A Review of the NYTimes’ “What’s That You’re Wearing? A Guide to Muslim Veils”

Have you ever been curious about Muslim women? What are they like? Who are they? What must they (all 800 million of them) think? Do Muslim women living in Muslim countries get equal pay for equal work like women in New York? Errr well…

No need to remain curious for even a minute longer – the New York Times has got you covered. Unoriginal puns aside, writer Russell Goldman exposes the mystery surrounding Muslim women with his recent ‘What in the World’ column, What’s That You’re Wearing? A Guide to Muslim Veils. In an effort to contextualize the everyday lives of Muslim women, Goldman makes a bold and daring journalistic choice: a column about what Muslim women wear as a window into who they are!

In this fascinating guide, Goldman simplifies the very complex. Reducing the lived experiences of nearly a billion Muslim women worldwide to seven articles of clothing, he provides us with an easy-to-understand – yet still technical – lexicon to better understand this great unknown. As a Muslim woman myself, let me tell you, Russell Goldman clearly knows what he is talking about! Yes, he might completely exclude millions of Muslim women who don’t wear anything remotely related to what he describes and he might be contributing to the oppressively relentless onslaught of media that reduces Muslim women to pieces of cloth — but don’t be such a purdah party pooper. Who said nuance and context make good journalism anyway? This isn’t your average rape apologist questioning what a woman was wearing. Sometimes, women really are what they wear.

To be fair, Muslim women come from a lot of countries (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the United States, oh my!) and these 800 million and counting women are intensely confusing. Some of them wear chadors, some of them wear hijabs; some of them wear abayas; some of them have neural tissue made out of black cotton gauze, you get the point. Universalizing who Muslim women are by what they wear is the New York Times taking one for the team, a favor to us all.

But that’s not all. Being the Beyonce of news media, the Times didn’t think it was enough just to bring their journalistic A-game or general magnanimity towards the Muslim world to this piece; they really went all out with this one. Here, they brought dancing graphics. Move over, Lemonade. This is edgy choreography. This is art. Faceless, Muslim women morphing, one into another followed by definitions of clothing choices. Feel the Times flexing its relevancy muscle: modern orientalism taken to soaring new heights! Missy Elliott, take note, you could have done what the Times did here for the video to your recent single, “WTF (Where They From).” Alas, what is Missy’s loss is the Times readers’ gain.

While the Times might be the new cool, this wouldn’t be a fair review if I didn’t offer some critique. For a piece that was featured on the Times’ home page, the title is a little meh. It’s gauzy, a little covered up. I get it though, I do. A lot of energy must have been expended into conceiving the article in the first place, the faceless dancing graphics, and those definitions. (Can you imagine how hard it would be to write a concise and compelling definition of “jeans”?!)

Inspired by this handy-dandy guide to a world of women like me, I’ve decided to pay it forward and suggest a few potential alternative titles for the editors to consider the next time they publish a piece like this one. Journalists and editors, you don’t even have to credit me. I’m feeling that magnanimous right back.

Suggested Titles For Next Time:

  1. When Journalists Veil the Complex Experiences of Muslim Women
  2. You Are What You Wear!
  3. The Art of Storytelling: Defining the Other through Reductive Images
  4. “Muslim Woman” or “Jesus”?
  5. Another White Man Writes: Uncovering A Visual Vocabulary to Describe a Billion Women Through the Clothes That Only Some of Them Wear
  6. You Might Worry About the Wage Gap but These Women Don’t Have Facial Features
  7. The Urge to Simplify is Real
  8. Revising the Narrative: The Terrifying and Strange World of Muslim Women
  9. Cha-Cha in Your Chador (Without a Face)
  10. Eating Pizza in Purdah


Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member. You can follow her on Twitter at @samarkaukab.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

1 Comment

  • Kareema Abdul-Khabir says:

    On the spot critique… Muslim ‘extremists’ are accused of not valuing women for anything than their modest clothes/childbearing, but many in the West likewise see no value in Muslim women… until it’s time to crank out some unoriginal clickbait on the exoticized, other “Muslim woman”-as if there were just 3-4 types, easily figured out by their clothing

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