I appreciate the author sharing her story in the recent essay, “But Why: Thoughts on Wearing the Hijab in America,” and felt deeply for her. There is a great reluctance to respond critically in any way because of the toxic nature of the discourse right now – it’s hard to want to be critical of ideas in Islam during a time where so much anti-Muslim bigotry exists. However, if we are willing to pretend that there are no bad ideas within a certain doctrine, I believe that more sinister voices will step into the vacuum and control the conversation, playing on the emotions of the masses.
There is no doubt we are living in a tumultuous time. The refugee crisis along with terror attacks have led to the rise of a toxic nationalism, both here and in Europe, and along with that nationalism there is an intensifying focus on Muslims, who are seemingly in the crosshairs from every direction. Many on the right and left are trying to portray Muslims as a monolith that fits their political agenda, without any regards to the nuance of the religion.
Certainly, all Muslims are not terrorists, and the biggest victims of terrorism are Muslims. We know this. We know, too, that not all women are forced to cover up, but we should not be afraid to admit that some women are forced and do not have the right to choose, and we can’t be afraid to have the necessary discussion about what our responsibility, as fellow human beings, is in such cases. Millions of women throughout the world live in cultures where such forced concealment is entirely normalized. Recently, a woman who tried fleeing Saudi Arabia to Australia was detained in the Philippines and sent back home with male family members who came to get her. This is certainly an extreme example, but illustrates the wide spectrum of autonomy (or non-autonomy) that Muslim women throughout the world have, and covering (hijab, niqab, burka, etc.) is just one aspect of it.