The real story behind hijabs and why women wear them

  • Ellen Goodman / Boston Globe columnist
  • Wednesday, November 7, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

BOSTON — "I’ve been called oppressed and depressed and repressed and every other kind of pressed you can imagine," says Milia Islam, as she counts off the adjectives with an amused smile. The subject of such "pressing" concern is the head scarf that the young Missouri woman wears over her hair.

The scarf, better known as the hijab, the Arabic word meaning "to cover or screen," identifies Milia publicly as a Muslim. So, it has become more than a curiosity in the weeks since Americans began an intensive course in Islam 101.

After Sept. 11, many American Muslim women experienced their own kind of "profiling." Some put aside the hijab out of fear. Some had it pulled off their hair by angry strangers. Others were merely labeled "oppressed, depressed, repressed."

Milia is one of three American Muslim women, all graduate students at the Harvard Divinity School, whom I have talked with about the head cover that has taken on such heightened meaning. A 22-year-old whose head is covered this day in an olive print scarf pinned under the chin, she was born in Bangladesh and raised in the only Muslim family in her small Missouri town. She started wearing a hijab in college, where the reactions of others sent her on a journey from pre-med to sociology to religious studies.

A second woman, Melinda Mott Krokus, Massachusetts-born and raised, began wearing the hijab when she was studying in Turkey, where some women praised her scarf and others said, "take that thing off." Back home, Melinda no longer covers her head because, she now believes, "in my culture modesty is not connected to my hair."

The third, Pali Kakar, wore a hijab in her Islamic school in Seattle but not in Pakistan, where she went with her parents — U.N. doctors. Today she is wearing a brown scarf, embossed with the designer name Versace, tied in the back of her neck.

These three graduate students in religion are by no means "typical" Muslim women, but that is the point. They insist there is no typical, although there certainly is stereotypical.

In Islam, it turns out, there is no uniform cover and no single reason for covering. The Koran has no rule that women wear a blue burqa or a black chador, a veil or hijab. There is an injunction to dress "modestly," but modest dress is defined in that murky interface between culture and religion.

So in today’s Afghanistan, women forced under the blue burqa are punished for exposing an immodest ankle. Meanwhile in Tunisia, women are forbidden to wear a head scarf in school. In one society, the chador is worn by the upper class and in another, by the backward class. A covered head may be a symbol of rebellion in Indonesia and conservatism in Saudi Arabia.

In our own country, where some wear the hijab out of tradition or identity or as a daily connection to religion, there are endless internal and external debates among educated Muslim women. Is a covered head proof of piety or even modesty? As Pali says, speaking for all three students, "A woman can be immodest and wear a hijab or be modest and not wear one." Is the scarf then a clue to women’s second- class citizenship? As Melinda says, "It can put you down or raise you up."

Indeed in America, there is even a modified feminist argument. Anthropologist Suzanne Brenner at the University of California at San Diego says to her students, "It’s not clear to me that wearing a head scarf is more oppressive to women than high heels and miniskirts."

All these reactions to the hijab may be proof that Muslim Americans are still seen as "others," as "different." But the intense feelings that surround what the women wear reflect and echo the enormous symbolic importance that most cultures place on women’s bodies and they way they are clothed.

In the secular world, we’ve seen passionate arguments throughout history over hoop skirts and bloomers, miniskirts and pants suits. In the religious world, we often judge what’s inside a woman’s head by what’s on her head, whether it’s a nun’s wimple or an Orthodox Jew’s wig or a Muslim’s scarf.

Women carry enormous symbolic weight on their backs. "In many societies, if there is a form of traditional dress, it’s worn by women," says Brenner. "Women’s bodies and women’s dress are marked in a way that men’s are not." In some places, indeed, they are marked by men.

The reality is that most women around the world wear cultural and sexual messages from head to toe. What then is the difference between oppressed, repressed, depressed women and free women? It’s not having a head scarf, it’s having a choice.

Ellen Goodman can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or send e-mail to EllenGoodman@Globe.com.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

toon
Editorial cartoons for Saturday, March 2

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, center, greets a new trooper during a graduation ceremony, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on in the Rotunda at the Capitol Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. The class of 31 troopers completed more than 1,000 hours of training and will now work for the WSP across the state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Editorial: Lawmakers miss good shot for fewer traffic deaths

Legislation to lower the blood alcohol limit for drivers didn’t get floor debate and vote in Senate.

Eco-nomics: Preparing for, limiting climate crisis demands a plan

Fortunately, local governments are developing and updating climate action plans to outline necessary steps.

Comment: State ‘mansion tax’ would bite at all income levels

More than high-priced homes, it would increase costs for employers and multi-family housing projects.

Forum: Separation of church and state keeps us from unholy wars

Civilizations have tried the route of state religion, only to see the rise of religious persecution.

Sid Roberts, mayor of Stanwood
Forum: Reliance on social media leads to antisocial outcomes

The interaction via phones and screens is easily abused and limits the context of a face-to-face talk.

A model of a statue of Billy Frank Jr., the Nisqually tribal fishing rights activist, is on display in the lobby of the lieutenant governor's office in the state Capitol. (Jon Bauer / The Herald.
Editorial: Two works in progress to save Columbia Basin salmon

Sculptures of an Indian fishing rights activist will guard commitments to save salmon and honor treaties.

February 27, 2024: Alabama Embryo Ruling
Editorial cartoons for Friday, March 1

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Schwab: Kids’ are all right, if a tad cold; nation’s another matter

Alabama’s IVF ruling shows the dangers in the creep of theocracy into our courts and other institutions.

Choose sources of news carefully to understand world

From what I have seen and heard, there are still many people… Continue reading

GOP wants to run on border crisis, not fix it

Regarding a recent letter to the editor about Herald Columnist Sid Schwab,… Continue reading

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2015 file photo, a tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp, Wash. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. The story was a top Washington state news item in 2015. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has proposed a plan to strengthen the ways that Washington can prevent and respond to wildfires. Franz released the 10-year plan last week as part of her $55 million budget request to the Legislature to improve the state's firefighting abilities (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Editorial: Wildfire threat calls for restoring full funding

Lawmakers should restore funding for fighting wildfires and call on one furry firefighter in particular.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.