Hijab (head), niqab (face), and jilbab (body)

Sociology of Gender: the Hijab

The following is a final exam paper I wrote on the practice of hijab (Islamic veil).  I was in a Sociology class called “Sociology of Gender” taught by Dr. Elizabeth Bernstein at Barnard College.  It presents the results of a survey I conducted at Columbia University that shows that non-Muslims and Westerners fail to understand this and other practices because they focus on forcing their assumptions on the situation rather than considering what Islam really means.  I got a B+…


Daniel Nehemiah Oliver

Sociology of Gender Final Question 2

There is no god but ALLAH.  Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of ALLAH be upon him) is the Messenger of ALLAH.  Sincere belief in these statements makes one a Muslim.  They are the fundamental, guiding principles of Muslim life.  They, for instance, establish the Qur’an unquestionably as the word of ALLAH, brought to humanity by his Messenger.  Belief in ALLAH and His Messenger and the authority of the Qur’an figure importantly in the Muslim/Western

Dr. Homa Hoodfar

debate over veiling moreso than Hoodfar, in The Veil in their Minds and on their Heads*, realizes.  She rightly identifies the Qur’an as an influencing factor in Middle Eastern veiling practices, but her essay does not explore its implications.  Her argument is based mainly on historical and sociological sketches that illuminate truths about Middle Eastern society and Muslim culture, but by ignoring Islam as a faith, and failing to acknowledge Muslims as a distinct, diverse group, held together by and operating upon the dynamics of this faith, the discussion of veiling loses credibility and explanatory value.  This paper presents the findings of a study aimed at exploring and explaining this crucial and little understood aspect of veiling.

Palestinian Christians in headscarves

To this end, I selected a survey sample that could represent these unheard and ignored voices.  I picked 3 types of respondents, whom I coded as “Muslims”, “Muslimahs” and “Hijabis”.  The Muslims were two male Muslims, one born Muslim (Muslim B) and one revert to islam (Muslim R).  (Those who accept Islam from another faith are called reverts rather than converts, due to a belief that all things are born in, and some later corrupted from, fitrah, a natural state of submission to ALLAH.)  The Muslimahs were two Muslim women who do not veil;  one born Muslim (Muslimah B) and one revert (Muslimah R).  The Hijabis were two Muslim women who do veil, also known as wearing hijab;  one born Muslim (Hijabi B) and one revert (Hijabi R).  All six of these were affiliated with Columbia University or Barnard College either as undergraduates, graduate students, or staff.  Their ages ranged from 18-29, and their backgrounds and living experiences represent the diversity of the world’s Muslims to as great a degree as possible given the sample size.

Islam is the basis of a worldwide community united by belief in the Lordship of ALLAH and the messengership of Muhammad.  This community is diverse in every way that a community can be:  linguistically, culturally, economically,Hijab (head), niqab (face), and jilbab (body) geographically, economically, theologically, and so on.  Veiling and most other practices are not uniform.  These differences, however, are usually not based on belief, but on interpretation of belief.  Take the Qur’an, for example.  There are no versions.  The only variation lies in the rendering of Arabic terms different translators may choose.  So, in the original Árabic, every Muslim reads the same thing, but inevitably many individualized readings result.  Consider the following:

(With the Name of Allah, the Universally Merciful, the Discriminately Merciful)

And say to the believing women to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts, and not to show their ornaments except what is apparent, and two draw their veils over their bosoms and not to show their adornments except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women or what their right hands possess, or to their male servants who have no vigor, or children who are not yet aware of women’s private parts…

– Qur’an, Chapter 24 an-Nuur/“The Light”: 31


O Prophet, say to your wives, and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments over themselves.  As such it is likelier that they will be recognized and not molested.  ALLAH Is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.

– Qur’an, Chapter 33 al-Ahzab/“The Confederates”: 59

It must first be said that this paper is not gaging the accuracy of this translation from the original text.  In addition, the purpose of this paper is not to explain or interpret these verses.  These verses have been presented simply as evidence that the Qur’an contains mandates concerning the practicing of veiling or hijab.  (The word hijab means “screen or veil”, rather than, for example, for example, “headscarf” or “cloak”.  There are many words for Muslim womens’ outer garments, not all of which are found in Islamic literature.)  To Muslims, again, the words of the Qur’an are no less than the words of the One, True God.

All but one respondent, Muslimah B, agreed that hijab is legislated by the Qur’an.  In the words of Muslimah R, “It was prescribed in the Qur’an for women to cover themselves”.  Hijabi B simply answers “ALLAH Commanded it”.  These statements begin to answer one of the questions central to this study and the lager debate over veiling:  why do Muslim women veil themselves?

