A Misleading CNN Article About Hijabs

This originally appeared at AltMuslimah and was written by Uzma Mariam Ahmed.

A recent headline article on CNN.com written by CNN correspondent John Blake entitled “Muslim Women Uncover Myths About the Hijab,” attempted to expose the “myths” surrounding the hijab. Though the title implies that the article contains insightful analysis of the popular misconceptions surrounding the hijab and the reasons why women wear it, the piece falls far short of this goal. Instead, under the pretext of sympathetically noting the discrimination faced by Muslim women and informing the public of the real purpose of the hijab, the article presents a distorted picture of the hijab’s Islamic history, the women who wear it, and the nature of the debate on this thorny issue in the Muslim community.

The central problem with the article is that Blake failed to cite authoritative sources. While the title implies that the piece contains the views of Muslim women, key parts of the analysis is based on quotes from random Muslim teenagers. It also appears that no Islamic scholars were directly interviewed for the piece. He interviewed Randa Abdel-Fattah, an Australian Muslim who writes teen fiction about Muslim teenagers struggling with issues such as wearing the hijab. While her comments are interesting, she is certainly no scholar. He also cites liberally from Faegheh Shirazi’s book “The Veil Unveiled,” particularly in explaining the Islamic history of the hijab. Shirazi, like Abdel-Fattah, is not an Islamic expert – her field of study is textile and clothing, not religion or history.

In fairness to Blake, the article does provide some welcome coverage of the discrimination faced by hijabi women from both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in western countries. It also stresses the point that most women wear the hijab out of their own free choice, without pressure from family or community.

Despite these positive aspects of the article, Blake fails to capture the actual religious reasons for the hijab. In a section entitled the “surprising history behind the hijab,” he glosses over the actual Islamic history of the hijab. He notes that according to Shirazi, the Quran “encourages women to dress modestly,” and some take “the Quran’s advice as a command for women to wear the hijab, while others disagree.” According to Shirazi, the Quran is ambiguous about whether women have to wear the veil or not.

Blake fails to cite to or explain the verse in Surah An-Noor, which, contrary to Blake’s analysis, commands rather than encourages that both men and women guard their modesty, and provides that women should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands. (Quran, 24: 30–31). Neither does he reference the Islamic debate about the reason why the verses in Surah Al-Ahzaab were revealed, commanding the Prophet Muhammad’s wives and daughters and the believing women to cast their outer garments over their persons when abroad. (Quran, 33:59).

The nuanced debate among Islamic scholars regarding the applicability of these verses is neither mentioned nor discussed, and the reader is left with the misleading impression that the veil is entirely optional. Instead, Blake explains that the hijab predates Islam and while it used to be a symbol of prestige and status, by the 12th century the veil had been imposed on women in the Muslim world to exclude them from public life, and “a sign of distinction had been transformed into a sign of exclusion.”

These conclusions are all faulty. The fact that the veil pre-dated Islam is not directly relevant to the Islamic debate regarding the veil. Shirazi’s opinion that by the 12th century the veil had been imposed on women to exclude them from public life, given the context in which Blake uses it, is misleading. The reader is given no clue about why Shirazi made this conclusion. Whether she was referring to a particular country, culture, or people is unclear. What is clear is that Blake relies on this statement in showing that this exclusion from public life may have continued until today.

This inference is strengthened by his interviews with Sarah Hekmati, an Iranian-American who decided to wear the hijab as a teenager, and Hekmati’s mother. Hekmati explains that when she decided to wear the hijab she faced resistance from her own mother and others in the Iranian-American community. According to Blake, many Muslim American mothers oppose their daughter’s desire to wear the hijab because these mothers “often immigrated to the West so they could be free from wearing the hijab and other rules imposed on women.” Hekmati’s mother, for instance, stated that she was “befuddled” by her daughter’s choice. Further, many in the Iranian-American community “bothered” Hekmati: “They say, ‘We got rid of you guys. We came here because we don’t want to see you guys anymore.’”

