Hijab in the West

Jonathan Krakaur                                                                                                        12/13/17



Hijab in the West


The Hijab’s place in modern Muslim culture and identity in the west from its first introduction to the post 9/11 is a point of controversy, but is undeniably formative. The west will, in the context of this paper, refer mainly to North America (Canada and the US), since Europe has its own unique relationship to Muslim cultures. A strong way to trace and examine the formation of modern Muslim identities for women in the west is with the Hijab, as it is a symbol that holds much power and significance. To many westerners, it is a symbol of oppression of Muslim women an idea that can be traced back to Orientalist and Colonialist ideologies. There is some validity in the idea that the veil is indicative of a slew of systems that repress many Muslim women in the world, but the westerners often pursue the problematic argument that the veil is itself repressive and that is inherent to Islam. This, as will be shown, is not true.

Islam and the Muslim world are fluid—developing constantly in a constantly changing world. The problem that arises is how to balance the juxtaposition of a fixed tradition which is perpetually affirmed with the lived tradition, subject to constant redefinition with evolving identities.[1] The way Islam and the Hijab interact with the western world post 9/11 and with the rise of Islamophobia are also very important to the formation of western Muslim identities. In examining the complicated nature of the Hijab, we get a closer look at the development of Muslim identities—primarily those of women—in the west.

It is important for this topic to understand the origins of the Hijab. There are many Hadith about the Hijab, but there is much disparity on the opinions some of these take, so rather than examine those, for our purposes we will look to the Qur’an.


Say to the believing man that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.   30

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…      31 [2]

Here there is an instruction for both men and women to practice modesty. It is a pious pure act for both genders. Men should not objectify the bodies of women, and women should cover themselves. As is present in the next verse about women’s clothing, the is done to avoid the male gaze and harassment. It also speaks to the holiness of love in Islam. The love between a husband and wife is sacred, and they are to reserve both parts of their soul and body for one another.


Those who harass believing men and believing women undeservedly, bear (on themselves) a calumny and a grievous sin…the wives of true believers should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad). That is most convenient, that they may be distinguished and not be harassed.    59[3]


This is all the Qur’an has to say of women’s garb.  Anything oppressive to do with the Hijab was not found in its conception but in the patriarchal world that it was introduced to.[4] As Muslim American scholar Kathrine Bullock says, “None of these arguments can be sustained by a close reading of the Qur’an…there is nothing about women as dangerous sexual beings. Rather, there is the notion that men and women are fundamentally alike, being created of a single soul, and being both recipients of the divine breath.”[5] Regardless of this, the west continues to point fingers at Islam as the oppressive force, and the Hijab as the symbol of this.

The history of the west’s distain for hijab has deep roots, stemming to when the United States and other European colonialist power first set foot in Middle Eastern soil. The orientalist ideology was the Western idea that countries in the “orient” were culturally inferior and needed to be civilized. Imperialist nations promoted this idea and used it to justify their “moral liberation” of, in this case, Muslim women. They fetishized the harem, the space for only women in the traditional Muslim household. Even today, American novels such as Lolita in Tehran “was in essence deploying concerns about the plight of Muslim women in the service of U.S. ideological warmongering.”[6]

Directly after 9/11, this ideology was at its peak. Hate crimes spiked 1600% in the following months. The veil was “shorthand for the horrors of Islam, now called Islamic Fundamentalism.”[7] Attacks on women in hijab and even children were widespread. Girls in hijab would have the scarves pulled off their heads and were called “ragheads”.[8] The nation peaked its ears for any words that sounded Arabic or Persian. Interest in Islam was high. Interestingly, after 9/11, many more Muslim women who were previously uncovered took to the veil. British Muslim Shiasta Aziz explained her return to hijab saying, “When the Muslim community around the world…were under intense scrutiny by the politicians and the media…I wanted to be a visible Muslim… [wearing hijab is] an act of solidarity with Muslim women all around the world. Here I am, an educated Muslim woman in the west, I have no idea what its like to be an Iraqi or Palestinian woman…I know that we share an identity through Islam and through the hijab.”[9] Women did this in reaction to the hate their religion was besieged by. The media focused on the idea that the problem lay in the culture of Muslim nations and how they were inherently oppressive. They made no mention of the U.S.’s role in history in the developing of oppressive regimes in the region.

