Allah’s Little Ambassador: What Hijab Is & Isn’t

A few weeks back, I gave a talk at the first Sexy Secular Conference in Akron, OH, with the title Virgins, Raisins, & Sexy Serving Boys: Decoding Female Sexuality in Islam.

I had a lot of fun giving the talk and attending the con — shout-out to the organizers who put the it all together. Even disregarding the fact that it was just their first year doing it and that they are students, it was a remarkably smooth, well-run, well-organized event that I look forward to attending again.

If you watch the video, you’ll notice that the videographer, Rob of Hambone Productions, was cool enough to caption and cut out the questions during the Q&A rather than include them, for which many of us are grateful. In a conversation following my talk, the asker of one of the questions hit upon a disconnect worth noting: the difference in what a non-Muslim sees when they behold a woman in hijab versus what she might be expressing by wearing hijab.

You see, the asker explained, he did not feel that he was singling out Muslim women by asking them about their religion. He does the same with Christians wearing crosses, Jews wearing Stars of David, and so forth. He thinks that it’s interesting that they choose to wear a symbol of their faith and believes that doing so invites him to ask them about their beliefs.

So, there are two problems here.

Firstly, this is a gendered matter. Women are often treated as if we exist for the benefit of society rather than as individuals. I have personally felt the effects of this assumption quite heavily. When I wore a headscarf, I was condescended to, gently chided, yelled at, ignorantly questioned, rudely interrogated, violently accosted, and have otherwise had my day disrupted thanks to my headscarf. After I de-veiled, I assumed that I could be normal, blend in, and live my life without being bothered. Not so — street harassment of the more sexually racist kind replaced the garden-variety racism I had experienced before. Until women are generally treated as people rather than as representatives of their gender or any other such category, it’s important to keep in mind what we are doing when we expect a woman to serve as ambassador for an entire group of people — doubly so when that group is a minority one.


Secondly, conflating the headscarf with any other religious symbol is at least somewhat fallacious. The reason that Muslim women wear headscarves is not so that they can be Allah’s ambassadors to the world. Indeed, dawah, or calling people to Islam, is traditionally done by men if it is for the benefit of men. Stricter interpretations of Islam, i.e. the sort that many scarf-wearing Muslim women follow, limit the amount and type of interactions that might occur between men and women. This brings us to the underlying reason why Muslim women cover, according to Islam: to live in accordance to Islamic standards of modesty. For a practicing Muslim woman who adheres to that interpretation of Islam, putting on a headscarf is as essential as putting on a shirt. While a Christian woman can choose to not wear a crucifix because she happens to not want to wear one that day, a Muslim woman who has committed to hijab wears her headscarf as part of her basic wardrobe.

There do indeed exist Muslim women who wear the headscarf as a way to portray Islam in a more positive light who would be happy to talk to you about their choices and their faith. There also exist Muslim women who, for whatever reason, are uninterested in being an open-source educational resource to the public. Assuming that a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman exists to satisfy the curiosity of strangers is to both play into gender myths and misunderstand what covering up means to most Muslim women.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. Uggggggg! I hate it when people assume some feature of your appearance, of any origin, is an invitation to conversation. I’m not a particularly unfriendly person but I also don’t really care to discuss personal decisions/beliefs/whatever with the guy at the grocery store or woman in the office down the hall. Sure, if I know you and the topic comes up, I’m willing to talk about it but don’t just stop me and ask about something personal.

  2. When people are comparing Christianity or Judaism to Islam they are comparing across two very different time zones. Specifically they are comparing post-industrial, post-mass communication versions of Christianity and Judaism with either a pre-industrial or reactionary version of Islam. This is like talking about treatment of women in Christianity using the Amish as an example or Judaism using the ultra-Orthodox.

    We don’t need to go back very far to find a time when treatment of women in the West was very similar to the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia etc. But even that is a caricature. Wahhabism is a comparatively recent development, it was a reactionary force when it first appeared in the 1700s.

    Reactions against modernism have occurred in every industrializing country and they have gained political power in most. India is currently going through a bout of the Comstockery that hit the US in the early 1900s.

    If Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran had been allowed to develop politically without interference from the US and Britain, the situation would be very different. Instead they installed a dictator in Iran and maintained dictatorships in Iraq and ‘Saudi’ Arabia to protect access to cheap oil.

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