Roundtable Interview on Mirror on the Veil: A Collection of Personal Essays on Hijab and Veiling

Lauren Turek

Let me add my voice to the chorus of congratulations to the blog on its 10 year anniversary. I have learned so much from reading everyone's contributions and it was very meaningful for me when Cara asked me to begin contributing about three years ago. Blogmeisters Paul Harvey, Cara Burnidge, and Michael Hammond provide our multidisciplinary field with such a tremendous service by hosting and tending to this project.

One of my favorite aspects of the blog is the diversity of subjects covered under the general heading of religion in American history. I have enjoyed contributing posts and reading posts from others that reflect in some way on the transnational dimension of this history, as well as on more contemporary religious issues in historical perspective.

The religious dynamics of current international conflicts, including the refugee crisis, and ongoing cultural change in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere receives regular comment in national and international news. These dynamics also influence U.S. foreign relations. We as scholars of religion and religious history have much to bring to the table in terms of a deeper analysis of how religion and religious identity intersects with global politics, both currently and historically.

For this reason, I am pleased to share a roundtable interview I conducted recently with the editors of and some of the contributors to a new edited volume, Mirror on the Veil: A Collection of Personal Essays on Hijab and Veiling, which addresses questions of religious and personal identity (and outward expressions of it) through an examination of the hijab. Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi, a lecturer at the University of Houston-Downtown, and Shaheen Pasha, an assistant professor of international journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, edited the volume, which is a mix of academic and personal reflections from men and women of different faith traditions discussing their relationship with the hijab. It is a fascinating read and provides something of a collection of primary sources for our current moment on this important issue. I have posed seven questions to Nausheen and Shaheen, as well as to two of the contributors, Reverend Nell Green, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel worker, and Saadia Faruqi, an author and interfaith activist. These questions provide a sense of the personal and academic accounts the book shares, as well as its relevance for those of us who teach or research more recent American religious history.

1. First, for editors Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi and Shaheen Pasha, can you tell us a little bit about the goals of the book and what inspired you to put the book together? For the contributors, what inspired you to contribute to this volume and what message(s) did you hope to convey to readers?

Shaheen: As a co-editor, my goal was to really take the conversation about hijab and veiling beyond the normal rhetoric. The concept of veiling crosses cultures and religions, yet Muslims are often the only individuals that seem to be involved in the dialogue. And often, hijab is primarily associated with Arab or South Asian Muslims. My goal is for readers to understand that there is so much more to the concepts of veiling and hijab than the limited view that we see in the media. Our contributors are Muslim and non-Muslim, men and women and of all nationalities.

Nausheen: We really wanted to go beyond the one-dimensional portrayals that are common in discussions on this topic. My goal as a social scientist was to give a voice to diverse viewpoints that were reflective and took into consideration the subjective experiences of each of the contributors.

Saadia: When I heard about Nausheen’s call for essays for a hijab anthology I was really intrigued. There is so much misconception about hijab, and I spend so much time in my interfaith work answering questions about this little piece of fabric on my head, that I thought it would be helpful to have a variety of perspectives together in one book. My message was simple: to offer people an understanding of not only why I wear the hijab, what my personal journey was, and what drew me to this important but misunderstood part of my faith.

Nell: I had such a variety of experiences with hijab in my work cross culturally. As I pondered whether or not or what to contribute, I reflected deeply on those experiences and my own research over the years where covering was concerned. I realized, if it took me this long and this depth to even begin to understand what it means to my Muslim friends, then how much more difficult must it be for my constituents to understand. The importance of delving into it and sharing these stories is so that covering no longer stereotypes a Muslim woman or initiates a reaction of fear by those who encounter her.

2. The book is divided into five thematic sections (Becoming Visible, The Distribution of Normal, Choices in Belonging, A Lesser Muslim?, and The Pursuit of Sentience). How did these themes emerge and how do you see them fitting together?

Nausheen: We used a qualitative approach to developing the themes that started with our initial impressions and moved forward through the reading, editing, and back-and-forth discussion with contributors. Although there are many ways of looking at the stories, these were the overarching messages that we felt most clearly in the collection.  Some contributors also provided their feedback on the themes and how they felt their essay fit.