This conjoined with the feminist movements in the west, lead to the Hijab coming under attack.[10] Today feminists in America claim that the veil is repressive of women’s bodies. By doing this, they apply the conventions of North American culture to that of the Middle East, a misguided gesture of a social justice system that lacks a certain self awareness and consideration for history and culture. The standards of one culture to another are vastly different than another, and in the age of globalization, it has become more common for people to try and apply their social rational to another society. This ignores the intersectional nature of the issue, and does not take into account the cultural relativism present. By applying one cultures standards to another, you create another problem.

That does not mean that some culture should be allowed to be oppressive, however it does mean that the way in which you categorize oppression has to be relative to the cultures place and needs.  When feminists and others talk about hijab as oppression, it is here that they are pointing fingers at Islam itself as the cause of this. They’d blame the non-secular nature of Muslim culture while after 9/11, women in hijab were being attacked on the streets of the U.S., and within the Christian religion there is far more subjugation of women.

The Hijab has also been used for a slew of activist and feminist movements in the Muslim world throughout history. In Algeria in the 1950’s, an unveiled population donned the vail in protest of an oppressive colonial government. In the 1970’s in Iran, women put on Hijab for similar reasons, and to protest a “western sympathetic elite regime”.[11] Women also put on Hijab to protest the commercial invasion of the west, “Women put on hijab as a political protest against elite Westernization programs and Western neo-imperialism to signal that they are not happy with the current political situation, either with policies pursued by the state and/or with the commercial, technological, political, and social invasion of their countries by the West.”[12]

In addition to more political protests, hijab is also used to counter beauty standards and the objectification of women’s bodies in the media. In modern times in Turkey and Egypt, the veil has also inserted itself into the world of fashion—which can be seen as both a positive, as the modernization of a tradition, but also as a marker in the commodification process imposed by western powers.

With this considered, it is also valid to celebrate the disappearance of the hijab from some Muslim countries. “In many Muslim societies…they [women] are forced to cover. Hijab has been part of a package limiting women’s potential, denying them education, employment outside the home, and the vote.”[13] In the 2016 Iranian thriller Under the Shadow, we follow a mother living in Tehran with her daughter and husband during the Iran-Iraq War.  She is a capable woman who is well educated and clearly exceptionally talented, and she is trying to get into medical school. She is denied this, and is removed from her job as a nurse. She is stuck at home with her daughter, and her husband is called to be a doctor for the war. When a bomb hits her building and does not explode, many people begin to think an evil spirit has entered. As the spiritual presence escalates, it tries again and again to take her daughter. As the movie progresses we get a couple glimpses of the spirit—it takes the form of a burqa. It is an oppressive force throughout the film, trapping the mother more and more into her home, and her daughter with her. The film ends with the mother and daughter finally running out of the building and escaping the spirit.  A police car rolls up and she goes to them for help, and instead of helping her they arrest her for going out onto the street uncovered. The message here is clear—for her, there is no escaping the veil. She will always be held back whether it be by the spirit or the nation.


In America after 9/11 until now, the lives and identities of many American Muslim’s have been shaken. In Leila Ahmed’s book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, Ahmed tells a story that “surely marked an unprecedented moment in the history of Islam—and a moment that could only happen in America and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11”[14] She tells of an open house in the men’s section of a mosque. She then describes the moment when a middle aged woman of Jewish background raised her hand with a question about Islam, and then stated that she was atheist and was deeply critical of monotheisms. She went on to say that she had dedicated her life to supporting Native Americans and that she was committed to supporting Muslims in their right to be in America and be treated to justice without discrimination. Ahmed sees this as a purely American moment, one where a woman of no faith spoke against monotheist but declared her dedication to social justice. The “Muslim world” is often used just to describe the Middle East and North Africa, where Islam is most prevalent, but it is the case that there is no “Muslim world”. History has shown that as the religion develops in one plays, it does everywhere. So with Islam in the United States, the United States becomes a part of the Muslim world.

