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Let us be the ones who decide what is beautiful, what is free, what is oppressed, and what is spiritual. If you feel liberated in a scarf, keep it on. If you think your religiosity is impeded by an insistence on a wardrobe choice, move beyond the exterior of it all.
Depending on how you want to calculate it – legally, culturally, or religiously – my husband and I have been married for either two, three, or four years. And, in the time that we’ve spent together, I’ve read every relationship and self-help book that I could get my hands on. If I hear of a book that promises to be a twelve-step guide to unlocking the mysteries of the male mind, chances are that I’m express-ordering it from Amazon as soon as I can get to a computer with an internet connection.
Needless to say, I’ve amassed quite the collection; and I’ve found that a common thread ties all of these self-empowerment treatises together. In all the reading that I’ve done – from misogynistic rants on the proper caring and feeding of husbands (my apologies to Dr. Laura fans) to tales of Mars and Venus colliding – I am constantly reminded of the power that I yield in my marriage, and my life, as a woman. For example, the question of whether my marriage thrives or just barely survives hinges less on whether or not my husband remembers to buy me flowers after an argument and more on the choice that I make to either clearly express myself or expect my husband to read my mind. I’ve learned that unless I make a conscientious decision to stand at the helm of my circumstance as a woman who knows what she wants and is confident enough to ask for it, neither my relationships nor I will ever reach our full potential.
Having spent the past few years learning about just how much control I have over my own thoughts and life (thank you Dr. Dyer!), I am amazed by the weight and worth of my actions as they relate to my personal relationships and my own development. In becoming more aware of my right to be a more fulfilled and confident human being, I have realized that these books, and the larger self-help industry that I enthusiastically support from almost every paycheck, are in part responding to a large demographic of women who, like me, need to be constantly reminded of their own worth and ability.
Thanks to the thousands of pages authored by self-proclaimed relationship and life experts, I am now able to recognize this tendency to undervalue one’s self in women that I interact with. I see it in the women of my extended family. I see it in my female coworkers. And, after spending the better part of the past year conducting makeshift research on women in my American Muslim community, I see this character trait in the women of my religious community as well.
After months of struggling to understand why so many American Muslim women are taking off their headscarves, I have come to this conclusion: that women of all shapes and sizes, cultures, and religious denominations undervalue themselves. And, contrary to Western feminists’ romanticized notions that the stripping off of one’s headscarf is inevitably a moment of rebellion against patriarchal institutions, I have found that, a great deal of the time, when an American Muslim woman takes off her headscarf it is likely a moment of surrender to a combination of social, political, cultural, and self-imposed pressures. Rather than it being a triumphant moment in which she seeks to define her spirituality beyond the confines of her wardrobe, or seeks to distance herself from a construction of her religious identity that seeks to contain her, it is most likely a moment in which she becomes overwhelmed by the growing weight of a society that labels her as an oppressed terrorist and a religious community that labels her as particularly virtuous and likely socially awkward.
You see, if and when an American Muslim woman puts on a headscarf out of her own free will, it is a unique moment in which her private relationship with God is manifested in a very public way. Unlike prayer, fasting, or even reading the Qur’an, when a Muslim woman chooses to cover herself she is suddenly putting a piece of her religiosity on display. There is a saying that some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Well, for an American Muslim woman who covers her hair as a personal choice, to some extent she wears her spiritual heart on her head. She bows her covered head in prayer five times a day in submission to God, and chooses to prolong these moments of prayer by keeping her head covered throughout the day.
Although women of many religions cover their hair – including Orthodox Jews and Catholic Nuns – the idea that a woman’s spirituality is a function of how many yards of fabric she wears is an interesting concept, and one that does not sit well with mainstream society. In fact, in insisting on an increased modesty, an American Muslim woman who covers offends many Western sensibilities. And, adding to her challenges, she is also placed under a heightened level of scrutiny by a religious community that imposes an unrealistic construct of virtue upon her. Her community suddenly expects her to adhere to rigid rules and regulations, and she is in turn both resented and loved by her community as she struggles to adhere to these mandates.