Hoodfar unduly emphasizes Arabian and Mediterranean traditions dating back to antiquity, but only presents the fact of veil-wearing:  its first recorded references, its changing role in societies over time, etc.  However, the reason for veiling is largely untouched in her essay.  Westerners and feminists have for some time defined their reasons for other women’s veiling customs:  patriarchy, notions of the harem, and extreme repression and domination by men.  This colonial method of assumption is prone to great misunderstandings because these “studies” of Muslims have mostly been unaccompanied by what makes them Muslim:  Islam.  This ignorance seemed apparent to Hoodfar at times, though she did fully address it or elude it.  It was not lost on Hijabi B, quoted here at length, who summarizes wonderfully how Muslims feel about the views of Westerners and academics whose conclusions about Muslims are formed without consideration of Islam.

Did you ever think to ask me?

“Responses to common misconceptions (even by [Columbia] professors teaching about Islam”  Hijab was not a left-over practice from pre-Islamic culture, it doesn’t mean our parents force us to marry our cousins, it’s not just a political statement, it doesn’t limit intellectual development…  it’s not a symbol of male domination, it doesn’t have to be black, it doesn’t make our heads that much warmer in the summer”

She finishes with a telling reflection:  “It can be some of those things, but often is not.”

Other respondents described hijab as:

– “the ultimate necessity for any woman (Muslim R)

– “unfair” (Hijabi R)

– “a chore” (Hijabi R)

– “a wonderful way to protect the modesty of a woman” (Muslimah R)

These are all things that wearing hijab or veiling can be, according to the respondents.  But in the end, they are largely the effects of hijab, not its causes.  For example it is doubtful that that Hijabi R, who feels that hijab is unfair, wears it because it’s unfair.

Regarding cause, interestingly, none of the stereotypical, Western/academic-assigned causes for veiling were quoted by the respondents.  Some were actually refuted, as in Hijabi B’s above quote.  Family pressure was mentioned once, but only as a discouragement against veiling.  All respondents were geographically and socially distant from the Middle East, negating it by default as a cultural explanation of the veiling practice.

To the Muslims of this survey, veiling has a meaning, and a power, that is lost on the minds of Western academia.  Just is in Hoodfar’s essay’s explanation of the veil carrying a sense of power, Hijabi R said that hijab was a way to “fight in the way of ALLAH’s Cause”.  To Muslimah R it was a statement of faith.  Muslimah B felt it “shows one’s inner strength”.  To these women, whether or not they chose to wear it, the hijab was a force, and a statement, as well as a shield and display of modesty.

Why has Western academia, with it sustained contact with Muslim population groups, failed to recognize the value of the practice of veiling?  It is not just because of the colonial/propagandist motivations that do too much to frame western discourse on Muslims.  The seemingly blind misunderstanding is one symptom of a larger problem:  willful ignorance of Islam and refusal to acknowledge faith.  One does not have to be a Muslim to study the practice of veiling, but how can studies of veiling ignore Islam when the practitioners list ALLAH, Islam and the Qur’an as the cause?  Western/non-Muslim perceptions, and to an extent Hoodfar’s essay, fail- refuse, in fact- to capture the reality of veiling as an extension of their refusal to acknowledge Islam.  Sympathizing Western feminists thus perpetuate the paternalism and repression that they suffer by re-inflicting it on Muslim women.  If Western men have historically treated women like objects, then that is all the less reason for them to do the same thing to Muslim women.  The feminist protest is against being treated like a docile, disenfranchised second class, yet feminism, out of ironic sympathy, approaches hundreds of millions across the globe as exactly that.  How can feminists insist on their voices being heard, when they drown the voices of Muslim women?  How can they, perhaps even more ironically, oppose being treated like sexual objects, while fighting for their right to look like one and belittling the women who refuse to?

Veiled Hindu women at a temple

This guise of objectivity is itself a veil, masking an academic and cultural arrogance that causes the scientific standards of Western academia to falter and the societies which it informs to suffer.  Some studies show American Muslims to live at a higher standard-of-living and education level than American non-Muslims.  The statistics of homicide and sexual violence in Western societies soar high above those of Muslim populations.  The tendency to criticize and patronize should be replaced with one to recognize.

The West, especially and perhaps because of its academics and feminists, succumbs to the subjectivity it is so wary of internally because it refuses to subjectively evaluate the meaning, or even acknowledge the statement that there is not deity besides ALLAH and Muhammad is His messenger.

* 1997. “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women”, Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, David Lloyd and Lisa Lowe (eds). Duke University Press, (reprint).


windows without walls (my improbably journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part III)

There was nothing but me. No one had been more free than I had. I
took that to mean that I was the one to blame for the troubles in my
life. It also meant that nothing could stop me. I let everything go,
literally thrown everything away, knowing that everything and everyone
that had ever really been there would come back.

