The Veiled Muslim Bogeygirl

March 5, 2010 at 6:52 pm 26 comments

By: Ethar El-Katatney

Photo Credit: Time Magazine

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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26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Midhal  |  March 5, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    a great piece and to the point

  • 2. Andreas  |  March 5, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Explosives indeed. As much as I agree and understand why you don’t want to have to write such posts any longer, this is an excellent display of your arsenal of weapons. I am impressed.

    • 3. mohamedezzaldin  |  March 6, 2010 at 12:53 am

      I will be honest with you, your opening speech at the forum’s opening, wasn’t that good, you should have done better, well done on that post, you are a good journalist, Ethar.

  • 4. Ethar El-Katatney  |  March 6, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks guys.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post Mohamed, and I’m sorry you don’t think the speech was good enough. I could have easily written a fancy speech, but I thought speaking ‘from the heart’ would have had more impact.

    • 5. mohamedezzaldin  |  March 6, 2010 at 5:00 pm

      yea I enjoyed so much, and yes the thought speaking “from the heart” is a good way of expressing your ideas and thoughts, still I loved the post more than the speech.

  • 6. marek  |  March 9, 2010 at 6:09 am

    The issue here is that we relate veils to a culture that highly oppresses women. Off course that doesn’t mean that there are no exceptions, but the tendency is to look at the big picture. If women and men were treated equally in Muslim culture people wouldn’t give such importance to veils.

  • 7. yomna  |  March 10, 2010 at 12:15 am

    ya ethos, like I wrote on FB, Just Loooooveeeed it, bgd, every single thing that was on my mind and that ive encountered in my travels or even in Egypt among some “intellectually looking” ppl, was articulately expressed here!

    One thing though is that no matter how many times u repeat, don’t get bored or tired of it, I know you prefer you didnt have to clarify all the misconceptions, but what would our purpose in life be then?! Along with your success and the success of Muslims world wide, this will improve gradually, and believe it or not, so many ppl are in fact changing their minds!

  • 8. Ahmed Sami  |  March 10, 2010 at 12:27 am

    Great, go ahead Ethar

  • 9. sisi  |  March 10, 2010 at 12:35 am

    very nice post ,, go on ethar i love it so much 😉

  • 10. Atreides  |  March 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    This is a very enlightening post, especially for those still insisting that to be veiled is to be oppressed. But it doesn’t address those who are still insisting that it is rather the very idea behind the veil that is inherently oppressive.

    One could argue that a slave with very generous masters, who feels a sense of belonging by serving them, is not necessarily oppressed — but does that change the fact that the idea of slavery itself is oppressive? No.

    Likewise, you may be an independent, rational thinker with myriad achievements, yet that doesn’t change the fact that the veil and the Koran (to me) clearly place the burden of modesty on women far more than on men — an oppressive stance by God I, would say. (“Oppressive” here meaning having an unjust and arbitrary opinion on a matter, while requiring others to agree with you, or else…)

    One may respond to that by claiming that the Koran calls for equal modesty from the sexes, but where does it ever say that men should cover up, or take it easy on embellishments, or turn their gaze down, or even get [lightly] beaten if they disobey their wives repeatedly? Nowhere.

    Lets face it, people who insist that all veiled women are pitiful are, in fact, naive in their presumptions. But those who continue to question the idea behind the veil … well, there’s a point to be made there, I think.

    • 11. Sue  |  June 6, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      My Reply to you and Andreas:
      1. Islam is based on Quran and Sunna (Prophet’s teachings) both together cover the points you have mentioned about how a man dresses and how a woman dresses and about how they treat eachother and how a husband and wife should treat eachother etc.)
      God in the Quran asks people to accept what the prophet teaches and avoid what he prohibits.
      If you study the Quran as a separate piece, you wouldn’t find any detail about what a woman should wear either. Other than keeping the head scarf covering the chest and the dress long. She might however wear a sleevless top if it was just down to the Quoran’s descriptions. But Muslims learn both Quran and Sunna and base their belief on them.
      And I hope when I mention the prophet’s teachings you don’t go into the line of ‘he was married to how many women’ cause it’s rather antoher lame and boring subject 🙂 The answer to that is to read the old testament and understand that it was the norm that men married more than one women. All the prophets in the bible except one (and Jesus) had several women as their wives so Islam didn’t invent it, it actually restricted it!
      And the norm of Islam is that things weren’t suddenly prohibited but gradually restricted until they come to a stop. Other References can be rules of slavery, or rules on drinking alcohol.

