“It was never an option for me to take off my hijab and run, and that should never be something that a Muslim woman or a girl in this country has to contemplate if she wants to enter public life.” This was what Representative Ilhan Omar said on December 2, 2021, in condemning the latest racist remarks made by a GOP legislator about her. This time, Representative Lauren Boebert had implied Omar was a suicide bomber and part of a “jihad squad.” Omar played aloud a death threat left in her voicemail during a press conference on Islamophobia in Congress.
Was this Islamophobic rhetoric and the fear of its hate crimes in post-9/11 America, which were renewed with Trump’s ascendancy to power, the reason why a growing number of Muslim-American women were taking off their hijab? How was it impacting their choices to stop wearing the hijab, as well as the narratives they and academics shared about unveiling?
While an interdisciplinary scholarship by and about Muslim American women has explored the variety of reasons women were increasingly putting on the hijab in the aftermath of 9/11, the little written about taking off the hijab in the US is usually restricted to discussing the notion that girls and women are forced to unveil whether by an Islamophobic stranger, an employer at an Abercrombie and Fitch store, or a second-grade school teacher in New Jersey.
And literature about women who choose to unveil is often framed in neocolonial discourses of Muslim women awakening to realize they have been oppressed by their religion and the men in their lives. This rhetoric helped to manufacture consent for anti-democratic projects and Islamophobic policies both at home and abroad. These projects and policies were evoked in the images of Afghani women who would be freed from the “shrouds of blackness” conjured in Laura Bush’s November 2001 speech to justify the intervention in Afghanistan, and by Trump’s 2017 Muslim ban, which was implemented to protect America from Muslim terrorism, and ironically, their hatred for women.
The dominant discourses about unveiling do not reflect the varied experiences of Muslim women who take the hijab off. Instead, they are symptoms of the residual polarized politics of a post- 9/11 and post-Trump America. They miss critical layers in discussions of each woman’s context and how these stories can look very different for women based on their families, sexual/racial/ethnic identities, bodies, locations, and life experiences. And they have pushed Muslim women away from sharing their personal and complex journeys with and without the hijab since their narratives can be misinterpreted, essentialized, twisted, and used against them.
To better understand their reasons and experiences with (un)veiling, I conducted 35 interviews from June 2020-January 2021 (via Zoom due to the pandemic) with Muslim-American women from various identities and backgrounds who, at some point in their lives, took off the hijab. The majority of women I spoke with were 20-40 years old, Arab and South-Asian, cis, heterosexual, college-educated (or were currently attending college), self-identified as Muslim, and were from urban areas in the United States. While many no longer wore the hijab, some wore it part-time, while some returned to wearing it more consistently.
Unveiling decisions and Islamophobia
Women wearing hijab right after 9/11 recounted fearing for their lives, being verbally attacked, and expressing their frustrations with always being assumed as Other (or mistaken for Arab). To limit the hijab from racializing their bodies, some wrapped their hijabs to the back and wore caps to appear less “threatening.” And some were pressured to take off the hijab by their loved ones, who were concerned for their safety. Whether they took off the hijab 20 years ago or two months ago, or were wearing it part-time, all of the women I talked to shared how their treatment by non-Muslims in their daily lives significantly improved after they were no longer (as) identifiably Muslim.
Examples like these support findings from research on the effect of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the racialized surveillance of Muslim women in America. Sahar Selod argues that Muslim women in America feel they can’t dress the way they want to, not because Muslim men oppress them, but because their racist government and fellow citizens stigmatize them and surveil their bodies in the name of protecting national security and Western liberal values.
While 9/11 was a turning point for many women in their journeys with the hijab, I also found that women took off their hijab during turning points in their own lives, such as getting married. Some took it off amid divorce. One while giving birth to her first child, another while grieving the loss of a family member. And women would take off the hijab for personal and diverse reasons—whether it was managing the symptoms of sickness like multiple sclerosis that made it hard to continue to wear the hijab, feeling like a hypocrite for engaging in non-Islamic behavior, or losing the solidarity of having other hijabis nearby after graduating from university. Many women talked about taking off the hijab at airports, yet it was often not to escape surveillance and “random” selection for inspection, but the chance for those who lived in households that had expectations for them to wear the hijab to escape the watchful eyes of family members.
Changing stereotypes but stifling narratives
While some women took off the hijab after 9/11, many continued to wear it despite the burden, and some were inspired to wear the hijab precisely because of this burden. Women wearing hijab embraced their new responsibility of representing a community under attack with a renewed sense of faith—through action. At the time, women who were university students spoke about their activism against the War on Terror and how they performed spoken word poetry and engaged in interfaith and feminist conversations about gender and Islam. They shared how, unlike women in Afghanistan who were forced by law to cover, their decisions to wear the hijab were voluntary.