In the end, an American Muslim woman in a scarf really has only one place to go for solace, for strength, and for peace – back to God. The society that she lives in writes her off as complaisant to her own oppression and the community that she belongs to insists that her worth lies not in the personality that the scarf contains but in the scarf itself. In either arena she is reduced and the headscarf is misappropriated and misunderstood. As much as a Muslim woman’s headscarf is no one’s business but her own, the headscarf has become everyone’s business and is on everyone’s mind.
It is extremely difficult to be on the receiving end of such intense scrutiny. Be it the mounting pressure to get married from one’s family after an American Muslim woman hits her thirties, or buying into notions of beauty and empowerment that necessitate showing her hair, when many American Muslim women take off their headscarves I have seen that it is often because they seek to conform to another’s construction of the ideal. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe that a woman without a headscarf can be closer to embodying the spiritual ideal of purity of heart and sincerity of character than a woman with a headscarf. I understand that a woman’s worth cannot and should not be reduced to a piece of cloth. But I also understand that many American Muslim women are taking off their headscarves in response to a particular state of affairs, as opposed to the choice truly being one of their own volition.
As an American Muslim woman who covers her hair, I am no stranger to the debilitating weight that the headscarf can place on our heads. And, just because I wear the headscarf does not mean that I am advocating for Muslim women to fixate on the headscarf as an indication of their worth or even their religiosity. What I am saying, however, is that we women must move beyond the tendency to make decisions that are largely informed by social, political, and cultural pressures to conform. Let us be the ones who decide what is beautiful, what is free, what is oppressed, and what is spiritual. If you feel liberated in a scarf, keep it on. If you think your religiosity is impeded by an insistence on a wardrobe choice, move beyond the exterior of it all.
If a woman takes off her headscarf, I believe that it should be a decision made in the same context that her decision to put it on should be made in – on her own terms. I have made myself a promise that if I ever take off my headscarf it will be because I believe it is the best decision for my spirituality. I realize that if I make the decision on account of someone else, or in response to a failing sense of self, the decision will not bring me any closer to realizing my full potential as a human being.
Through my research I spoke with a woman who took off her scarf because she “was tired of being different.” In the end, however, she confessed that even without the scarf her dark hair and skin still set her apart from America’s mainstream. She was, therefore, still plagued by feelings of difference and isolation. I recognized in this woman something that I often see in myself – a mistaken belief that confidence and self-assuredness are artificial realities that external circumstances can provide. Ultimately, this woman felt like an outsider with or without the scarf. Although her physical appearance changed, her internal reality, and inability to accept her own worth, remained the same.
Just as I saw a part of myself in this woman’s story, I felt a connection with every woman I spoke to who had taken off their headscarf. And truthfully the most painful part of the past year, and the time that I have spent critically engaging the headscarf, has been the incredible amount of self-reflection that this thought exercise has necessitated. For every reason that I heard for why women were taking off their headscarves I was forced to ask myself whether or not that reason was enough for me to take off my scarf. Was a desire to feel beautiful enough? How about the feeling that I couldn’t move forward in my career? Did I believe that I had somehow outgrown the scarf? Was the scarf getting in the way of me being as physically active as I wanted to be?
In the end, although I continue to struggle with many of these issues, I realize this has less to do with the fact that I wear a headscarf and more to do with the fact that I am not yet a complete person. Although I recognize that every one of the aforementioned impetuses for taking off the headscarf are completely reasonable, I also understand that I will not be able to feel beautiful, move forward with my career, or develop spiritually or physically until I recognize my own worth and importance as a woman in this society. Far too often, American Muslim women, including myself, fixate on the headscarf as the source of their troubles without realizing that a great deal of the general inadequacy that they feel is not a function of a wardrobe choice but of a greater failure to accept and love themselves. We women yield incredible amounts of power to determine our own levels of personal fulfillment and happiness. For, just like spirituality is an internal reality, so, too, is happiness. If we do not love ourselves for who we are inside and out, no headscarf or cute haircut can ever give us what we need.
Rabea Chaudhry is an artist and writer and currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband. She has a BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley and a JD from the UCLA School of Law. This article was originally published on AltMuslimah on March 8, 2009.