NPR’s Dejabbing Sideshow

Is it just me, or has this spring seen a lot of de-jabbing articles lately?   As a “dejabi” myself, I alternate between taking these articles with a grain of salt and hoping that something put forth by the journalist will resonate with me. One of the recent pieces is NPR’s “Lifting the Veil” (har har), which looks at the stories of twelve Muslim women who stopped wearing headscarves.

The whole premise of the article bothers me: If it isn’t Muslims talking about my hair and taking about if I  wear a headscarf or not, it’s non-Muslims.  Can we get past sisters’ hair already?  Please? I was interviewed once by a Swiss researcher, and part of my photo session involved taking off and putting on my veil.  I don’t understand the fascination with the act of veiling, and the video of the sisters veiled and unveiled creeped me out accordingly.

hijab before and after

NPR's multimedia slideshow showed images of many of the women "Before and After" removing their headscarves, and included audio from them about their decisions.

The reasons put forth are your standard radio-friendly “why I took of the veil” reasons: community pressure, couldn’t find a job, crisis of faith, didn’t feel like it fit with her personality…

I didn’t like the piece because I am sure the nuance and depth to these sisters’ decisions wound up on the cutting room floor. My takeaway from the article was that we, as Muslim women, make our personal decisions based on community pressure and crises of faith.  NPR amassed a collection of American Muslim women (with one big caveat, below) from whom I would have loved to hear something more than just the same old dejabbing bullshit. I say this based on my own dejabbing experience: yes, there were some base, practical reasons, but also many complex, illogical feelings which explained why it took me almost six months to fully dejab (and do stuff like not feel weird if I was out past nine pm, or wear a v-neck top).

That said, several of the dejabis (Lubna, Kim, Noorain) made a point that resonated with me: the idea of the veil as an identity-based statement.  Yes, I will go on the record as saying that in my hijab days, it helped me to identify as a Muslim.  But now I feel the veil doesn’t define my personal Islam any more.  Could it be the same for these ladies?  They gave a number of incredibly complex and personal reasons for both putting it on and taking it off. But really, does it matter?  Why can Muslim men be of any shape and size, but we as women will always be judged by whether we have a headscarf or not? Which is why I think the onus of this piece, however unintentionally, plays into the idea that hijab is a tool of oppression,  just because there is pressure from within and without the community on OMG WHAT TO DO WITH OUR HAIR.

Finally, and most important for me, I’m not the only one to notice that there was only one African-American sister, Saleemah covered (haha) in the piece, as was noted in the article’s comments and on Twitter.  Considering that between 24 – 35% percent  (depending on who you ask) of American Muslims are African-American, it seems paltry that Saleemah was the only African American voice.

We’re not just immigrants, second-generation, or middle-class white girls (such as myself). And our stories are more diverse and complex than even well-intentioned pieces can begin to cover.  Let’s get away from our hair and get into our spiritual experience!

#SuitablyDressed: A hijab is perfectly suitable attire for a courtroom
Friday Links | December 26, 2014
Review – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Refusing the Veil
Death, Grief and Womanhood
  • Iman Zaineb

    As salaamu aleikum,
    I watched this video while taking a short Facebook hiatus, but I was itching to comment about it, and this morning, returning from my hiatus, I did. You were much more eloquent that I had been, but essentially the idea was the same. I appreciate what you said about the cutting room floor, because for me, I felt that we only got a “wimpy” bit of some of their stories. Here’s a tiny bit of what I had to say! “I have been completely and totally upfront about my hijab, when I put it on, when I took it off, when I put it on again, and why I might decide to take it off, if I need or want to. But some of these stories ring, not false, but “wimpy” to me. I know that sounds mean, but when I hear about ‘fear’, I expect to be really terrorized, really terrified by it. Not, “oh, well yeah, that sucks”–I think about Bibal (ra) on the burning sands, aware of his life at risk, and still saying “ONE, ONE” and so I can’t imagine a greater fear than that. I actually would find vanity more acceptable– Aisha bint Talha, the niece of Aisha bint Abu Bakr (ra) said that Allah (swt) had made her so beautiful, she wanted to share with the world his mercy, so she refused to veil herself. But spit? hmmm… Wimpy. JMHO”

    • Fatemeh

      @ Iman: While the heart of the women’s stories may seem watered down or edited, it’s not fair to judge their reasons for removing the veil. We don’t know what fear is like for other people, nor do can we just slip into another person’s experience to know what wearing a headscarf and removing it was like for her. It doesn’t matter why they stopped wearing hejab–we need to respect their choices and trust that they did what was best for themselves.