Shaheen: I think these themes really address overarching similarities of experience that our contributors had. I think that by dividing the book into these themes, we could also touch a wide variety of readers who may not have always felt that their experiences were represented in other works about hijab and veiling.

3. One particularly interesting aspect of the essays in the volume is the tremendous diversity of experiences that they represent. Some of the authors are Muslim women and women who converted to Islam from other faith traditions (and within those groups, some who veil and some who do not and some who used to but no longer do) as well as non-Muslim women and even some men. Did you seek out this diversity in your original call for contributions, and if so, why? How does this diversity help readers to understand the significance of the hijab, not just in Muslim culture but also in global culture?

Nausheen: When I first started this project, I was looking for only Muslim women’s voices (those who veil and those who don’t) but we quickly realized that this was too narrow a focus for the diversity of thought on this topic.  So, in the call for submissions, I really tried to reach out to as many people as possible—those who had been touched in some way by the veil and who could speak to their individual experiences with it.  Some people were afraid to discuss it, given its politically-charged nature in different countries, while others had plenty to say but no real experiences other than what they had read or heard in media. Given the monolithic portrayal of Muslims in Western media, it is imperative that we show the diversity of expression and practice of the 1.6 billion people who consider themselves Muslim.

Shaheen: The diversity of stories and experiences really drew me into the project. Many Muslim women do not veil and yet they often feel left out of the conversation about hijab. I think this anthology provides them with a voice and that's extremely important. It also helps to break with this stereotype that Muslims are a monolith.

4. For Reverend Nell Green: In your chapter you briefly discuss the tradition in early Protestant churches of women covering their hair, as well as your missionary work in Senegal, Brussels, and other communities with large Muslim populations. You discuss how complicated the question of covering or wearing the hijab became not only for you as a visitor but also for some of the women you encountered in your work—was the hijab a symbol of oppression, an outward expression of faith (one that the wearer fully embraced, but also one which some governments in Europe viewed as offensive), or something else entirely?—and you conclude by noting that you advocate for women to exercise "their right to decide whether to hijab or not to hijab." (131). As a Baptist, how did your faith and understanding of your faith tradition's history shape your understanding of these divergent perspectives on the hijab?

Nell: I became a Christian and chose to be a Baptist when I was 18. If we could take that girl and put her beside the woman I am today, you would meet seemingly two entirely different people. My faith has been a journey. That journey has led me to do things that some people thought over zealous or extreme, such as living and ministering in the third world or high risk places while raising two children. That journey has led me to do things that my earlier Baptist world would not endorse, such as seeking ordination and becoming a woman minister. That journey has led me to a devotion to God that some find difficult to comprehend. I have learned that for many Muslim women their journey with faith and with the idea of hijab is not much different. As they grow and change they are led to hijab or not to hijab. They might be identified as over zealous or outside the societal norm. They may be misunderstood and stereotyped. Yet it is their journey, their faith, their practice. In the Baptist tradition, we talk about something called “the priesthood of the believer.” It is basically the right (and the responsibility I might add) of each believer to read the scriptures, to interpret for themselves what God is saying/asking and to be obedient to that. If that is something I uphold and teach in my faith, then I must be willing to uphold the same ideology for those in other faith traditions. I would advocate this for Muslim women in all parts of the world.

Of course in the Baptist world we have “societal norms” and social pressures to conform and do things a certain way. Often as believers, we are called to be counter cultural. Sometimes we are counter the culture surrounding us and sometimes we are counter the culture of our own community. Nevertheless, we must be true to ourselves and to what we believe God is asking of us. Muslim women who choose to hijab or not to hijab encounter the same counter cultural pressures when going against societal mores.

5. For Saadia Faruqi: Your essay blends your early personal history with the hijab, which you began wearing in college against the wishes of your parents, with the more recent history of Pakistan. It also discusses your life in the United States before and after 9/11, and your (temporary) decision to stop wearing the hijab. How did political changes in Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s shape your understanding of the hijab? Similarly, how did the cultural and political dynamics of life in the United States after 9/11 contribute to your decision to begin wearing the hijab again? 