To make a long story short, I took a vow of celibacy (which no one
took seriously) and went back home, the prodigal son. One sharp look
from my mom said all that needed to be said about my dredlocks and a
lot of other things. My first order of business was to get back into
school. Imagine telling people that you dropped out of your third
year in the Ivy League to be a player.

I got re-accepted- they were no match for my characteristic
hard-headedness- and ran into an old friend from the basketball court.
My suitemates and I were having a monthly party called “Last Friday”
at the end of every month, very low key for me, so I invited him.

“I don’t drink, I don’t dance, I don’t listen to music. I’m a
Muslim,” he smiled, and then I saw it.

He had changed.

Gone was the tight-lipped bravado and swagger of one of the nation’s
best high school ballers. In place of his usual cool was an
uncharacteristic constant smile and a beard. His whole face had
changed. And his clothes too. His pants were tucked into his

At that moment I knew: this is it. I’ve been trying to change, a
believer without a way, and he’s changed. Whatever he believed was
the truth.

I wasn’t ready to cancel the party just yet, but I asked him to tell me more.

“And if you are in doubt about that which we have sent to our servant,
Then bring a single chapter of its equal and likeness,
and call forward your witnesses (to its making) besides Allah,
if you are indeed truthful.
And if you have not done (this)-
and you will never do (it)-
then be wary of the fire whose fuel is men and stone,
prepared for the rejecters (of truth and right).
And give glad tidings to those who affirm (truth and right) and work
righteousness that theirs are gardens (of paradise), underneath
which flow rivers…”
-Qur-an 2.23-5

I couldn’t believe it. I had to believe it. No one could say that.
I had read hundreds of books- autobiographies, encyclopedias,
textbooks of every subject, histories, diaries, fiction, poetry,
political manifestos, fables and folklore- and no one had ever made
such a claim, of infallibility, of supreme confidence, of ultimate
challenge. Even the most widely-accepted scientific knowledge was
mostly considered theory. Every textbook was in its umpteenth
edition; why? Because mistakes or updated knowledge had been
discovered since the last edition. No one- not Einstein, not Michael
Jordan, not Criss Angel, no one- had ever claimed to have done
something which could be neither surpassed nor approached, even in its
details. No one, of course, who had not been subsequently made a fool
of, if they were not already known to be a fool, and summarily erased
from history.

No this, this shocked me. Only God could say that, I thought. If
this book was indeed of a miraculous nature, then it was the greatest
miracle of all time. Why? Why would a book be greater than Ram’s
stringing of Shiva’s bow, or Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, or Jesus’
revival of the dead Lazarus? It was greater because, again, if it was
indeed a miracle, if there ever was a miracle, this was the only one
left standing.

No one claims to have Shiva’s bow, and even so, long deceased are the
witnesses of its stringing. The Red Sea- and I have been to its coast
and talked to someone as he sailed across it- is definitely back to
normal. And Lazarus has since died again. But the Qur-an, if there
is any miracle about it, is still standing, and the one in my office
is no different that the thousand year-old copy in Uzbekistan, or even
the oldest hand-written original. Anyone who can read Arabic can
verify that.

So is it a miracle? It welcomes your doubts as it still does mine.
Read this example:

“He has set free the two seas meeting together
Between them is a barrier which they do not transgress?
-Qur-an 55.19-20

Still not convinced? Check out the introduction to King Leopold’s
Ghost, a book about the Congo by Adam Hochshild. It describes how
this river pushes out into the sea for a great distance without its
freshwater mixing with the Atlantic. It is said that Jacques Cousteau
was the first to photograph this barrier phenomenon, which I’ve yet to
verify. At any rate, it is a known scientific phenomenon, and
research is even being done to use freshwater barriers to prevent
saltwater seepage.

If Muhammad, may Allah Bless him and Grant him peace, had invented the
Qur-an, how could he have known this? He was illiterate. Even if he
was educated, this knowledge was not available at the time. Supposing
he made it up and happened to guess right, for one, he would have had
to guess right for all the other scientific discoveries the Qur-an
preceded, which is impossible if not unlikely. Further, what value
would such a claim have had at the time? Because it was irrelevant
and unverifiable, and not altogether fantastic, it would have done
nothing to convince people towards Islam.

I did my research, and decided that that this verse, and the many
others like it, was a sign left by Allah not for the early Muslims,
but for all the generations that would follow them. As every copy of
the Qur-an is identical to the original scrolls, they are proof of a
wisdom that could only have come from above. They are a taste test
that everyone can individually scrutinize individually and openly.
They are miracles. Just as such verses were unobservable but
ultimately proven true, so, the Qur-an argues, is the case with its
claims of resurrection, recompense and reward and much else.

