The Science of Beating a Dead Horse: The Christian Science Monitor’s Hijab Series

Recently, The Christian Science Monitor published a series of articles centered around the hijab. While I appreciated the valiant effort to offer some insight into the discourse around the hijab and the lives of Muslim women, it ultimately left me frustrated.

The articles treat the headscarf as the heart of women’s issues in Islam. Centering on the practice of veiling makes it appear central to women’s issues and ultimately glosses over the realities and depths of the problems that Muslim women may face in the world. While the hijab may serve as a symbol, the real issue lies with the relationship between socioeconomic factors and religious interpretation. That diversity felt marginalized by this series.

The first article, titled “The veil, the Koran, and the Muslim women’s movement” and written by the Monitor’s Editorial Board, looked at the involvement of women within the discourse surrounding Islam. The article opens with a statement about the hijab not being mentioned in the Qur’an. After this, the article says:

A Muslim woman, then, should have the freedom to cover her hair – or not. But that is not the case in a country like Saudi Arabia. The Koran also supports a woman’s right to own and inherit property, to be educated, and to choose her husband – but not all societies in the Muslim universe of 1.5 billion people recognize these rights.

In the editorial, the veiling debate becomes symbolic for other debates involving the rights of women. This makes the choice of hijab become the symbol for how repressive or free a predominately Muslim country is.

The article moves to discuss the rise in women challenging systems that place them at a disadvantage. The article equates a rise in female scholars and Islamic leaders with a widened understanding and challenge of laws that disenfranchise women. However, just as with female politicians, the existence of women within the system does not mean that the system will be challenged. Religious institutions, just as nations, are arenas for political and socioeconomic agendas.

Islamic feminism is then thrown into the article, and the interpretation of it was somewhat confusing. On one hand, it was defined as the involvement of women within the courts and religious debates, but also a closer interpretation of the Qur’an. While the article proclaims that “the movement’s roots in the Koran give it a better chance at changing attitudes than a transplanted women’s liberation movement from the West,” it still defines an Islamic feminist movement as a movement of liberation, much like that of the Western world. Furthermore, it gives the impression that Islamic feminism is merely the feminist movement within Islamic nations.

Islamic feminism is not a movement bound by nations, but rather a lively discourse within the Islamic world as a whole, and even in Western nations. The impression I received from the article was that it was more of a political movement rather than an actual intellectual discourse.

The next article I read was the most problematic for me. Written by Caryle Murphy and titled, “Behind the veil: Why Islam’s most visible symbol is spreading,” it reiterated a theme of separation (not to mention making hijab sound like a disease), and much like the previous article, it buried the questions of agency and autonomy within the veil. While the hijab can be a symbol of the choices that Muslim women may or may not have, it is not an indicator of freedom or the rights that one may have.

Ironically, after highlighting the significance of looking at the hijab as more than a symbol of the status of women, the article begins to reinforce binaries which I felt they were trying to avoid:

Non-Muslims tend to regard veiling as a sign of women’s repression. That is true in highly patriarchal societies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where women have second-class status and are required to cover both head and body when outside the home.

But most Muslim women, including most in the US, voluntarily opt to wear the head scarf out of religious commitment. They believe they are following God’s wish, and reject suggestions that their head covering means they have less autonomy at home or on the job.

In using the examples of Saudi Arabia and Iran, forced veiling is used to gloss over the actual status of women’s rights within the respective nations. While the author tried to emphasize the role of culture within how hijab may be interpreted, ultimately she gave preference to the Western hijabi because of a perception that as a woman in a Western nation actually has a choice because of the nature of the state, rather than the way in which religion actually plays into the factors influencing her life.

The final article was the personal account of a young woman, Husna Haq, living in Boston: “Wearing the Muslim veil in America: What it’s like”. While I thought that the piece was honest, I found it to be problematically generic and full of troubling statements like, “No man will whistle at a hijabi covered head to toe.” As if women who wear hijab are never sexually harassed? Please. I was also annoyed by the quotation of Naomi Wolf, who I feel reinforces Orientalist ideas with her writings about sexuality in predominately Muslim countries.

Furthermore, featuring Haq’s article reinforced a theme of glorifying the Western Muslim, which in a sense, simply acts as a green light to the benefits of “Westernizing the Islamic world.”

In making the hijab the most significant component of Muslim women’s issues, it buries these issues within the veil, and makes it central to discourse on the question of rights. While I found these articles to be more insightful than some that I have read within the past,  I wish that there was more focus on the relationship between socioeconomic, cultural, political, and religious factors, rather than a paltry attempt at exploring and explaining the hijab—something that has already been done and re-done and done again.

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