct, 2012