The reactions of individuals in Hekmati’s mother’s generation from Iran, and others from the Iranian-American community, do not reflect the views of the broader Muslim-American community. While it may be true that Hekmati’s mother and others of her generation fled Iran after the Islamic revolution, partly to escape harsh new laws regarding the rights of women, these issues are particular to the Iranian-American community. Such issues do not exist for women from the Indian-American community or the Chinese-American community, for instance. Since there is no mention of the reasons why people from the Iranian-American community might hold such views, the reader is left with the impression that the Muslim American community in general discriminates against women who wear the hijab. This also supports Blake’s inference that the young women who wear the hijab in America are supported neither by their religions (since the hijab pre-dates Islam, is not clearly mandated by the religion, and is now a means of excluding women from public life) nor their families or communities.

Blake further undermines the credibility of the views of women who wear the hijab by focusing heavily on statements by Hekmati and Rowaida Abdelaziz, a Muslim high school senior from New Jersey. It may be that he took some statements they made out of context, but several of the comments they make are self-contradictory or clearly inapposite to fundamental Islamic precepts. He cites Hekmati as explaining that the hijab made her concerned about her relationship with boys: “Few asked her on dates. Guys always seemed to put her in the ‘friend category.’ She wondered if she was attractive. ‘I wondered at times: Am I always going to be a guy’s friend and nothing more.’” It is mystifying why Hekmati would wonder this, since she and some of the others interviewed also indicate that the purported purpose of their veiling is that they be treated as equals with men, without the additional distraction of sexual attraction between them. This statement makes not only Hekmati, but also every other woman interviewed sound either confused or misinformed about the purpose of the hijab.

Also problematic, Abdelaziz explains, “my mom says a girl is like a jewel. When you have something precious, you usually hide it. You want to make sure you keep it safe until that treasure is ready to be found.” However, at the end of the article, Blake mentions that Abdelazzis has had tense public encounters with people angry at her decision or those who pity her. This seems to invalidate her point that the hijab keeps her hidden and safe, “like a jewel.” Furthermore, Abdelazziz’s statement that wearing the hijab “feels really good” and that “it felt like I was missing something and now I’m complete” while interesting and commendable, seem rather far-fetched coming from a seventeen year old. It is also jarring that this piece, which purports to present the views of Muslim “women,” then ends with Abdelazzis’s statement that “I finally understand my purpose.” That statement would have been meaningful coming from a scholar who has studied the issue or a mature woman who has worn the hijab all her life, but is hard to take seriously coming from a seventeen year old. It is also difficult to believe, given the over-all bent of the article.

The reader is left with the ultimate picture of confused teenaged Muslim girls who are wearing the hijab with little support from their own communities, clinging to an out-dated practice that makes them stand out and socially isolates them. While the stated intent of this article appeared positive, its actual content is misleading and unpersuasive. If this piece had run in a high school newspaper, it would not have been a cause for such alarm. That it ran as a headline article on CNN.com under the guise of dispelling myths about the hijab is troubling.

  • PINAR

    I am a proud Muslim woman. I dont give a hoot what the Judeo-Christian world thinks of Muslims. As a proud Muslim woman I have nothing to prove to any Judeo-Christian. I do have a serious problem with the so called Muslim man’s obsession with covering up the head of a Muslim woman. To all the so called Muslim men obsessed with covering the head of a Muslim women. only Allah has the right to judge. No man has the right to judge a woman for what she wears or does not wear. MUSLIMS NEED TO STOP KILLING EACH OTHER FOR WHAT A MUSLIM WOMAN WEARS OR DOES NOR WEAR.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

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  • Salamatu Yahaya-Musa

    yes we do not need to bug ourselves over what others are wearing or wear but then the fact still remains that we must at all times remember to do what is right and guide others.

    I know is only Allah that can guide human but then what are we our sister’s keepers for when almost the whole world is going NAKED?

  • http://answeringlife.blogspot.com candice

    Good analysis! Makes me want to write an article about Islam and women in Islam that is not misleading/confused/misinformed.

  • Sobia

    I have a lot of issues with this critique. Mainly being that it is quite condescending. A few points:

    The author’s complaint is that CNN did not cite a scholar who says that the hijab is mandatory. Why such a problem with the “some say it is, some it isn’t mandatory” version of hijab? Every other mainstream piece on hijab describes the hijab as mandatory. Why not have one that reflects the reality of the Muslim community – some believe it’s mandatory, others don’t. Simple. Why is this a problem? Personally, I think it’s about time that mainstream media begin depicting a more nuanced view of the hijab as it is in the Muslim community.

