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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

A Veiled Misconception

A walk around our campus can be a study in headwear if one is so inclined; an ugly mauve and brown winter cap displaying the wearer’s free spirit and sense of irony; a black beret, dower grimace and a copy of The Stranger for the tortured intellectual; a bedazzled orange Red Sox hat worn askew alerting us to its owner’s rejection of the boring and traditional.

Yet there is perhaps no piece of headwear that is more misunderstood than the headscarf worn by many Muslim women, commonly referred to as the hijab. In the media women wearing the hijab are most often seen looking apprehensively into the middle distance, appearing docile, submissive and mysterious. But what is the hijab’s real significance? What does it mean to those that chose to wear it and those who don’t?

Sitting down with three very interesting and well-informed women who have all worn the headscarf at some point in their lives I discovered that the hijab represents something far different from my simplistic stereotyped understanding of it.

Though the term hijab is often used to specifically refer to the head covering worn by Muslim women, UMass Senior Sarah Ahmad describes the hijab as “a code of moral conduct for women and men” of which the headscarf (known as the khimar) is only one part. To her the headscarf is a small segment of the Quran’s prescriptions regarding public sexuality and decency that can be traced back 1400 years.

Ahmad is a Muslim woman who spent much of her life in Pakistan and has chosen to wear the khimar for the past nine years as part of her recognition of her religions call for modest dress. Rather than being oppressive she sees the hijab as a way of liberating herself from American society’s ubiquitous sexualization of women, offering that it “prevents women from being viewed as sexual objects.”

Sophomore Ameera Skandarani wore a headscarf for much of her life while she lived in Saudi Arabia. She recalls being monitored by a “religious police” there who would enforce rules about the hijab and ask people to cover up if they were judged to be dressed improperly. Skandarani never cared for the traditional dress but wore it out of societal and familial pressures.

Now living in Boston she chooses not to cover her head and hair, yet she still considers herself to be living within Islam’s rules for public modesty. For her, many of the rules about the hijab in Islamic teaching are vague and open to interpretation. It is her belief that by not wearing shorts or low cut shirts she is still following the hijab.

Taraneh Farhangmehr tends to agree with Skandarani saying the Quran calls for individuals to be discreet in public and that in the United States, “to wear the headscarf is to stand out”. It is by that reasoning that Farhangmehr also chooses not to put on a head covering here. However, living part of her life in Iran she too was subject to scrutiny from a “moral police” and did wear it there.

Perhaps the most contentious part of the hijab for many people in Western cultures is the idea that it represents repression of a woman’s freedoms and is a form of male dominance over women. Skandarani claims that policies about covering ones head in Saudi Arabia are “about control.” Certainly the idea of a “moral police” seems appalling to people here but when it comes to Muslim women and the hijab in the United States everyone I spoke to seemed to agree that it was a matter of choice.

Ahmad believes that wearing the khimar should always be about a woman’s personal belief and is saddened by those who “choose to wear it because they are told, some women might not even understand the reasons behind why the hijab is prescribed in Islam” and Skandarani noted that when it comes to the hijab she “respects a woman if it’s her choice”.

Sitting in a Freshman English class two years ago I found myself surprised as a young woman wearing a headscarf confidently spoke on the issue at hand. That day I slowly began to realize that my stereotypes had led me to believe this was unusual behavior for someone dressed as she was. After having had the chance to sit down and speak with the three women quoted herein, I feel both tremendously foolish for being so ignorant and quite fortunate to have had the chance to learn how much more of a complex and interesting subject the hijab is than what I had once thoughtlessly assumed.