Hebah Ahmed, an American Muslim who heads a Muslim girls youth group, was recently featured in a New York Times article about the challenges that American Muslim women can face. While she does not claim to speak for every Muslim, man or woman, Hebah does insist upon all Muslims’ voices being heard in the fray on the veil and niqab legislation currently taking place all over Europe and advocates a new discourse that is neither gender or religiously exclusive.
The stereotypes which portray Muslim women as oppressed, silent, and forced into the shadows have repeatedly been broken by Muslim women around the world. They have proven that modest dress is their choice, and a right they will fight for from their governments, their societies, and yes, even from their husbands. Many of the women who cover the most are actually converts to Islam; Anglo-European women who have embraced the principles of modesty in the form of covering. In a recent article published by The Times Online UK, five female converts were interviewed who had decided to adopt the hijab as a matter of choice. Despite being very vocal about their choices, the media and the politicians continue to ignore them and propose legislation to “protect” them from their own decisions. The legislation is based on the widely-held misconception that Islam is inherently oppressive to women.
A significant portion of Europeans support some type of ban and cannot understand why a woman would ever choose to cover herself. It is likely they see the practice as something foreign, backwards, and forcibly imposed, however for me and many other Western Niqabis (women who wear the niqab), this could not be further from the truth.
Legislation banning the full face veil is presented under the auspice of protecting Muslim women, and that the burqa, as a symbol of oppression, should be banned in order for Muslim women to be liberated. The legislation, if taken at face value, may appear to protect Muslim women, but in fact it ignores the fundamental question of why women cover. For me this comes down to the freedom of choice.
I was born in Tennessee to Egyptian immigrant parents, and have never lived outside of the United States. I entered college at 15 with the full support and encouragement of my Muslim father. At 22 years of age, I completed my Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, one of the top engineering universities in the world. After a stint in the corporate world, in which I experienced first-hand sexual harassment and intimidation, I left to discover my spirituality, my femininity and my true self-worth. As a result I started to wear the niqab. I began to choose jobs that allowed me to work on my terms rather than in an environment that compromised my values.
I daresay there are few women in the West who don’t question their image, or have concerns about their weight, body measurements, skin texture and coloring. A woman’s body can easily become a commodity, either for her own vanity or someone else’s objectification. These are societal pressures that are put on women, but the majority of women really seek security, respect, love, and commitment.
I have found that modesty and Islamic dress gives me that sense of value, control, and security. Wearing a full face veil for the first time gave me an unexpected self confidence because I no longer cared what others thought of me – only how I thought of myself. For a Muslim woman who covers, her sexuality is under her control and expressed in the confines of her marriage in an atmosphere of commitment and respect. In this way modesty has for me and many others become a liberator and a source of empowerment.
This empowerment is not being recognized by the policymakers shaping legislation. In fact, in their attempt to protect women, some European countries are taking away the same freedom of choice they claim to promote. Legislators need to confer with the range of Muslim women in an attempt to understand the reasons behind the choice to wear the niqab. This will ensure that diversity is embraced rather than outlawed.
We must move forward into a new discourse that is neither gender or religiously exclusive. If proposed legislation is based on the grounds of protecting the rights of Muslim women, their voices must be a vital part of the debate. The current debates have, in part, lost sight of the real issues: a woman’s right to have a say and a freedom of choice.
Hebah Ahmed lives in the US with her husband and two children. She works to dispel the myths about Islam and women through community presentations, is an Associate Writer at MuslimMatters, and heads Daughterz of Eve, a Muslim girls youth group in the US.