As was said earlier, the lived traditions of Islam are subject to constant redefinition with evolving identities. Thus, the idea of objectification arises.


“Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori have identified ‘objectification’ as the process at work in the production of Muslim identity… they mean Muslims coming to consciousness of their identity as Muslims and their reflection on that identity.”[15]


The conception of a Muslim identity is reflexive and is constantly being reformed. So to reiterate the problem—how does one balances the stalwart fixed nature of Islam and its traditions which have lasted for centuries and the present experience as a Muslim existing today, while your identity and experience are constantly shifting? And does the reflection present in objectivity translate into changes to the very nature of the religion? Perhaps; but even though religion is an institution, it also primarily exists on a personal, subjective level. It can also exist as a movement.

The development of identity with regard to hijab in primarily Muslim countries is also important to understanding the development of Western Muslim identities. In Egypt, this aforementioned fashion surge is pertinent as women gain upward mobility within society and the workplace.[16] The can be seen as a reproduction of Muslim identity in a public way.

Across the ocean, the resurgence of Hijab and a reflection on Muslim American identities was taking place. Laleh Bakhtiar, the first woman to publish a translation of the Qur’an, ushered in a wave of female activists in the Muslim American community post 9/11. Bakhitar took issue with “The absence of a woman’s point of view” in Qur’anic discourse. She believed that the Qur’an’s intention was to “see man and woman as complements of one another, not as superior-inferior.”[17] Her most significant divergence from other, male, more traditional translations was with verse 4:34, “which is typically interpreted to mean that a husband may beat his wife “after two stages of trying to discipline her.””[18][19] Bakhtiar went back and did an etymological review of the word choice used by translators and adjusted the language to match what she considered to be more in line with the heart of the Qur’an and Islam itself. Here we see a Muslim American scholar looking back critically at the religion she has devoted herself too, questioning the identity that others have ascribed to it and literally rewriting it.

The Hijab served as a similar tool of affirming and objectifying Muslim identities.  American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud spoke to her experience with hijab and Islam in relation to her experience and ancestry as Black woman in the United States. In explaining her return to hijab she says, “As a descendent of African slave women…I have carried the awareness that my ancestors were not given any choice to determine how much of their bodies would  be exposed on the auction block…so I chose intentionally to cover my body as a means of reflecting my historical identity, personal dignity, and sexual integrity.”[20] Here she is returning to hijab as a reclamation of her identity through reflection. She puts on hijab as a badge of honor declaring her faith and her autonomy. This is of course opposite to many other experiences with hijab, where covering is mandated, which is the converse oppression to what Wadud had experienced.

These are stories of a feminist movement arising in the objectification Western Muslim identities. Paradoxically, this movement partially arose from a response to traditional western feminism that ignores the intersectional nature necessary to work for Muslim women’s rights. It became feminism though it disliked and absconded that word. The story of Khalida Saed is particularly pertinent for this modern notion. An Iranian American, Saed wore hijab at school and started a Muslim Student Association. She was lesbian, and upon meeting her first girlfriend met hostility from her mother and others of her faith. She then rejected Islam and turned to the mainstream LGBTQ which re-enforced her conception that her religion was “anti-me”[21]. She then discovered the Muslim LGBTQ activist group al-Fatiha at college, which before 9/11 worked underground for fear of harassment (once more an irony, since hijab was created to protect women from harassment) from the American public but was forced to become public when U.S. suspicions rose. [22] She felt welcomed into her faith once again and made her way back to Islam. Her “progressive” Islam operated under the idea that discrimination against anyone was un-Islamic.  These concerns were, in Saed’s words, “distinctly American”.