    The following I found quite insensitive.

    “but several of the comments they make are self-contradictory or clearly inapposite to fundamental Islamic precepts. He cites Hekmati as explaining that the hijab made her concerned about her relationship with boys: “Few asked her on dates. Guys always seemed to put her in the ‘friend category.’ She wondered if she was attractive. ‘I wondered at times: Am I always going to be a guy’s friend and nothing more.’” It is mystifying why Hekmati would wonder this, since she and some of the others interviewed also indicate that the purported purpose of their veiling is that they be treated as equals with men, without the additional distraction of sexual attraction between them. This statement makes not only Hekmati, but also every other woman interviewed sound either confused or misinformed about the purpose of the hijab.”

    No it doesn’t. This makes them seem human. Many girls have these feelings and for the author to suggest that this is somehow un-Islamic, or hypocritical, is denying human nature as well as the reality of the Muslim community.

    No doubt a 17-year old has less life experience than an older woman, but that does not make her experiences any less valid or any less real. She reflects many other Muslim girls and women. As Muslim women we need to try to understand and validate the experiences of all Muslim women, not just the ones that fit into our neat little box of who or how we think a Muslim woman should be.

    Sorry, but this critique really rubbed me the wrong way.

  • Melinda

    (Note to Fatemeh: The link has been updated on the CNN website.)

    Hmm. The analysis here seems a bit simplistic. I don’t think the issue of hijab is a black-and-white one, and I don’t think it’s a problem that it’s not discussed as such.

    For one thing, I’m a little disturbed by the implication that only Islamic scholars have anything valuable to contribute to a discussion of the hijab. Women who wear the hijab, regardless of their age, women who write about the experiences of women who wear the hijab, and women who study clothing can indeed contribute their own valid and diverse perspectives about it without having the title of Islamic authority.

    Furthermore, I don’t see the contradictions the author of this post criticizes. Yes, Hekmati sees the hijab as a way to be seen by men for her mind, not her body. But it’s legitimate and believable that she would at the same time wonder if others see her as attractive and if males will ever take a sexual interest in her. Not only is there great societal pressure to be seen as attractive, the hijab doesn’t erase someone’s sexuality or desire to be valued, whether that’s intellectually or physically.

    Similarly, I see no contradiction between Abdelaziz’s assertion that the hijab hides her mother “like a jewel” and her comment that it also leads to tense encounters with people who dislike the hijab. I’m not a great fan of the analogy that equates women to jewels, but my understanding is that it is women’s beauty, or sexual attractiveness, that the hijab hides away like jewels — NOT that the hijab protects women from stereotypes or intolerance.

    The angle of the Iranian mothers discouraging their daughters from wearing hijab was to me an interesting angle of the hijab story, which usually centers on families encouraging their daughters to do so. I understand that it may not reflect the Muslim community as a whole, but it’s nevertheless a legitimate and real perspective in the hijab debate.

    Certainly the CNN story has flaws that should be critiqued. For one thing, the voices included are very few and present a limited perspective of something as diverse as the hijab. The reporter should have sought out more sources and viewpoints. However, this post criticizing the article as “misleading” seems to fault the article for not being black-and-white enough. The critique assumes there exists a a monolithic view of the hijab across the Muslim community, one that would better be reflected by focusing on Islamic scholars and Quranic citations, not the silly women who wear it and don’t know what they’re talking about. And while that might be the aim of an Islamic website offering clear-cut religious interpretations and instructions, it’s certainly not the place of a reporter aiming to dispell myths about the hijab.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    Definitely agree with Sobia on this one.

    This critique is based on a fatal flaw: it fails to make a clear distinction between normative and descriptive arguments. Saying “Muslim women wear the veil” can be both normative (Muslim women should wear the veil, or the veil is compulsory for x y z reasons) and also descriptive (many women who identify as Muslim also wear the veil because of x y z reasons.) First, the the descriptive analysis is very flawed. Particularly this statement: “Such issues do not exist for women from the Indian-American community or the Chinese-American community, for instance.” This implies that the veil is not politicized in these communities, which is erroneous. (Not enough space to explain all the reasons why this is false.) I also wonder why the author chose to compare a Muslim majority theocracy with secular states in which Muslims are hte minority.

