The Veiled Muslim Bogeygirl
There are around 800 people attending this forum. Let’s assume half are women. Out of those 400 women, less than half a dozen are veiled.
I understand that “we’re” very much a novelty here. And I understand that our presence here is extremely important to break the stereotypes, misconceptions, prejudices, etc etc And I am extremely grateful to the Anna Lindh Foundation for granting me the amazing opportunity of speaking at the inauguration ceremony, and again on a panel today.
I look back at yesterday, and I’m suddenly shocked when I realize what happened. I got to sit on a panel with a president and ministers, and address a distinguished audience of hundreds and hundreds. And who am I?
I’m a Muslim, Egyptian female.
I mentioned in my speech yesterday that I’m not in any way exceptional. That it was only because of the one-dimensional and misleading way most Muslim women were represented in the media and popular culture—whether it’s the poor oppressed Muslim woman, the violent evil Muslim woman, the sexy/exotic Muslim woman or the I-hate-Islam-and-am-no-longer-Muslim-but-please-use-me-as-a-legitimate-source-on-the-faith woman—that I come across as unique.
But I’m also more than just “the veiled Muslim girl.”
I’m also a daughter. A journalist. A graduate student. A feminist. A bookworm. A globetrotter. An author.
My identity, as are all our identities, is more complex than you can possibly imagine.
And until we reach a point where we are able to appreciate the beauty in our complexity and diversity, we will never truly coexist.
And it saddens me that any discourse I begin with every other person here begins from the point of them thinking me of “the veiled Muslim girl,” with every negative connotation that entails.
And I have to open my mouth and speak in my “perfect American Accent” for this image to begin to change.
I don’t mind, but I’m wishing that the starting point wasn’t always negative.
Throughout my life, I’ve been asked so many questions about being veiled from so many people of different nationalities and religions–from the naively ignorant (“Can your husband see your hair?” Umm no, the stork drops the babies at our doorstep) to the truly offensive (“You are oppressed and forced to wear such a middle-aged, backward symbol but just don’t know it”). I’ve heard it all so many times nothing surprises or offends me anymore, and I’m totally open to every discussion about any topic under the sun.
Let me tell you some more about myself:
I graduated from university aged 19. I was editor-in-chief of my university paper. I was the valedictorian of my graduating class. I was the first Egyptian and youngest winner of a CNN African Journalist of the Year award. I’m the author of a book about a Sufi school in Yemen to be published in London next month. I won the Anna Lindh Press Award. I was chosen out of quarter of a million Arabs to participate in a reality TV show similar to The Apprentice. I’ve traveled to many, many, many countries. I’m finishing up two masters degrees. I’m 22 years old.
I say all this not to tout my own horn but to show that the veil–as cliche as it is to say this–is not a veil on my mind. My accomplishments should stand on their own, they don’t need to be qualified with “and she’s a veiled Muslim woman!” Would these accomplishments be praiseworthy if I wasn’t veiled? Yes, but not as amazing as they are when I am. Which implies that the identity traits of being Muslim and veiled somehow make me inferior.
And it’s also important to know that even if I hadn’t accomplished anything in my life it doesn’t mean “ah, you see? It’s because she’s a poor oppressed Muslim woman. Her dad/ brother/ husband has forbidden her from doing anything, except be barefoot and pregnant!”
Why does the identity of the Muslim woman have to be a zero sum game? Why is it so important to label us and put us in a box?
I must have written a dozen versions of this post in the past four or five years. I really don’t mind. But I wish I didn’t have to.
So, once again, let’s reiterate. In the words of a friend of mine:
“It’s strange that there seems to be more contention surrounding the link between smoking and cancer than there seems to be surrounding the link between headcovers and intelligence. My GPA, language skills, and ability to be a good student/employee do not disappear along with my hair.
STOP FREAKING WRITING BOOKS THAT HAVE ‘Going Behind the Veil’ IN THEIR TITLE. Pseudo-feminists, let me save you a lot of time and a whole lot of bad writing: you want to know what’s behind the veil? Hair. Now can we move on?”
I used to write for a website called Muslimah Media Watch, where we critiqued how Muslim women are represented in the media and popular culture. 50% of our posts? About the hijab. Because of course, there’s no other important issue to talk about.
I spoke on a panel about media and perceptions today. In the Q&A session I was asked: “aren’t we doing the Muslim woman a favor by demanding she take off that symbol of oppression you’re wearing?”
I was not forced to wear the veil. I did it out of my own free will, after research and debate and thinking and eventually believing that it was a required part of my faith. No social conditioning and peer pressure. Khalas, it’s my decision, my body. Just like I have a right to pierce my belly button, I have the right to cover my hair.
I am not denying that there are many women around the world who are forced or otherwise coerced into wearing the veil. But those women are probably being coerced into many other things–focusing on the veil is reductive and missing the point. Women around the world are abused–it’s not specific to any nationality, faith and race.
But to make the arbitrary decision that just because a tiny minority of women are forced to veil we need to ban the veil is ridiculous. And that’s an excuse, anyway. I seriously doubt Sarkozy has the interests of the poor Muslim woman at heart.
People at this session have heard me speak. Hopefully, I’ve changed some ideas/ misconceptions/ prejudices etc.
But I wish I didn’t have to. And I wish we didn’t have to feature the Muslim woman who is “defying the stereotype,” as if she was an anomaly.
And I can’t wait for the day when *the veil* (queue scary music) is looked at as what it is: a piece of fabric. You don’t need to understand what it means to me, why I wear it, or how I stand the heat. You just need to respect my decision to wear it.
Let me finish this post by posting a poem by Mohja Kahf, a Syrian American poet, scholar, and professor.
Hijab Scene #7
No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions,
They’re going to blow you away
(From: Emails to Schehrezad by Mohja Kahf)
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