“Distinctly American” can describe much of the changes in the Muslim community in the U.S. post 9/11. The rise of activist groups headed by women such as the Daughters of Hajar and Muslim Wakeup! could not have happened anywhere else.[23] Interestingly, within reflection on Islam there is a variance of opinion on the role of hijab. Amongst many American Muslim scholars there is a movement to “dehijabize”.[24] There is the previously discussed revitalization of the hijab as a flag of pride in religion and identity. Scholars who are in support of the return of hijab as an expression of American Muslim identity are frequently guilty of similar faults that the mainstream Western LGBTQ community are in their critique of the removal of hijab. There is an irony here, in that they are making points that directly contradict. Kathrine Bullock, an American Islamic scholar who converted to Islam, criticizes the case that Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi makes against hijab stemmed from Mernissi’s personal experience. Mernissi’s experience with hijab comes from her upbringing and more specifically her mother.  Bullock says:

“My principle disagreements with Mernissi are two: (1) an ahistorical approach…that fails to contextualize how people enact Islam differently in different times and places; (2) a reductive approach that does not acknowledge the multiplicity of discourses around veiling.”[25]


Bullock’s first qualm is in a sense hypocritical. She claims that Mernissi’s position is ahistorical, however, it is based primarily in ancestry and history. It is her mother and grandmother’s oppression that she feels strongly she should no longer be subject to. In saying that by generalizing Mernessi’s approach it fails to contextualize the experience of hijab in other cultures is correct, but dismissing her experience on those grounds makes her guilty of the same thing. As an American Muslim she is removing the lived oppression and forced covering that she never had to experience as a factor. History must be taken into account, and though hijab across nations has symbolized both liberation and oppression, Bullock fails to understand that Mernissi’s experience is localized. Her second argument is more sound. However, Bullock seems to assert that because of this, Mernissi’s contribution is not important and that veiling once again is a tool for good, then she is misguided. Bullock takes a clear western stance on the argument of a Moroccan whose experience with the same religious symbol is wholly unique to hers.

These are examples of conflict within a minority of a minority. We have seen that for Muslim women across the world, there are many scattered definitions of the hijab. The waves of Muslim activist women and other wearers of the hijab caused a divergence in the old historical meaning of hijab. Now it seems as if all potential meanings of hijab are out in the world in some region.[26] For many the hijab can still be a tool of oppression. However, that same tool is used as a tool of rebellion by another Muslim elsewhere in the world. The world is more connected now than it has ever been—and this means that those connected by their faith, and specifically their hijab, can support one another. By using hijab as rebellion, perhaps it acts as support for someone who is oppressed by it.

For Muslim women, the hardest time seems to be the time that the most ground can be taken. Rapidly changing times and a shaken identity are cause for reflection. The objectification of aspects of the identity of the Muslim woman spurned from post 9/11 backlash is leading to a new wave of Muslim activists. America has put the Muslim American community in danger but also allows them a voice for change in their religion. The many voices of hijab ring across the country and ocean as this identity is forged. As it says in the Holy Qur’an:


“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11)[27]




I Hereby Affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code on this Assignment.

Jonathan Krakaur


Work Cited

Ahmed, Leila. A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America. Yale University Press, 2011. Proquest.

Ismail, Salwa. “Being Muslim: Islam, Islamism and Identity Politics.” Government And Opposition: an Internation Journal of Comparative Politics 39, no. 4 (September 27, 2004): 614-31. Wiley Online Library.

Bullock, Katherine. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil. International Institute of Islamic Though, 2010

Holy Qur’an



[1] Salwa Ismail,

[2] Holy Qur’an 24:30-31

[3]Holy Qur’an 33:58-59

[4] Cathrine Bullock page 9

[5] Kathrine Bullock, 16

[6] Ahmed Leila, 196

[7] Kathrine Bullock, 13

[8] Ahmed Leila 204

[9] Ibid, 209

[10] Kathrine Bullock, 6

[11] Kathrine Bullock, 11

[12] Ibid, 11

[13] Ibid, 25

[14] Ahmed Leila, 202

[15] Salwa Ismail, being muslim 614-631

[16] Salwa ismail, being Muslim 614-631

[17] Ahmed Leila, 266

[18] Ibid, 266

[19] Bakhtiar, Sublime Quran, xliii

[20] Ahmed Leila, 272

[21] Ibid, 282

[22] Ibid, 282

[23] Ibid, 291

[24] Ibid, 284

[25] Kathrine Bullock, 15

[26] Ahmed Leila , 213

[27] The Holy Qur’an, 13:11