    Furthermore, one cannot deny the fact that many Muslim women around the world do not wear the hijab, and wear hijab in various ways. What is appropriate in the UK for Muslims is not in Iran, or in China, or India or Nigeria or Senegal or Saudi Arabia. What makes one more/less legitimate than the others?

    Second, the normative analysis, while convoluted with descriptive logic, fails even when it is explicitly normative. On what planet is hide your bosoms” and “cast your outer garments” unambiguously equated with headscarves? I’m not saying is DOESN’T mean this, but the fact remains that the passages sited in the hijab debate have some level of abstruseness to it. If they were perfectly explicit, there wouldn’t be a need for this kind of theological debate (And by the way, I personally would rather get a root canal than entering this kind of theological debate on the hijab.)

    The author also makes this descriptive/normative confusion in the discussion on lived realities of that 17 year old. What’s happening is the comparison between the ideal type and the lived realities of an individual’s experience. Generally speaking, comparing the ideal to the real is really unfair and problematic (and I think we can all understand why.)

    So at the end of the article, this is what happens: The author uses a descriptive argument to make a normative case for the hijab standard (‘most Muslim women wear hijab, which shows that Muslim women should wear hijab because of consensus’.) But then the author goes on to critique empirical reality (‘Muslim women are misinterpreting their hijab.’) Thus we have a fatal logical flaw in the author’s arguments.

    So to Uzma I ask this: Why do your normative arguments more valid than the sources in the original article’s? If Muslim women can so easily misinterpret their hijab, then how are so many of them wearing it, (and so many of them not for that matter)? Everyone has biases – what are your biases and how to their interfere with your logic?

  • laila

    Uzma Mariam Ahmed,
    your critique really sinks, precisely for all the reasons Sobia mentioned.

    Is it a problem for because its not the reality you want to see?

    Only scholars and mature women who have worn the hijab their whole life need only be interviewed or be taken seriously? Are you for real with this statement?

  • Dude

    Disclaimer: I have not read the article this critique is about.

    @Sobia:

    The author’s complaint is that CNN did not cite a scholar who says that the hijab is mandatory.

    From my reading, it seems as if you’re putting words in the mouth of the author. I don’t see where she asked for this.

    She did complain that:

    “It also appears that no Islamic scholars were directly interviewed for the piece.”

    which is quite a different matter. And I agree with her complaint. Let’s make an analogy:

    In the US, for a number of years, a debate was raging about the legality of the detainees in Guantanamo, whether the Geneva Conventions apply, etc. Now if an article was written about the topic that implied some authenticity but did little more than poll ordinary Americans’ views on the matter, it would be a pretty poor article.

    In such cases, it makes sense that the author consult a legal scholar (and preferably a bunch of them).

    Why not so here?

    Why such a problem with the “some say it is, some it isn’t mandatory” version of hijab?

    Did Uzma complain that this is a problem? She merely complained that the article does not cite any religious scholars. Your position and this are not exclusive. You can state what a number of scholars state, and then get a poll of the public.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Dude: While I appreciate the spirit of dissent and dialogue in your comment, you invalidate your credibility by stating that you haven’t read the CNN article. If you can read Uzma’s, you can take a second and read CNN’s, too. ;)

  • Dude

    The critique may be poor in a number of ways, but I still don’t get some of the criticism:

    @Melinda:

    For one thing, I’m a little disturbed by the implication that only Islamic scholars have anything valuable to contribute to a discussion of the hijab

    I really don’t see where Uzma implied any such thing. Can you point me to it?

    The critique assumes there exists a a monolithic view of the hijab across the Muslim community, one that would better be reflected by focusing on Islamic scholars and Quranic citations, not the silly women who wear it and don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Again, I didn’t read her piece suggesting it’s flawed to ask ordinary Muslims their opinions. She merely complained that they should also talk to some scholars.

