On a hot summer afternoon in San Francisco, a group of Ismaili-Muslim friends savored a leisurely Sunday lunch. Chewing on tandoori chicken, we regaled ourselves with memories of “cuckoo paka” curries stirred by our grandmothers standing over charcoal stoves in Nairobi and Bombay.

Soon, we turned to more serious topics, rejoicing over the release of two French journalists—held hostage by Muslim fanatics—to protest against France’s ban on girls wearing the hijab to school.

Why, I wondered, had putting on—or taking off—a headscarf become a matter of life and death? In Bombay, where I grew up, the burqa was a benign article of clothing worn in pale blue by my Bori schoolmates. Hijab and burqa were non-issues for me. Then, on 9/11, Islam was satanized. On television, burqa-clad women became synonymous with subjugation.

Though the burqa is not the norm in my Ismaili community, Indian and Pakistani women routinely cover their heads as a mark of respect for their elders, to pray, or to meet the cultural code of modesty. My mother—a rebel—was expected to cover her head in the presence of her in-laws, though she complained vociferously in the privacy of her bedroom.

The deep divide between Islam and the West triggered by 9/11 disturbed me and led me to delve deeper into Islam. After researching the burqa and hijab, one thing is clear to me: it is impossible to stereotype the woman who wears it. This woman could be an Iranian woman in her black chador, who helped to overthrow the Shah of Iran in 1979; she could be a high-school student in Fremont, Calif., who wants “to be taken seriously for her brains, not her body”; or even a radical Chechen suicide bomber fighting for her homeland, not for her religion.

While Islam inherited the veil from the Sassanians and the Byzantines, it was validated by the Quran and supporting hadith, or commentaries on the Sacred Book. Even in Prophet Muhammad’s time, who wore the hijab, as well as when and where, was controversial. In one hadith, Aisha, the Prophet’s favorite wife, refers to modesty and the safety implicit in veiling, yet in another, she asserts her right “not to veil:”

Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognize His grace unto them.

Aisha makes clear that in early, progressive Islam, women had latitude and freedom of choice in deciding whether to wear or not wear the hijab. Yet there was, and still is, controversy. Why?

Liberals, conservatives, traditionalists, and modernists, each interpret the Quran according to their respective and different perspectives and traditions. Critical to the debate is whether women wear the hijab or burqa by choice or coercion.

Though hijab and burqa are just garments, conceptually, they are much more: they are symbols of modesty, privacy and morality, integrally intertwined with the sexual and social architecture of Islam. The burqa connects honor with men and shame with women. It defines gender relationships in Muslim societies. Muslim men are traditionally led to view women’s sexuality as fitna, a threatening, destabilizing force that warrants social controls. The story goes that the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, once said that there are 10 parts to sexuality, and Allah gave nine parts to women and one to men. Over centuries, the fear of fitna has resulted in patriarchal societies using the veil to prevent women from bringing dishonor to their families. In many countries of the Muslim world, men have used, and continue to use, the veil as a tool to control women.

And yet there are many women who opt to veil today by choice. Merve Kavakci, the youngest and first woman in a hijab elected to the Turkish parliament, was never sworn in and defends her right: “My head is covered because of my faith.” Banned in Turkish schools and public places, the hijab is not specifically precluded for parliamentarians in the assembly chamber.

While hijab in France is a lightning rod, threatening the temple of secularism, in America, where Turkish hijab-wearing college co-eds sell popcorn in the malls of Washington D.C., hijabs now seem more prolific and visible than ever before.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, an Indian accountant, married to a secular, liberal Muslim engineer—also from Bombay—chose to veil after living in Fremont for a while. The mother of three sons, she is active in their multicultural Muslim community in Fremont, where “women run the mosque.” The engineer explained his wife’s decision: “It is a symbol of her faith, her identity.”

One high-school student in Fremont held a girls-only prom, and says of her hijab: “I noticed a big difference in the way guys talked. They were afraid. I guess they had more respect.”

Another young, married, Muslim woman grew up in Silicon Valley in a liberal Indian-American family. From her early teens, she read voraciously about Islam. She studied Arabic. She wanted to wear a hijab while still in high school but her parents were not in favor of it. So she told them she would do it as soon as she was living independently. She graduated early from high school with honors and went to college. Her parents drove her to college and dropped her off at the dorm for orientation that evening. The next morning they went to pick her up for breakfast. Lo and behold: she opened the door wearing a hijab. She had made her choice.

For those of us living in the San Francisco Bay Area, these could be the women next door. These three women are not submissive. They are decisive. They are all bright. They are all educated. They are not coerced. They are exercising their freedom of choice

Can we still stereotype a woman in a burqa?

Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy has worked in strategic media communications with nonprofits and foundations in the SF Bay Area as well as NGOs in India for 30 years. Currently, she is focused on building bridges between the Muslim world and the West, and is writing a book on women’s Islam.

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