Muslim women’s activism and the growing literature about gender and Islam helped push public discourse about Muslim women who wear the hijab beyond stereotypical representations and helped normalize its presence. Especially during moments of heightened Islamophobia, more Americans began to support their right to cover and practice their faith. During the women’s march in 2017, the iconic poster of a Muslim woman wearing an American flag as a hijab became the symbol of resistance to the Trump administration’s xenophobia, misogyny, and Islamophobia.
The powerful presence of activists and politicians who wore the hijab was helping to dispel popular views of the hijab as oppressive and forced on Muslim women while transforming the diversity of US politics. “No one puts a scarf on my head but me,” Ilhan Omar said after winning her election and breaking the 181-year ban of religious headwear on the house floor. “It’s my choice – one protected by the first amendment. And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.”
But the burdens of representing a community made it harder for many women to talk about their more complicated histories with the hijab, which were not always so black or white, unlike the polarized public discourse about them. Many women admitted that our interview was the first time they had shared their hijab journey with anyone. It gave them a chance to grapple with their conflicted feelings and experiences they had yet to process. In particular, some women who were pressured to wear hijab by their family at a young age felt marginalized not only by experiences from racist encounters because they wore the hijab but also by the narratives of their free choice and empowerment.
The difficulties of speaking about choice were representative of the moment I had with a participant at the start of an interview. She said she wanted to participate because, “Especially in America, girls and women who wear hijab, I feel like they kind of reject the notion that some people are forced to wear it. Just because they had a choice, they think everybody has a choice… but that’s not everybody’s experience…and if you act like it’s everybody’s choice, honestly, I feel like that’s bad.” Fatema (pseudonyms are used to protect participants’ identities) is a 21-year-old woman from Florida. She was pressured to wear the hijab and abaya by her parents at the age of 8. To reclaim her choice, she would take off the hijab during her commute to university. But since the pandemic, she has been back to wearing it consistently. Although, she felt stifled at first by being back at home, the time alone gave her a chance to self-reflect and turn to religion for support. She now feels more at ease with wearing the hijab full-time, though she is unsure whether she will continue to wear the hijab when she goes to graduate school.
When contemplating whether or not they wanted to remove the hijab, many respondents described how they felt stuck, like they had no room to be human, get angry, make mistakes, test boundaries, be themselves, and change over time. Even though spirituality ebbs and flows for humans over their lifetimes—a possibility recognized in Islamic scriptures—their spirituality could not appear to fluctuate when their religion was visible on their heads for everyone to see.
It was easy for Maha to write about choosing to wear the hijab after 9/11 at the age of 9 on social media in response to the most recent racist ban of girls wearing hijab in France. With an Egyptian mother and a white convert father, Maha decided to wear her “Islam like a badge of honor.” “It was something that I felt compelled to do… when other Muslim women in the country were outwardly Muslim, and their hijab was being ripped off… I couldn’t just stand by, especially as somebody that passes as white.” She even inspired her mother and other girls in the community to wear it in solidarity. But it was hard for her to choose to take off the hijab at 18. As time has passed since 9/11, her initial sociopolitical motivation for wearing hijab no longer moved her. “People are going to judge me. My family is going to be ashamed of me. I don’t know how I’m going to explain it to them.” Luckily, her family came to respect her decision. But it was still difficult for her to share her other reasons for unveiling, especially with other Muslims. She did not think the hijab was obligatory in Islam, even though many Muslims in her community did, and more generally, she hesitated to share her non-conformist Quranist beliefs. She was upset that people assumed she was less religious because she no longer wore the hijab. She felt like she could no longer be a prominent religious figure in the community without it, even though her studies about Islam had only gotten deeper since taking it off.
By sharing small glimpses of some women’s experiences with what it means to unveil in America, we see the range of ways that the post-9/11 environment affected (or did not affect) women’s decision-making processes. A more complex story is hidden when we simply define unveiling through the lens of Islamophobia in the West. While the historical and political context of post-9/11 America and its intense periods of Islamophobia are crucial to contextualize the growing trend of unveiling, it has also overshadowed the impact of other important factors, events, and transformations related to women’s own histories and lives.
The hyper-politicization of the discourses around the hijab in these heightened moments of Islamophobia has encouraged women (and academics) to shy away from discussing unveiling beyond frames of hate crimes and legislative battles for fear of supporting Islamophobic trends. Whether the discourses surrounding Muslim women’s bodies are Islamist, liberal, or Islamophobic, they are increasingly polarizing. They deeply affect Muslim women’s well-being and ability to speak for themselves.