    And really, an article on the Hijab that doesn’t even cite any religious source related to it? That’s like an article discussing the viewpoints of gun ownership in the US and never mentioning the 2nd amendment.

    @Rochelle:

    I’m not saying is DOESN’T mean this, but the fact remains that the passages sited in the hijab debate have some level of abstruseness to it.

    All the more reason for the original article to cite it – to point out the ambiguity.

  • Sobia

    Melinda and Rochelle:

    You said it better than I did. In total agreement.

  • laila

    @ Dude- you asked for someone to point it out to you the articles implications that only Islamic scholars have anything valuable to contribute to a discussion of the hijab.

    1)”The central problem with the article is that Blake failed to cite authoritative sources.”

    2)”He interviewed Randa Abdel-Fattah, an Australian Muslim who writes teen fiction about Muslim teenagers struggling with issues such as wearing the hijab.While her comments are interesting, she is certainly NO scholar.”

    3)”Shirazi, like Abdel-Fattah, is NOT an Islamic expert – her field of study is textile and clothing, not religion or history.”

    Dude-she didn’t “merely complain that they should also talk to some scholars” but…

    4)”That statement would have been meaningful coming from a scholar who has studied the issue or a mature woman who has worn the hijab all her life. (I guess my insights and experiences should be excluded because I’ve only wore it it for 8 years and not all my life).

    Uzma, herself undermines the women who wear hijab by focusing heavily on scholars (who the majority are men that do not wear the hijab and therefore have different experiences of it). Like Melinda noted, these Muslims women views whether they are teenagers, writers or textile experts have something valuable to contribute to a discussion concerning hijab.

  • Sobia

    @ Dude
    First, read the original article, then read our comments.

    Second, considering Melinda, Rochelle and I independently had very similar complaints, and read the critique, after reading the original article, the same way, our comments aren’t coming out of left field.

    You said:
    “From my reading, it seems as if you’re putting words in the mouth of the author. I don’t see where she asked for this.”

    From the critique this line:

    “…and the reader is left with the misleading impression that the veil is entirely optional.”

    Not misleading. That is the way many Muslims view the hijab – as optional. The author exposes her bias here, which is fine, but it’s not a valid critique of the article. There are many Muslims who view the hijab as optional. She obviously was upset that readers would assume that the hijab was not mandatory because Islamic scholars, who arguably would have to state that the hijab is mandatory, were not interviewed.

    You said:

    “Did Uzma complain that this is a problem? She merely complained that the article does not cite any religious scholars”

    See above. She wants only the “mandatory” interpretation relayed, not any others. Other interpretations, according to her, are “misleading”.

  • Krista

    I’m also a bit perplexed about why the critique seems so insistent on the need for Islamic scholars in order for the article to be legitimate. The original article seems pretty focused on the lived experience of hijab, and on the experiences of a couple young women in particular, without pretending to be the ultimate final authority on all things hijab. The Guantanamo analogy that Dude raises would make sense if the CNN article was trying to talk about Islamic law related to hijab and didn’t cite any scholars, but that’s not at all my impression of what it was trying to do; rather, it was trying to show some people’s experiences with it. And it’s totally legitimate to talk about someone’s personal experience without needing a scholar to back it up. (To go back to the Guantanamo analogy, if someone was writing an article *about* average Americans’ opinions on Guantanamo, then consulting a legal specialist wouldn’t necessarily be all that relevant either.)

    Thanks to Sobia, Rochelle, and Melinda for raising most of the other points that I wanted to.

  • Melinda

    @Dude

    I really don’t see where Uzma implied [that only Islamic scholars have anything valuable to contribute to a discussion of the hijab]. Can you point me to it?

    In the introduction to the post Uzma explains that she expected “insightful analysis of the popular misconceptions surrounding the hijab and the reasons why women wear it,” but the story “falls far short of this goal.” She doesn’t explain what’s lacking insight in the comments of the sources interviewed; she just disparages them for not being scholars or upholding the clear-cut concept she has of hijab. Note the use of the definite article here: “Though the title implies that the article contains insightful analysis of the popular misconceptions surrounding the hijab and the reasons why women wear it, the piece falls far short of this goal.” Sounds like there’s a limited number of misconceptions and reasons, and Uzma knows them all.