      2. When we judge the God of Islam we can’t just judge him on what a woman dresses like because that would be rediculously summing up a complete lifestyle and belief into an outfit.
      We are ought to judge Him on the entire belief, and looking at women then what rights he gave the women in the first place and then we would be able to say if it’s an oppression or not!
      As a mother a woman is in the highest rates of respect according to Islam more than the father. As a wife Islam is the first religion that allows women to choose/accept a husband, and divorce themselves. Divorce is a right that was only granted to women in England in the recent hundreds of years well before Islam and isn’t granted under other religions.
      Islam is the first religion that allows women to own property, and to inherit. etc. etc.
      So what is the significance of a head cover in relation to rights that are much more necessary for a free living? Would a woman like to ditch modesty but be stuck with a husband she hates for the rest of her life like Christianity requires for example? I doubt that.

      3. Hitting a woman repeatedly, isn’t a requirement in Islam I’m afraid. This very verse is meant to clarify the authority in a marital relationship. If you have business partners with equal rights they could still have different roles within the company and one of them might be the head in making decisions.
      Well the Husband isn’t just head in making decisions that he discusses with his wife beforehand, but he also is the funding source of this company. So he is obliged to offer her a decent living as affordable to him and acceptable to her, and take care of her unlike many European men. This is just a guideline but not a must, so obviously if a woman would like to share her earnings with her husband she’s free to do so but she doesn’t have to!
      And because a husband has this role he also has the role of the main boss of the family and this verse about lightly hitting a woman is just meant that the husband could expect his wife to respect and listen to him (as long as he is not asking her to do something wrong) and he could remind her if she’s a wife who couldn’t care less about their relationship or is doing misdeeds or so. It is not a normal wife that this verse is for (if you read the verse you can see that), and hitting with a meswak (tooth brush) isn’t really hitting, it’s just meant to ‘show” her his upset, then the verse is followed by sleeping in a separate bed as a second step of ‘showing’ her how upset he is. And this is related to major problems between them where she is clearly wrong. Not up to his own judgement.
      So the whole meaning is that if the wife refuses to respect her husband’s advise and is stubborn in doing wrong (according to society not according to the husband alone) he should show her his concern. If she wants to work the matter out she can, if she doesn’t she might as well file for divorce if she wants to do whatever she pleases and doesn’t agree with his advice.
      So not sure what exactly is the opression here? It is exactly the same way Muslims believe in the authority of the parents on both boys and girls. Muslims respect their parents and even though they are not allowed to physically hurth the children of course, but they do get upset and show that to their kids. Any parent needs to have authority or the relationship wouldn’t work and kids would literally do whatever pleases them alone.
      Same thing with the husband. Yet no one under Islam is allowed to hurt another physically. At the same time men have a lot of duties towards their wives as well, starting from financially, emotionally, intimately or even at divorce.
      Muslim women don’t give 1/2 of their property to the men when they divorce like in Europe (they split what they have). No!Muslim men should still care for their wives that they divorced and have children while women keep all their properties as they are.
      So again, what type of opression is that?

      4. Islam, like any other religion, needs to be taken into context. There’s something called ‘priorities’ in Islam as well. So before judging something we need to understand its value in Islam and in the society and in individual occasions as well.
      So considering Islam as a way of life there’s much much more to it than what women are supposed to wear or marital relationships.
      And in order to comprehend this context one first needs to be able to evaluate properly whether the Quroan in general could be a Word of God or not? In comparison to other scriptures, what does it or doesn’t it add, what is the language difference between all scripture, what are the scientific differences between all scriptures. What are the different morals in each scripture? What do we learn, does it help as a tool and guidance for this life or not?
      Only when one is able to believe that the Quran is the Word of God that one will be able to loosen himself from his own feelings and perspectives and see the God described in Quran as knowledgable, as trustworthy and as fair.
      I’d like to point out that I am NOT defending Islam, for in my opinion it doesn’t need defending, it just needs understanding.
      So I would still understand if you don’t see these things or still disagree with the points I’ve mentioned.
      All I’m trying to do here is to give you a glimpse as to how Muslim believers see things and how the ‘opression’ you discribe isn’t seen as opression at all. Muslims trust their God and happily follow His guideance. And if Muslim women or men sensed any opression, they probably wouldn’t be Muslims at all. Remember Islam isn’t forced on any person, everyone has his own brain and is free to accept or refuse a belief. Even if it’s taught by his parents.

      People are different, and view things differently. For example one of the main reasons that got me so believing in the Quran was my utter shock in the bible. How prophets are actually terrible people with lots of misdeads, how I could easily read the bible and get nowhere in life. And of course how impossible it is to me to believe that Jesus is a God, or that he died to save us, because it is just so unfair that one person suffers and the rest just do as they please because they have been forgiven. It makes much sense to me that a person takes responsibility to his own actions, which is again another reason to believe in the fairness of the God of Islam. A God that is capable to judge fairly, and capable to forgive! No need for sacrifycing another human being or half God.
      But anyway, while I felt this towards the bible, many many other people believe in it whole-heartedly.
      Yes, I ask myself how can’t they see all the flaws I see and that have been proven on numerous occasions by numerous scientists? BUT I respect their choice and don’t keep hassling them about it! In fact I don’t mention it at all 🙂
      And this is what the auther of this article is demanding. For the world to stop hassling Muslim women about the way they dress. Even if they are not convinced!

