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The Case Against Wearing Hijab To Support Muslim Women


Last week on this program, we heard from a professor at an evangelical college who wore a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women. Now we have a different perspective. Asra Nomani co-wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled in part "As Muslim Women, We Actually Ask You Not To Wear The Hijab." Earlier today, we invited her into our studios to discuss the piece.

ASRA NOMANI: Well, what we argue in the piece is that the headscarf has become a political symbol for an ideology of Islam that is exported to the world by the theocracies of the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Just like the Catholic Church in the 17th century did religious propaganda to challenge the Protestant Reformation, these ideologies are trying to define the way Muslims express Islam in the world.

SHAPIRO: Are you urging Muslim women who feel most comfortable wearing hijab not to wear one or are you just saying to well-intentioned non-Muslims please don't do this as a sign of solidarity?

NOMANI: Well, very interestingly in a movement that I call now the hijab lobby, sadly promulgated by women that some of us refer to as Muslim mean girls and their friends, are trying to put out this meme that we are denying women their choice. But of course in this world everybody should have their choice. What we are saying is we have to be smart about the ideology that is putting this idea into the world that a woman must be defined by her idea of modesty, that she is the vessel for honor in a community. And I believe that we have to be very pragmatic, too, about the consequence of this. Women in Iran and Saudi Arabia are jailed, punished and harassed if they don't cover themselves legally, according to the standard of those countries. So the consequences for many women is oftentimes very dark.

SHAPIRO: Now, you use the word headscarf. But in the piece, you say it is not actually appropriate to refer to the hijab as the headscarf. What is that distinction? Explain.

NOMANI: It's a really important one. You know, I was born in 1965. When I grew up in India, there was no expectation that a good Muslim woman wore the headscarf. But what happened when I came here to the U.S. and the emergence of the Saudi and Iranian theologies in the world is that the headscarf became the hijab and the hijab is now the idea that is synonymous with headscarf.

SHAPIRO: And how do you distinguish between those two? You say literally translated hijab means curtain.

NOMANI: Right, and so the hijab or a variation of the word shows up eight times in the Quran. And it never means headscarf. And so what's happened is that the identity of a Muslim woman especially is being equated to this piece of cloth on her head. And in that ideology there's a very fundamental assumption that people need to think very deeply about, which is do you believe that a woman is too sexy for her hair?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NOMANI: We don't believe we are too sexy for our hair.

SHAPIRO: I see certain parallels between the debate over feminism where some women argue that women should not be forced to stay at home and take care of children. And there are other women who are saying you are criticizing my decision as a free liberated women to stay home and take care of my children.

NOMANI: Right, but at the end of the day here what we're talking about is choice. And we're talking about everybody's free right to have choice. And so what we're also getting are interesting messages like you really need to obey the command of Allah and put a scarf on your head. And what we caution well-intentioned Americans and others to think about is whether the scarf matches their own values related to issues of honor and shame.

SHAPIRO: Asra Nomani - she is the author of the book "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle For The Soul Of Islam." Thanks for joining us.

NOMANI: Thank you so - thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.