An Hijabi's Open Letter to Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa

01 January 2016
Published in Blog

By Saira Bhatti

January 2, 2016

Dear Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa:

You co-wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled, “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity.” And while you may have meant well, you basically reduced and demonized hijabis to be judgmental ultra conservatives.  

This piece is reductionist. First of all, there are no ex-hijabis or headscarf wearing women who talk about their experience in a hijab and how it was oppressive to them, you gave your own experiences as individuals who have never covered.

Second of all, how come you get to call yourself mainstream Muslims and I’m not just because I cover?  I too, am a mainstream Muslim woman. I am a moderate and I wear a headscarf and full sleeved covered clothes, by choice. I am a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in which I am actively involved. I am a Master’s student at American University and will be graduating in spring with a degree in Latin American Studies and Spanish. I enjoy reading, working out and (sometimes) have an addiction to online shopping. So, I don’t see how any of that makes me an ultra conservative (especially the last one).

I’m marginalized not by my hijab, but by people’s ignorant interpretation of it. And your op-ed does not help the situation. Yes, there can be appropriation of hijab via these “wear a hijab” campaigns, but it’s just like when a Kardashian decides to wear a bindi at Coachella as a fashion statement. Just about all the campaigns I have read about at mosques and college campuses or that famous BuzzFeed Video are about awareness. And with islamophobia on the rise, it makes sense to have such campaigns because people in the Americas simply do not know much about the headscarf. As a Muslim hijabi woman myself, I do feel the fear going outside and being stared at for the choice of my attire. But I am not going to change my identity just because you do not like it or find it “too conservative”.

Of course, hijab is used as a political tool of repression in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. No doubt about it. It is much easier for these autocratic governments to have holds on the state when half the population is suppressed and have limitations on their rights (i.e. driving ban in Saudi for women). Is this something we should acknowledge? Of course! But through intelligent discourse and debate, not by demonizing an already victimized population for choosing to cover.

While promoting your newly created organization, The Muslim Reform Movement, you claim that to promote “the right of Muslim women to wear — or not wear — the headscarf.” You, and other Muslims for that matter, may interpret the covering of the hair and body as an option and even as outdated for today.  However, many Muslim women read it as a requirement regardless of whether we’re in the past or present particularly in the following verse in the Koran: “And say to the believing women that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment except that which is apparent, thereof, and that they draw their head coverings over their bosoms, and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment save to their husbands…” (24:32).

This is enough for many of us to want to take on the task of covering happily to get closer to God. Hijab is not just merely a cloth to be worn on the head, as you state, but also a concept. It is how you carry yourself with grace, elegance and sophistication in society. Wearing hijab doesn't mean you're ultra conservative or submissive to men. You're refusing to have others define your beauty - and that is power.

While you both may feel that this is promoting inequality between men and women, remember like I said hijab is a concept and not merely just about clothes. The men are commanded first by God to maintain a hijab of their own by lowering their gaze, covering their bodies correctly and behaving properly and modestly around women as demonstrated in this verse which appears before the one I mentioned above: “Say to the believing men that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well-aware of what they do.” (24:31).

I have to say, I was equally disappointed with how the hijab was somehow associated with the myth that mosques are unfriendly to uncovered women. You write that, “Today, in the 21st century, most mosques around the world, including in the United States, deny us, as Muslim women, our Islamic right to pray without a headscarf, discriminating against us by refusing us entry if we don’t cover our hair.”

This is simply not true. As a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community I have visited various mosques here and abroad where other women were present from other communities both Muslim, and non-Muslim, not covering their heads. They are not denied entry nor are they forced to wear it while praying if they so choose.

Asra and Hala, if you do not wish to wear a headscarf, that’s totally fine. You should not be harassed or bothered for your decision in any way. But please refrain from doing that very thing to those who have chosen to cover. Simply put, let us practice our faith in peace.


Saira Bhatti



Saira Bhatti lives in the D.C. Metro area and is a graduate student at American University. She expects to receive her Master's in May 2016.





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