But there was something else, too, something besides all the eloquent
logic I was starting to read in translation. Something inside me. I
felt like I was finding something I’d already found, something I’d
known inside me like the vague, disparate recollections of a dream.
The signs I was reading were confirming and explaining signs I’d been
seeing in my self for years, great and small. Years earlier, without
knowing why, I’d resolutely given up eating pork. When I was in
Australia, I once fasted from morning to night for one month. I just
felt that it was right, that I needed it for strength and discipline.
I had stopped shaving because I found it unnatural. Also when I was
in Australia, I woke up everyday at sunrise and prayed, then washed. I
had begun to see it as an obligation to give, and in New York, let me
tell ya, there are plenty of people to give to. And why, I asked
looking back to my childhood, did my brother and I have a habit of
prostrating on our foreheads before we went to sleep? Maybe you can
imagine how many times my heart stopped, or how many times my eyes
still burst in tears at finding out that what was in me was true

As an intellectual, I’d made the world my classroom, and people and
places had become my books. I was a scribe of the spoken word, with a
library that catalogued thoughts and lives. That’s not to say that I
wasn’t well-read. I was, and perhaps extraordinarily so. In time my
interests turned toward religion. I don’t think I was looking for
something to believe. I just found it all interesting. Soon, and I
presented this theory at Sydney University, I surmised that all
religions were variants of some original, and differed on grounds of
culture based on the parts of the world they were in. After all,
language limits and allows the concepts its speakers are allowed to
think in, so it seemed natural to assume that the same religion would
vary on the surface across cultures. Some form of prayer or
meditation, asceticism, and other elements seemed to universal to be
independent. As such, I postulated that God must have spoken to
somebody somewhere, and that, those words and none other, were exactly
what I wanted to read. So I decided to study Hebrew and Sanskrit,
because those were the oldest languages I knew about, to find and
decipher just what God had said. I guess I was looking for something
to believe in.

Arabic is not the oldest language, but it does contain the oldest book
which is universally held to be untainted. Moreover, and this excited
me about my theory, Islam seemed to contain all those universal
elements of religion, in a unified, congruent system. It has the
asceticism of Buddhism without going to the extreme of monasticism.
There is the rhythmic profundity of the Vedas with no contradiction or
The all-embracing love of Christianity is honed with discipline, while the
moral guidance of the Torah is found without descending into formalism.
The social code is as comprehensive as Confucianism, and the
unifying theory of nature resonates with the principles of Daoism and
many other natural/mystic belief systems. It even deals masterfully with
the skepticism and rightful demand for the right to inquiry of atheism,
agnosticism and modern science.

I have suffered, admittedly at my own hands, for so long. It took me
years of searching to even realize I was searching. And now I
realized that I didn’t have to find my own way, that I had something
to which I could bring my doubts, and that I had been right, in some
way, all along. The Straight Path stretched before me. I took my
first step one night by declaring that there was no deity but Allah
and that Muhammad was his Messenger.

So what happened, right? Did my parents kick me out of the house?

Well, I wasn’t living at home at the time, for one. And knowing my
wiles and caprice, no one probably took it seriously at first. But
from surrendering to Allah, I started to affirm his truth, with the
hopes of one day perfecting my self and practice. I think that has
kept me, elevating my struggles to strivings and tempering my
successes with humility. I’m a better grandson, son, nephew, brother
and cousin than I was before, and I think my ties with my family are
stronger because of Islam, even though we differ about it. To be
sure, I lost a few friendships, but some of them were very surface and
false anyway, so I don’t miss what I never had. Anyway, who’s to say
we wouldn’t have fallen out of touch anyway, as much as I move around.
Due in large part to Facebook, I have to admit, many, many of my
friendships are graciously intact.

I still travel, still love nature. I spent a year teaching in the
lost valley that borders Mexico. There was a beautiful bird sanctuary
with a crocodile there, close to the Gulf of Mexico. I traveled to
Pakistan and got married, and saw the beautiful hills of Murree at the
foothills of the Himalayas with my wife. My Spanish came in handy in
Mexico City and Monterrey, where I met the bravest and most innocent
people I can remember. After a year in Oman, where my daughter was
born, I was relieved to see the rain and lush green of northern
Thailand last summer. And I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep.

I’m as aware of wrongdoing Muslims as anybody, but Islam is not
constituted by the Muslims. It’s a framework. One looks through it,
and acts within it. I do not feel that it limits my vision or walk.
Rather it frees from the debilitating, inhibiting effects of the
faults that we all have, the false lures of life, the limitations of
ignorance, and the misguidance of satan. It is a window without
walls, through which I invite you all to look and transcend.

And peace be upon whoever follows guidance…
-Qur-an 20.47