Saturday night at the Dar Al Noor mosque in Manassas, Va., near Civil War battlefields, a girl of about 7 sat cross-legged in a dimly lit back corner of the prayer hall in the cramped “sisters’ section.” A tinted waist-high glass barrier separated the girl from the spacious “brothers’ section,” where about 50 men listened intently to a Saudi preacher who ignored the “sisters.”
The girl’s hair was entirely covered by a scarf, per the mosque’s guidelines for “proper Islamic attire, including Hijab for girls, while boys dress modestly.”
As mainstream Muslim women, we see the girl’s headscarf not as a signal of “choice,” but as a symbol of a dangerous purity culture, obsessed with honor and virginity, that has divided Muslim communities in our own civil war, or fitna, since the Saudi and Iranian regimes promulgated puritanical interpretations of Sunni and Shia Islam, after the 1970s Saudi oil boom and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
In the eight times the word hijab, or a derivative, appears in the Koran, it means a “barrier” or “curtain,” with spiritual, not sartorial, meaning.
Today, well-intentioned women are wearing headscarves in interfaith “solidarity.” But, to us, they stand on the wrong side of a lethal war of ideas that sexually objectifies women as vessels for honor and temptation, absolving men of personal responsibility.
This purity culture covers, segregates, subordinates, silences, jails and kills women and girls around the world. Recently, in Bareilly, India, a father killed his daughter, 4, smashing her head against the floor when her scarf slipped from her head during dinner. In Ontario, a few years ago, a man strangled his 16-year-old sister when she defied their father, including by refusing to cover her hair. In November, a former University of Missouri instructor dragged a female relative,14, out of school “by the hair” when he discovered she hadn’t covered her hair. Today, in Iran, friends of the journalist Masih Alinejad dodge batons as they shoot photos of themselves, hair bare, in a campaign Alinejad started,#MyStealthyFreedom, to protest Iran’s mandatory headscarf law.
Last month, after writing an essay arguing the headscarf isn’t Islamically mandated, we received verbal abuse from American Muslim leaders and academics, calling us “despicable,” “clinically delusional,” “Satan” and “dajjal,” the Muslim equivalent of anti-Christ.
But we believe women have a right to wear – or not wear – the headscarf. To that end, we heard from Muslims from Malaysia to Minnesota who told us again and again: “Thank you.”
As we navigate our lives, in the battlefields of our faith, we do so with the value we hope all will support: rejecting tyrannical purity cultures and stepping forth with dignity, with the wind in our hair.
NYTime Authors: Asra Q. Nomani, right, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement and author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” Hala Arafa is a retired program review analyst at the International Bureau of Broadcasting and retired news editor at the Arabic Branch of the Voice of America.