The daughter of a close friend recently turned 10, and I went to a children’s book and toy store to look for a gift. I made my way past the picture books, marvelling at how fast the time has gone since I was buying her a Scaredy Squirrel book for her sixth birthday, and stood looking at the chapter book display, which was fairly small. It had none of my own childhood favourites, but one title did catch my eye: Girls Who Rocked the World.
I picked it up and flipped through. The book consisted of short chapters about a number of different powerful women from throughout history and into the present, representing activists, politicians, artists, authors, performers, scientists, and athletes, among others. Interspersed throughout were profiles of contemporary girls who were active in their communities, and quotes from girls about how they wanted to rock their world. According to the back cover, “They all changed the world before hitting twenty, and so can you!” It was a bit cheesy, and I had concerns about some of the women included within the book, but it was also informative and engagingly written, and something I thought my friend’s daughter would enjoy.
I also noticed that, on first glance, the women listed in the Table of Contents appeared quite diverse. While white women dominated the list, which was also heavily American, women of colour both from the U.S. and from a variety of other areas were also present (at least, more than I would have expected).
It wasn’t until I had bought the book and was walking home that it occurred to me to check whether there were any Muslim women among those profiled. I looked through the Table of Contents again, and was disappointed that only one Muslim was listed among the 46 chapters. This wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker in itself, although it was annoying, given how many Muslim women there are in the world; surely the writers could have found more than one. I also noted that there were no African women, which is also an inexcusable oversight.
Even worse was that the profile of the one Muslim woman listed, Yemeni journalist Amatalrauf al-Sharki, more widely known as Raufa Hassan, revolved primarily around one thing. Any guesses?
If you guessed anything other than “the veil,” congratulations! You are very optimistic. But you are also wrong. (Sorry.)
The chapter about Hassan begins with a quote by her:
“Inside me I didn’t like that veil anymore. I felt it was a big lie… I wanted to be me. Just me, accepted the way I was. I began to realise that the veil was just something to hold me back in life and not really for my benefit. Since then this started to range inside me… I had become a different person.”
The “traditional veil,” as it is referred to in the chapter, is further contextualised as something that “was the custom of most Muslim women, especially in Yemen, to wear… in public at all times to conceal themselves from the view of men.” This description seems particularly bizarre when the writers finally make clear about halfway through the chapter that by “veil,” they are talking particularly about the niqab, which certainly isn’t “traditional” in most Muslim communities. In fact, most (although not all) photos that come up in a Google Images search for Raufa Hassan show her with her head covered — something that seems to add at least a bit of complexity to the idea that complete “unveiling” is necessary for liberation.
I read through the rest of the chapter with a sinking feeling that this book wasn’t going to work so well after all, although I held out hope that maybe the rest of the chapter would focus more on Hassan’s accomplishments as a journalist and activist, and would put the veil aside. As it turns out, I too belong in the “very optimistic but also wrong” camp.
The chapter does describe Hassan’s work as a radio broadcaster, first as part of a children’s radio show, and eventually being offered her own show at the age of twelve. As well as being a popular media figure throughout her life, Hassan was heavily involved in activism for women’s rights and women’s education; she also obtained a PhD, worked as a professor, and ran for parliament in 1993.
But, despite all this, we are told that “perhaps Raufa’s most significant action centred around the question of whether or not to wear a veil.”
And I just have to wonder: “most significant” according to whom, exactly? Did this woman herself really want to go down in history only as The Woman Who Removed Her Veil? Do the people in Yemen who followed and benefited from her journalism, activism, and teaching care about her only as someone who doesn’t wear niqab? We’re actually told in the chapter that nobody knew that Hassan wasn’t wearing niqab during her radio shows (she couldn’t, because it would muffle the sound), but apparently people were still listening to her, so there must have been something going on in the content of what she was saying that drew people to listen to her in the first place.
Contrast this with a blog post written about Hassan shortly after her death in 2011:
“She was Professor of Mass Media and Director of the Women’s Studies Center, which she also founded, at the University of Sana’a. She was a leading advocate of women’s rights and democratization; she wrote a regular newspaper column for many years, directed a program that registered women voters throughout Yemen and has played a key role in training women candidates for Parliament and local councils. She also worked with such diverse international programs as UNICEF, UNIFEM, UNESCO, Oxfam and the National Endowment for Democracy. Her work has focused on the advancement of human rights and dignity in Yemen, the Middle East, and the world.”
The veil doesn’t come up at all in this post, or in a longer obituary posted on the Yemen Observer. Apparently, these writers saw too many other accomplishments to talk about.
I get that taking off the niqab in a context where few women do is a big deal and a brave move (in the sense that going against gendered expectations of whatever kind can be a brave and risky thing to do, not in the sense that this is the only way that Yemeni women can show bravery). But I think that if we see that, in and of itself, as the accomplishment, we are missing the point. Removing the niqab, in Hassan’s case, seems like more of an overall act of staying true to how she wanted to portray herself, part of an existing and ongoing commitment to challenging gender norms, and as her crowning achievement. It is this commitment to speaking the truth and standing up for herself that we should be admiring, not simply her choice not to wear a piece of fabric.
In the end, my hope that the book would contain the stories of some Muslim women had turned into wishing that they hadn’t talked about this Muslim woman at all. Particularly when others in the book are celebrated for much more significant accomplishments, the idea that we should celebrate Hassan primarily for taking off her veil is pretty hard to swallow.
I returned the book. My friend’s daughter, a bright and creative (masha’Allah) Muslim girl whom I adore, will rock the world on her own terms, regardless of what she wears.