    Uzma writes, “key parts of the analysis is based on quotes from random Muslim teenagers. It also appears that no Islamic scholars were directly interviewed for the piece.” (emphasis mine) Why the disparaging use of “random”? Why is it a problem that the writer includes teenage sources? The implication here is that Muslim teenagers are not valuable sources. She then lists the non-teenage sources, Randa Abdel-Fattah and Faegheh Shirazi, and proceeds to tear them down: “while [Abdel-Fattah's] comments are interesting, she is certainly no scholar. … [Shirazi is] not an Islamic expert – her field of study is textile and clothing, not religion or history.” There’s a clear favoring here of Islamic scholars over women whose relationship to hijab is through wearing it and/or studying it. Uzma describes these sources as “interesting” but “random,” strongly implying that they offer less value to the story than the insights of an Islamic scholar.

    Which brings me to the second point. While I think the story could only improve from the inclusion of more viewpoints, including those of female Islamic scholars (remember, “Muslim women uncover myths”), I don’t think the lack of such sources, or Quranic citations, is the major problem that both Uzma and Dude make it out to be. The story’s focus is not on the line-by-line religious justifications for wearing hijab but the actual experiences of living, breathing Muslim women. And for that, the best source is any Muslim woman wearing a hijab, full stop. It’s not “random” at all.

    Not every article about gun ownership in the U.S. needs to reference specifics of the Second Amendment. It some cases it might be necessary, such as in stories on court battles challenging gun ownership or gun-control laws, or stories on new or changing laws with respect to gun ownership. But in an article on what it’s like to be a gun owner, what kind of stereotypes and myths gun-owners would like to dispel about their relationship to their guns? The specifics of the law aren’t the emphasis, so there’s no need to bring in a constitutional lawyer.

    Furthermore, the comparison is unfair. Study of the law within the legal system of a state is not the same as the study and interpretation of religious texts. In a state, an individual cannot make his or her own interpretation of a law and expect to be considered a law-abiding citizen if he or she follows this in contrast to what a legal scholar understands the law to mean. Civilians know that they, as citizens and residents, must follow the laws of the state in order to receive its protections. If they wish to challenge the laws, they do so in specific ways: demonstrating, going to court, etc. In a state, individuals know that laws are formed by the state, written by actual people.

    In a religion, on the other hand, believers do not consider religious obligations to be inventions of humankind but of God. Religion is not the creation of a government. This means the authority of a government and legal scholars in a state is not equivalent to the authority of legal scholars (or a government) in matters of religion. This is not to say that religious scholars do not hold weight, or that there are not individual believers of said religion who follow their legal advice. However — and this is the key difference — a follower of a religion is free to follow her own interpretation without ceasing to be part of that religion. On the other hand, a citizen who lives by his or her own interpretations of the laws will soon find him or herself in jail, outside civil society, when those interpretations fail to match up with those of the legal authorities.

    To be sure, there are similarities in the Second Amendment comparison, but it is unfairly weighted towards the importance of a scholarly source. The state is centered around the law; religion may involve law but is centered around God.

  • Zahra

    This article was much less impressive than the usual pieces here, but I do love the comments from Sobia, Melinda, and Rochelle. I agree with many of their individual points, and would add that this article left me in no doubt that the author thought the opinions of women who wear the hijab were less important that those of scholars.

    I also particularly love “religion may involve law but is centered around God.” Lest we forget…

    I only want to add this:

    It is NOT the job of non-Muslims to determine what are and are not correct interpretations of Islam. That’s for the (very diverse) communities to do. An outsider–reporter, novelist, film-maker, etc.–can only fairly focus on the real, lived experience of the group, which is diverse. Outsides have a moral duty not to stereotype by taking the experiences of one subsection of a group and generalizing them to fit all members of a really huge group.

    To do otherwise, and presume that they know what Islam should be better than actual Muslim, is arrogance of the highest order. Unfortunately it’s common enough that we have a word for it: Orientalism

    It seems bizarre that this reporter is being criticized for something he got right.

  • Abeer

    I’m usually quite impressed with the scholarly writing available on this website, but I was disappointed with this article. I completely agree with Melinda and Sobia!


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