Let’s Talk about Hijab: Rethinking the Veil

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Let’s Talk about Hijab: Rethinking the Veil

Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is by Marilyn Gardner. While I’m thrilled about the fantastic posts in this series, the best part of it personally has been connecting with and meeting such unbelievably incredible women from all over the planet. I have only known Marilyn via email, Twitter, and blogs, and only for short time but she has challenged me to write better, think deeper, and love wider. Enjoy her post, Rethinking the Veil.


In May of last year Dr. Leila Ahmed, a well-known professor at the Harvard Divinity School published a book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America. The idea for the book was born one evening in the late 1990’s when Dr. Ahmed was walking with a friend in her Cambridge neighborhood. As they passed by a park, they noticed a group of women, all in hijab.

Dr. Ahmed was raised in Egypt during the fifties and sixties. At this time in Egypt, the veil was rarely seen – not only in Egypt, but also in other Muslim-majority countries. That particular evening, she was shocked and disturbed to see the hijab, symbolic to her of patriarchy and oppression, fully alive; revived and walking in her neighborhood. More shocking was to see the hijab worn in a country that allowed freedom of expression in both speech and dress.

As a Muslim feminist she set out to study this phenomenon and the result is a thick volume published by Yale University Press.

Her findings should be a lesson for all of us, particularly those with little understanding of the hijab– those who tend to box and stereotype the Muslim world in general and Muslim women in particular.

The interviews showed a variety of reasons why women choose to wear hijab. From “raising consciousness about sexist messages in our (American) society” to national pride to rejecting negative stereotypes, the reasons were well thought out and articulated.

The hijab was worn with both knowledge and pride.

photo by Pari Ali

photo by Pari Ali

Along with that, her research revealed some of the characteristics of a “living” religion like Islam – namely that they are ever-changing, never static, not easily put into a box. The hijab is just one example of this dynamic.

In Pakistan I grew up with Muslim women surrounding me and friendships were formed at early ages, some that continue to this day. I well remember when my childhood friends entered puberty and with that rite of passage, put on the burqa. Because of this history, I’ve often been put in a posture of defending those who wear hijab, or burqa, or other head coverings. And my defense rightly comes from knowing so many women who have chosen to wear the veil – not because they are forced or coerced, but for many of the reasons that Dr. Ahmed cites.

I am also humbly aware that my words and thoughts are inadequate to the complexity of the role these women play on the local and world stage.

But there is one thing I can say with surety: Muslim women are not monolithic. Just looking at the vocabulary that surrounds the veil is proof of the diversity present in the Muslim world. The image often conjured up of a fully veiled woman walking behind her husband is only occasionally correct.

As a non-Muslim, I hesitate to speak with too much authority. It seems arrogant to speak for women who have chosen to wear (or not wear) hijab. But too often those in the west criticize the veil without having met a Muslim, without ever interacting on a personal level and that I can speak to.

In the course of her research, Dr. Ahmed confronts her own assumptions and beliefs as a “progressive” Muslim. She says in an article from the Financial Times published in 2011 “My own assumptions and the very ground they stood on have been fundamentally challenged” This serves as a lesson for me, and I hope for those reading. Being willing to have our assumptions challenged is not easy, but it is critical, particularly in a world too often driven by stereotypes promoted by those with the loudest and most insistent voices.


Marilyn Gardner grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fifteen minutes from the International Terminal at Logan Airport.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. She met Dr. Ahmed while she was awaiting the release of her book. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter @marilyngard

Other posts in this series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau


  1. Dawn April 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Such interesting insight about a topic I truly don’t know much about – aside from the stereotypes. As always, thank you, Marilyn, for making me think.

  2. Marilyn Gardner April 2, 2013 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    Dawn – thank you for reading. Ever since we met online I’ve appreciated your willingness to enter topics with an open mind and heart – you challenge me to do the same so thank you. And yes – the hijab is bathed is stereotypes. I found a great cartoon recently that I’m going to post soon. Until then – here is the link: http://www.2dayblog.com/2011/05/26/culture-shock/

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 2, 2013 at 6:28 pm - Reply

      That cartoon is so great! I’m looking forward to what you post about it. Someone sent it to me after the Hijab and Bikini post I wrote last year and it was just too perfect.

  3. Anita April 3, 2013 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    Thanks for telling us about this book, Marilyn. I’m going to look for it.

    It has been an interesting series, Rachel. Thanks for pulling together these unique, complementary voices.

    • Marilyn April 5, 2013 at 2:00 am - Reply

      So glad Rachel did this series as well. I was speaking at an event today and told a group about the series hoping they will take a look….!

      • Rachel Pieh Jones April 5, 2013 at 4:32 am - Reply

        That’s great, thanks! It all comes down to you ladies writing such varied and quality pieces.

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