Saadia: My first real exposure to the hijab was when General Zia, the Pakistani dictator responsible for the birth of religious extremism in that country began promulgating laws that required women in certain public spheres to cover themselves. I saw female newscasters on television wearing the dupatta, women on the streets covering themselves gradually. I would wonder at this when I saw pictures from my own mother’s youth wearing sleeveless, tight-fitting dresses. Later, after Zia’s death, when Benazir Bhutto (the first female Muslim head of state in the world) was elected as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, I saw her begin to cover by the ceremonial dupatta once she came into office. As a result, the concept of women in public spheres adhering to cultural expectations stuck in my mind and gave me a less than positive feeling about the hijab. Of course all that changed in the late 1990s when I became more religiously inclined and started to wear the dupatta myself. In the U.S. after 9/11 I pretended to be Mexican for a long time, but slowly a sense of religious identity grew within me. It was personally offensive to me that my fellow Americans were judging me – and others like me – based on what we wore. This went against everything I knew and loved about America and I thought that if I didn’t have pride in my own beliefs then nobody else will either. So the hijab became a form of religious identity that I wanted to wear in spite of the cultural and political discourse of that time. In a way it was interesting that both times I donned the hijab, I did so out of a sense of rebellion: first towards my family and later towards the political establishment.

6.  Nausheen, in the introduction to the volume you write about the experience of becoming "a visible Muslim," noting that "a visible Muslim appearance became increasingly popular in Western countries such as the United States during the 1990s when Muslim women began to shift away from Western norms of dress. This was and continues to be partly a response to Western secular feminism. It also entails the development of a religious identity as a way of dealing with the stress of acculturation that Muslim immigrants faced." (10) Can you discuss this historical development in more detail? What was it about this time period that contributed to this development? Why did this shift occur and what was the experience of Muslim women in the United States prior to this period?

Nausheen: There was a shift in the cultural make up of American Muslims in the 1970s as a result of increased immigration from Middle Eastern and Asian countries. The 1990s corresponded with the coming of age of many of the first generation immigrant children who had either been born or raised in the United States.  There was a great deal of acculturation stress involved in balancing the home identity (which often emulated the culture of the immigrant parents) and a public identity that reflected mainstream American norms. America was moving away from the “melting pot” analogy, which implies that people of different cultures mesh into one, to a “salad bowl” philosophy where cultural traditions are emphasized and add to the flavor of the country. Young Muslim women, in particular, faced a great deal of pressure to conform to either the culture of their parents’ country to the culture of mainstream America. In response to this, many Muslim women (and men) found freedom in creating their own culture, an American Muslim culture, which was often manifest in a visible identity. For many Muslim women, this identity was captured and enhanced by the hijab.

7. Finally, since most of the readers of this blog are in some way engaged with learning or teaching about religion in American history, how do you think historians and religious studies scholars might incorporate this anthology into their teaching or research on religion in American history?

Shaheen: This anthology crosses disciplines. It tackles feminism, intersectionality, cultural communication, sensuality as well as religious studies. By better understanding the complexity that surrounds hijab and veiling, I think scholars can use this book to address the common threads of experiences of individuals throughout American history.

Nausheen: Given that the United States was built on the notion of religious freedom, the collection can be used to have discussions about power, privilege, intersectionality, and the ways in which feminism is expressed and espoused by different people.

Nell: during the early days of settling the US particularly the puritan settlers, the communities sought uniformity...uniformity in faith practice, in belief, in dress. They left a place that had tried to place those sorts of restrictions on them. In this new world, they endeavored to do the same but with their idea of right and normal. It was a failure. What if instead of uniformity they had sought unity in diversity? As globalization becomes more and more complex what would it look like for our society (all faiths and all nationalities) to seek not uniformity but uni-diversity?

Saadia: I think this is a great addition to religions courses, as well as women studies courses. I took a couple of classes in my master’s program which discussed the hijab as an antithesis of the feminist movement, and it was very painful to me. I remember participating in discussions when I was the only one trying to negate the stereotypical images of Muslim women presented in our textbook. This anthology, with its wide array of perspectives, offers a very realistic and valuable picture of feminism, women’s role in Muslim societies and overall religious studies.

Thank you all!