Authenticity is about more than a layer of cloth

The NY Times has an excerpt from Mona Eltahawy’s new book as an op-ed. I reviewed the book for the next Free Inquiry; it’s terrific.

I chose to wear the hijab at age 16, soon after my family moved from Britain to Saudi Arabia. I wanted to save my sanity, and so I struck a deal with God: I’d cover up, as I was taught a good Muslim girl should, if God would save me from a breakdown that I was sure would come in that country where women were considered the walking embodiment of sin. I wanted to hide — from eyes and hands that made going out anywhere, especially unaccompanied, hellish.

Almost immediately, I missed the wind in my hair. When I caught my reflection in a window, I did not recognize myself. I wanted to reconcile the internal and external me, but I was to discover that choosing to wear the hijab is much easier than choosing to take it off.

I finally summoned the courage to stop wearing it in 1993, when I was 25 and had moved back to my birthplace, Egypt. For years, despite my inner doubts, I represented to others my choice to veil as a feminist one. If a woman could choose to wear a miniskirt, surely I could choose to cover my hair? I wanted people to address my mind and to not objectify me, I would say. Ultimately, I could not sustain that line of thinking because, as a feminist, I demanded that people address my mind and not objectify me, regardless of how I dressed.

Good point, isn’t it. Why should women have to bandage their heads in order to avoid being objectified? Why can’t they just be treated as people as a matter of right, and a matter of course, instead?

When I was a child in Egypt, none of my aunts wore head scarves. Photographs from family weddings in the 1970s show aunts with bare heads and dresses, at times standing next to belly dancers who sparkled in beaded bikinis and gauzy chiffon barely covering their legs. In today’s weddings, most of my aunts and their daughters are covered up, and there are no belly dancers.

Isn’t that sad? Time moving in the wrong direction – back to more restraints on women instead of fewer or none.

[T]he political revolutions that began in 2010 in the Middle East and North Africa have also inspired us to challenge social mores long taken for granted. Because I have finally been open about the fact that I once wore the hijab, I have heard from more and more women who want to unveil. “How did you take it off?” they ask. “How did you handle family pressure?”

For some who are rejecting the hijab, it’s their first public appearance without a head scarf in five or 10 years — in one case, 30. Many directly link their unveiling with the revolution and their personal understanding of freedom. What happens in Egypt influences the rest of the region; I see the pendulum swinging the other way again.

My head scarf came off 22 years ago, but I have never stopped wrestling with what veiling means for Muslim women. Authenticity is about more than a layer of cloth on one’s head. To be acknowledged as more than our head scarves is the right of every Muslim girl and woman.

Headscarves and Hymens is her book.


  1. polishsalami says

    I can’t even imagine Mona in a hijab. Not to mention the fact that she herself chose to wear it.
    The good thing is that if one person can change so much, then so could entire societies.

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