      So what I’m trying to say is, it’s fine if you for a reason or another see the rules of Islam oppressive from your own point of view, but believe me, Muslims see Islam as the only fair religion that treats men and women with complete equality! Unlike other faiths. And I say equality not equally, because men and women are clearly too different by nature.
      It might not be making much sense to you, but it’s more than enough that it makes sense to Muslims because as long as they are freely and happily making a choice, they should be respected.
      And mind you, a slave doesn’t choose his slavery, it’s a fact of life that he is a slave.
      However, a Muslim chooses to become Muslim and that is a totally different concept.
      And the word ‘slaves of God’ that Muslims say, isn’t meant in the sense of slavery and being forced onto something, or helplessly obeying cause they don’t have a choice, it’s rather meant in the love of God and intentionally committing and submitting to a great God that Muslims believe is the best Hand that could help them in this life and after.
      Just like Christians or Jews say they are ‘sons of God’, however, Muslilms don’t say sons because God of Islam isn’t a man at all. It’s a power, light, mercifulness, greatness and much much more…

      Hope this helps you understand the concept behind this article 😉

      • 12. ormondotvos  |  May 28, 2015 at 10:31 pm

        Interesting that “death for apostasy” or Shia/Sunni/Sufi wars. Just cheerful babbling about how women are free to find their own way.

        Islam is by far the most intolerant religion. By far. Islam says I should be killed, taxed, or enslaved if I don’t agree with it.

  • 13. Andreas  |  March 10, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Atreides, your response is spot on and very thoughtful. Both is needed – a consideration of each individual woman that reaches beyond her veil, and a discussion of any underlying principles of oppression. The—understandable yet naïve—absurdity is that the discussion is dominated by a larger—stereotpyical—picture as Marek pointed out, but almost always focuses on and dies at individual level…

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  • 17. Huda  |  May 27, 2015 at 3:21 am

    Symbol of opression:

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    […] ici. Ou encore le texte d’une intervention de la journaliste égyptienne Ethar El-Katatney, The Veiled Muslim Bogeygirl. Tout cela pour dire que je joins ma voix à d’autres voix afin que la société finisse par […]

  • 20. Zainab Khawaja  |  May 28, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Writer Meets World and commented:
    Phenomenal insight into what it means to choose to be a veiled Muslim woman. This article says everything and more that I was trying to say in this Tribune article.

  • 21. notapp  |  May 29, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    It is generally a shame that people feel the need to identify themselves as anything but simply a man or woman. Why must individual belief come ahead of the most fundamental thing we all share, which is of course that we’re mere humans – flesh, blood and bones. Our proclivity for attaching ourselves to any creed or staunch political movement (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and all the rest) which instantly and by definition divides and separates people, will continue to wreak havoc on the world, either directly (the crazy few) or indirectly (the gradual divisive decline through ignorance or each other’s incompatible beliefs. Unfortunately, people will generally not rest easy until they have convinced other people that they themselves have the right answer (often regardless of logic), or until they have been convinced of someone else’s dogma. Can we all agree that nobody has the ‘right’ answer? If we can, then at least we can discuss things without fear of upsetting each other. If not, then how can we as intelligent broad minded people all be so arrogant as to think we know anything? Anyway, this is all academic as we all already think we’re right about whatever we already think. Headscarf, no headscarf, cross round the neck, tunic, head dress, kippah, turban, tattoos……for me it’s not important, but the reality is that we will be judged by our appearance, whether we like it or not. Clothing, jewellery, body art, etc. are all part of an identity and people will forever make ignorant associations. It’s sadly true that distancing oneself from stereotype is made more difficult when the first thing others see is the central (albeit ignorant) facet of the stereotype. ‘Veiled Muslim woman’ is, regrettably and indeed ignorantly, for many people a loaded description which carries with it all manner of presumptions. It may be a awfully long time before people see beyond that. Why not just, ‘woman’ or ‘man’ or ‘successful woman’, ‘successful man’? I agree people should be judged on their achievements and their convictions, not at face value. In another post I believe you wrote, “It’s just covered hair to you. That is all. No more, no less.” Who is the ‘you’ you spoke of? Again, the reality is that it really isn’t just covered hair for many people – they associate with it an awful lot more, rightly or wrongly. I do wonder whether there can ever be true harmony between cultures and faiths with such distinct and opposing views. There’s always hope though. Keep fighting your cause.

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