  • luckyfatima

    I really loved the series. You say the women gave un-nuanced “standard radio-friendly reasons” for stopping hijab, but then later you say they gave complex and personal reasons (perhaps you just meant the few you mentioned by name). I found that all of the women had complex voices even in the medium of short sound bytes. Actually, this is the first time EVER that I have seen such nuance and complexity coming through in a presentation of American Muslim women’s voices in the mainstream media. It is unfortunate that this is the case, and that such complexity comes through only on this political-tool of the hijab issue. I wish Muslim websites would feature such in depth discussions about hijab and removing hijab instead of our usual triteness or complete lack of discussion on dejabbing. The women brought up every singe real life issue that goes with hijab. (Does anyone know which website belongs to Asma Uddin, who wrote dejabbing posts? I’d like to see her writing) As with many articles on Muslim women’s issues in the mainstream media, I am also left questioning how this particular information serves a purpose to the mainstream, non-Muslim reader. What do they get out of this? Obviously reinforcement of some negative beliefs about hijab, Islam, and hijabis. Would many of them understand and take to heart the often voiced meme of feeling pre-judged, experiencing harassment and racism/Islamophobia because of hijab, which poorly reflects on US society, or only focus on the themes of removing due to a developing sense of pro-woman Islam? Also, I agree that there should have been a few more black women on the panel. So very true that white female converts always seem to make it into American Islam articles, but black converts and black born-Muslims rarely do. It’s actually a surprise that the article featured even one black woman and didn’t feature more white women.

    I absolutely hated the title, and I did not like the juxtaposition of veiled versus unveiled head-shots of these women, more use of politicized imagery. But overall it was quite a sophisticated presentation on Muslim women coming from a mainstream source.

  • Sara

    @luckyfatima, I very much agree with you, the article was better than most and I generally liked it though was thinking about how it is not very relevant for a non-Muslim audience.

    Asma Uddin’s site is Altmuslimah, I guess you’ve already heard of it.
    And they have had articles about dehijabbing before:

  • Humayra’

    I agree with luckyfatima–I thought that this story was quite well done for a “mainstream” media source. While the women’s stories were all too short, they did make some points which really resonated with me.

    As a dejabi myself, I was encouraged to see no less than twelve (!?) Muslim women who were willing to come out and discuss their dejabing experiences in public. In my experience, women are encouraged to talk about why they put ON hijab, but women’s reasons for taking it off are seldom expressed publicly. Instead, others (often men) claim the “right” to speak about the whys and wherefores on such women’s behalf: They were weak in faith. They lacked sufficient trust in God. They sought the glitter of this world. They were misled by innovators’ misinterpretations of the Quran. And so on. This type of silencing of dejabis is shaming and isolating, and I’m glad to see that more women are resisting it.

    Nicole asks: “Why can Muslim men be of any shape and size, but we as women will always be judged by whether we have a headscarf or not?”

    I don’t know what your Muslim community is like, Nicole, but in my community, hijab IS the litmus test of whether a woman is a “true Muslim” or not, and how a woman dresses and behaves is regarded as a direct reflection of her moral character. And for converts, dejabing is often assumed to be a declaration of apostasy. This is hardly the fault of NPR. This situation is due largely to Muslim preachers, authors and other public figures (both local and international) who endlessly harp on hijab as the ultimate “act of faith” of Muslim women.

    Nicole concludes, “… I think the onus of this piece, however unintentionally, plays into the idea that hijab is a tool of oppression, just because there is pressure from within and without the community on OMG WHAT TO DO WITH OUR HAIR.”

    Maybe this issue is partly generational. I wore hijab for over 20 years before I took it off. And looking back, I have to admit that in my community, hijab WAS often a tool of women’s oppression. Hijab wasn’t just a scarf on our heads–it dictated almost everything about our lives, ranging from how we spoke whenever we might be in the earshot of “strange” men, to our physical health and safety. Hijab was supposed to come before everything else in our lives, including our ability to make a living, and of course, it was the pretext to severely limit our access to the mosque.

    If that hasn’t been your experience, that’s great, but I know that I am not alone in mine.
    Glad you can wear v-neck shirts now; I still can’t, and it’s been 4 years.

  • luckyfatima

    Thanks Sara. I didn’t realize that was Asma’s site. Will have a look at those articles.

  • S

    I liked it. As a very recent dejabi (so many complex issues concerning this for me), it was nice to have stories of TWELVE women that I could somewhat relate to, especially during this weird stage in my life where friends and others are quick to judge. However, I think it is really irrelevant to NPR’s audience. Asma Uddin and Sana Javed resonated with me the most :)

  • H

    I agree with Humayra’. Taking off the hijab happens just as often as putting it on does. I respect the women’s honesty and courage and I don’t have an issue with the video. Good on them for being able to speak out. We can all say that hijab is not oppression, but I know for a fact that it is at times and that it can be. We need to accept the truth instead of try to pretend that it doesn’t exist. While many women do voluntarily put on the hijab in the west and in other countries, there are also many women who are told to wear or suffer certain consequences, both in the west and otherwise. It is the truth, and we need to acknowledge that.

