A misleading CNN article about hijabs

While the stated intent of a recent CNN article appeared positive, its actual content is misleading and unpersuasive. If this piece had run in a high school newspaper, it would not have been a cause for such alarm. That it ran as a headline article on CNN.com under the guise of dispelling myths about the hijab is troubling.
A recent headline article on CNN.com written by CNN correspondent John Blake entitled “Muslim Women Uncover Myths About the Hijab,” attempted to expose the “myths” surrounding the hijab. Though the title implies that the article contains insightful analysis of the popular misconceptions surrounding the hijab and the reasons why women wear it, the piece falls far short of this goal. Instead, under the pretext of sympathetically noting the discrimination faced by Muslim women and informing the public of the real purpose of the hijab, the article presents a distorted picture of the hijab’s Islamic history, the women who wear it, and the nature of the debate on this thorny issue in the Muslim community.

The central problem with the article is that Blake failed to cite authoritative sources. While the title implies that the piece contains the views of Muslim women, key parts of the analysis is based on quotes from random Muslim teenagers. It also appears that no Islamic scholars were directly interviewed for the piece. He interviewed Randa Abdel-Fattah, an Australian Muslim who writes teen fiction about Muslim teenagers struggling with issues such as wearing the hijab. While her comments are interesting, she is certainly no scholar. He also cites liberally from Faegheh Shirazi’s book “The Veil Unveiled,” particularly in explaining the Islamic history of the hijab. Shirazi, like Abdel-Fattah, is not an Islamic expert – her field of study is textile and clothing, not religion or history.

In fairness to Blake, the article does provide some welcome coverage of the discrimination faced by hijabi women from both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in western countries. It also stresses the point that most women wear the hijab out of their own free choice, without pressure from family or community.

Despite these positive aspects of the article, Blake fails to capture the actual religious reasons for the hijab. In a section entitled the “surprising history behind the hijab,” he glosses over the actual Islamic history of the hijab. He notes that according to Shirazi, the Quran “encourages women to dress modestly,” and some take “the Quran’s advice as a command for women to wear the hijab, while others disagree.” According to Shirazi, the Quran is ambiguous about whether women have to wear the veil or not.

Blake fails to cite to or explain the verse in Surah An-Noor, which, contrary to Blake’s analysis, commands rather than encourages that both men and women guard their modesty, and provides that women should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands. (Quran, 24: 30–31). Neither does he reference the Islamic debate about the reason why the verses in Surah Al-Ahzaab were revealed, commanding the Prophet Muhammad’s wives and daughters and the believing women to cast their outer garments over their persons when abroad. (Quran, 33:59).

The nuanced debate among Islamic scholars regarding the applicability of these verses is neither mentioned nor discussed, and the reader is left with the misleading impression that the veil is entirely optional. Instead, Blake explains that the hijab predates Islam and while it used to be a symbol of prestige and status, by the 12th century the veil had been imposed on women in the Muslim world to exclude them from public life, and “a sign of distinction had been transformed into a sign of exclusion.”

These conclusions are all faulty. The fact that the veil pre-dated Islam is not directly relevant to the Islamic debate regarding the veil. Shirazi’s opinion that by the 12th century the veil had been imposed on women to exclude them from public life, given the context in which Blake uses it, is misleading. The reader is given no clue about why Shirazi made this conclusion. Whether she was referring to a particular country, culture, or people is unclear. What is clear is that Blake relies on this statement in showing that this exclusion from public life may have continued until today.

This inference is strengthened by his interviews with Sarah Hekmati, an Iranian-American who decided to wear the hijab as a teenager, and Hekmati’s mother. Hekmati explains that when she decided to wear the hijab she faced resistance from her own mother and others in the Iranian-American community. According to Blake, many Muslim American mothers oppose their daughter’s desire to wear the hijab because these mothers “often immigrated to the West so they could be free from wearing the hijab and other rules imposed on women.” Hekmati’s mother, for instance, stated that she was “befuddled” by her daughter’s choice. Further, many in the Iranian-American community “bothered” Hekmati: “They say, ‘We got rid of you guys. We came here because we don’t want to see you guys anymore.’”

The reactions of individuals in Hekmati’s mother’s generation from Iran, and others from the Iranian-American community, do not reflect the views of the broader Muslim-American community. While it may be true that Hekmati’s mother and others of her generation fled Iran after the Islamic revolution, partly to escape harsh new laws regarding the rights of women, these issues are particular to the Iranian-American community. Such issues do not exist for women from the Indian-American community or the Chinese-American community, for instance. Since there is no mention of the reasons why people from the Iranian-American community might hold such views, the reader is left with the impression that the Muslim American community in general discriminates against women who wear the hijab. This also supports Blake’s inference that the young women who wear the hijab in America are supported neither by their religions (since the hijab pre-dates Islam, is not clearly mandated by the religion, and is now a means of excluding women from public life) nor their families or communities.

Blake further undermines the credibility of the views of women who wear the hijab by focusing heavily on statements by Hekmati and Rowaida Abdelaziz, a Muslim high school senior from New Jersey. It may be that he took some statements they made out of context, but several of the comments they make are self-contradictory or clearly inapposite to fundamental Islamic precepts. He cites Hekmati as explaining that the hijab made her concerned about her relationship with boys: “Few asked her on dates. Guys always seemed to put her in the ‘friend category.’ She wondered if she was attractive. ‘I wondered at times: Am I always going to be a guy’s friend and nothing more.’” It is mystifying why Hekmati would wonder this, since she and some of the others interviewed also indicate that the purported purpose of their veiling is that they be treated as equals with men, without the additional distraction of sexual attraction between them. This statement makes not only Hekmati, but also every other woman interviewed sound either confused or misinformed about the purpose of the hijab.

Also problematic, Abdelaziz explains, “my mom says a girl is like a jewel. When you have something precious, you usually hide it. You want to make sure you keep it safe until that treasure is ready to be found.” However, at the end of the article, Blake mentions that Abdelazzis has had tense public encounters with people angry at her decision or those who pity her. This seems to invalidate her point that the hijab keeps her hidden and safe, “like a jewel.” Furthermore, Abdelazziz’s statement that wearing the hijab “feels really good” and that “it felt like I was missing something and now I’m complete” while interesting and commendable, seem rather far-fetched coming from a seventeen year old. It is also jarring that this piece, which purports to present the views of Muslim “women,” then ends with Abdelazzis’s statement that “I finally understand my purpose.” That statement would have been meaningful coming from a scholar who has studied the issue or a mature woman who has worn the hijab all her life, but is hard to take seriously coming from a seventeen year old. It is also difficult to believe, given the over-all bent of the article.

The reader is left with the ultimate picture of confused teenaged Muslim girls who are wearing the hijab with little support from their own communities, clinging to an out-dated practice that makes them stand out and socially isolates them. While the stated intent of this article appeared positive, its actual content is misleading and unpersuasive. If this piece had run in a high school newspaper, it would not have been a cause for such alarm. That it ran as a headline article on CNN.com under the guise of dispelling myths about the hijab is troubling.

(Photo: Frerieke)
Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a Contributing Writer to Altmuslimah

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