  • Organica

    I disagree about the diversity comment. I think the selection of women were extremely diverse and well rounded from the various Muslim cultures out there. It wouldn’t be fair to clump the Bengali American woman’s experiences with a Pakistani American woman’s experiences just because they fall under ‘brown.’ i appreciated NPR’s attempt.

    As to the audience piece, I think this is the reason I appreciate NPR as a worthy source for news. I think just as we hear stories in the media of women choosing the hijab and their reasons, we should hear about women Dejabafying :) I also agree with Fatima that we need, as Muslims, to begin delving into these taboo topics and present opportunities for real, honest discourse.

    I think AltMuslimah and Muslimah Media Watch are good examples of these attempts :)

    I understand the concerns with the juxtaposition of portraits but I must say it was a very powerful part of their piece and it delivered the message! With hijab or without they are still the same person. I thought it was beautiful.

    I agree with Nicole that it’s time to shift our focus away from what women wear for whatever reasons and focus more on other grander issues.

  • Dina

    “I found that all of the women had complex voices even in the medium of short sound bytes. Actually, this is the first time EVER that I have seen such nuance and complexity coming through in a presentation of American Muslim women’s voices in the mainstream media.”

    I agree with this!

    As many have said here already, I do not agree with the focus having to be “away from sisters’ hair”. The obsession is all on women’s hair (Muslim women’s hair) in sermons in mosques, on youtube, on cds etc. On the other end of the spectrum, it is of course obsessively analyzed by non-Muslim media from the opposite standpoint (“the Muslim woman needs to be a pearl” aka her hair must not be shown vs “why is she hiding her luscious locks??”). the latter one often stresses out hijabis, the first one prevents many many women and girls from taking it off or makes them feel they have to wear it to be a good Muslima. both pressures have their worrying implications, and both discourses distinguish muslim women from muslim men, the western one as much as the muslim one. the muslim one essentially is a biologist one, which in my opinion is oppressive for women in itself. human beings are so much more than their (alleged) biology!!
    the stories of muslim women donning the hijab are extremely overrepresented in muslim media, be it youtube channels or more traditional media. this singlesidedness creates substantial peer pressure. i personally as someone who refuses to wear hijab for some of the above reasons did not know until recently there were so many women taking it off. yes, thanks to western media for the most part but what a pity muslim media largely refuse to cover it (MMW bein an honorable exception).
    there needs to be acceptance of these stories in the muslim community too!! else the talk on womens rights concerning hijab is an awfully shallow and hypocritical one. either women have the right full way, or the “rights” argument should be honestly replaced by an “obligation” one by these activits.

  • H

    I’ll tell you why so many don’t write about dejabbing. I made a small comment about hijab being difficult, and I got bombarded with emails and msgs asking me to pls join this group and that group so that i can learn the beauty of hijab. Apparently, if you have faith, then you would love the hijab. Full stop.

    Also, the Muslim media generally don’t want to normalise the taking off of hijabs. Talking about dejabbing is extremely frowned upon, let alone taking off the hijab and actually being happy.

    Extremely frustrating.

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  • mash

    I would assume that the taking off and putting on of Hijab can both be acts of empowerment depending on the reasons.

    I bet a lot of women have ‘complex and personal reasons’ for putting the Hijab, on too but they are unlikely to be profiled on NPR or any other mainstream new outlet.

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  • Donna

    As a “de-hijabi” myself, I agree with many of the comments above. Wearing a scarf in my community is definitely a litmus test of faith, literally wearing a scarf will carry a lot more weight than any amount of community service or actual knowledge of Islam. In fact I know several women who cover and have never bothered to learn any surah’s and/or read Quran. It seems recently the tide is turning and Muslim women are showing that they can and will be proud of their faith and active in their communities as Muslims without worrying about or needing the “approval” from the so-called “people in charge”. In fact it seems that women are definitely leading the pack in the fields of journalism, public relations, political advocacy, community service,etc. This is both heartening and encouraging for the future generations of American women.

  • Donna

    I also wanted to say, on the flip side, as a Muslim woman, I am so tired of articles on women in hijab, hijabi fashion, etc. How many of these can we possibly read? It seems that we are so often reduced to this one issue when there are so many more important issues out there. Muslims (particularly American mosque going Muslims) put way more emphasis on this subject than is given to it in the Quran itself.