Abigail R. Esman
The first time my friend Nour appeared in public without her scarf, a neighbor commanded her to put it on. When she refused, he grew enraged. “Then you are no longer Muslim!” he called out after her as she continued down the street.
The year: 2008
The place: New York’s ultra-hip East Village.
But when Canadian human rights activist Yasmine Mohammed removed her hijab during a 2004 visit with her mother in Vancouver, Canada, the fury was even greater. “That was the day,” she recalled recently, “when my mother threatened to kill me.”
Now, with worldwide demonstrations planned on Friday to celebrate Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, Mohammed is leading a protest, instead, in support of those who don’t.
“My aim isn’t for women to leave Islam or become atheist,” she explains, though she herself left Islam several years ago. “My aim is for women to just free themselves.”
She is not alone. Mohammed’s video last year showing herself burning a hijab in response to that year’s World Hijab Day events attracted 3 million viewers. Now, many of them are joining her efforts, some publicly, others in private.
Many even got a head start, promoting their actions on social media, using the hashtags #FreeFromHijab and #NoHijabDay. Others post in celebration of Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, author of The Wind In My Hair and the mind behind such Muslim feminist movements as “My Stealthy Freedom” and “White Wednesdays,” both of which call for an end to compulsory headscarf laws for women.
Vocal activists worldwide have also joined the call, such as writer Asra Nomani, who on NoHijabDay will join a livestream at bit.ly/NoHijabDayLive, and Ensaf Haidar, the wife of jailed secular Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, now living in Canada.
This is no small act. Many of these women, even those living in the West, have received death threats in response to their posts. Women in Iran and other countries where the hijab is mandatory know they risk arrest. But for them, the action is worth it – as evidenced in so many videos of unveiled women dancing.
Not all the activists agree about the reason for hijab: some, like Mohammed, insist that it is part of Islam, while others like Nomani are equally insistent that it is not. Writing in the Washington Post in 2015, Nomani noted that “the mandate that women cover their hair relies on misinterpretations of Koranic verses.” Moreover, head coverings are discouraged and even banned in many Muslim countries, including Tunisia and Morocco.
What they do agree on, however, is the need for women to be allowed to choose, and an end to the threats that face so many Muslim women who prefer to follow their religion freely, and in their own way.
With World Hijab Day and NoHijabDay both around the corner, the Investigative Project on Terrorism spoke with Mohammed to get her thoughts on the movement, and the passion that inspired it.
Abigail R. Esman: Explain to me how this all came about.
Yasmine Mohammed:NoHijab started as a counter-protest to World Hijab Day, which is supported by 180 countries. To be honest, when I got onto social media I didn’t know what this day was – it shocked me, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was floored to see all of these women all over the Western world putting hijabs on, and I was so frustrated and enraged, so angered at what seemed like the indoctrination of the entire Western hemisphere.
So the next year, it was creeping up and I thought, I’m going to fight back this time. And so just a few days before World Hijab Day I announced that I was going to be burning a hijab and I wanted people to join me in protest of this idea that hijab is this completely innocuous piece of cloth. I wanted to stand in solidarity with the women who can be harassed and abused and imprisoned and even killed for not wearing it. Because that’s what we should talk about.
So I burned a hijab with three other women. My video got 3 million views. All of us are coming from Islamic backgrounds, and one is still Muslim. And people started to see that it’s insane that a 16-year-old girl can be killed in Canada and girls and women are killed all over the planet, for not dressing the way their family and government say they should dress.
This Jan. 1, they announced World Hijab Day and they announced their hashtag as #FreeinHijab, which made it so easy for us – we turned it into #FreeFromHijab and it has turned into an onslaught, with pictures from Saudi, Turkey, Kuwait, Canada, Sweden, France – all over the world, people posting. Some are in hijab, some are posting before and after pictures of hijab that they used to wear and the fact that they are now free from hijab. It gave women a chance to celebrate not only the mental constraints from the ideology behind wearing a hijab, but the physical constraint of wearing a cloth over their heads.
ARE: What do you say to those who say “it’s just a scarf?”
YM (laughs): A lot of people say it’s just a cloth, why are you worrying about a piece of cloth? Obviously we are not fighting about a piece of fabric. We are fighting about the mindset behind people wearing a piece of fabric. If it is just a piece of fabric, why are people being killed for not wearing it? Because it’s a tool of modesty culture, it’s a tool of subjugation, it dehumanizes her, it turns her into just another Muslim- looking thing where you can’t have an individual thought or individual action.
Recently a Muslim woman in the UK, Dina Torkia, decided she wasn’t going to wear a hijab anymore. Only when she felt like it. The amount of backlash she received – she was getting death threats on herself and her family, and rape threats. There is a video almost an hour of her reading all the hate she gets. This is how they treat their own when they decide not to wear a hijab, so how can you tell me it’s just a piece of cloth? It’s like saying a slave just has pieces of metal on his wrist. If a woman is able to free herself from wearing a hijab, she is freeing herself from so much more.
So with this campaign now I have the support of so many women. So when you are fighting the hijab you will have a lot of support of even fellow Muslims because it is a truth that women are forced to wear it. This is new news for the Western world because the Muslim world has tried so hard to hide that fact.
ARE: Do Westerners understand it this way?
YM: If you try fighting it specifically highlighting the fact that hijab comes from Islam, people shy away. They’d rather criticize the misogyny [behind it], but they don’t want to criticize the root of it, which is Islam. And we have to do that. We have to hone in on the specific problem. If we talk just about misogyny, that’s a huge story. Hijab is one piece.
But if that gives people the mental ability or excuse to work past that misogyny, tell yourself whatever you need to tell yourself, tell yourself that it’s not Islamic – whatever it is you want to tell yourself. I lived that life before and after, and I have paid an extremely high price. And a lot of people I know have paid extremely high prices for their freedom. But they will tell you that the cost of freedom, no matter what you have to pay, is worth it. That is the message I want to give to these women who are fighting, whether it is their husbands or their fathers or their communities or their government or even their best friends – whatever entity you have to fight for your freedom it will be absolutely worth it. I can promise them that. I can guarantee it. And I don’t want them to waste their lives. I was almost 30 when I took off my hijab. I was so scared of making that move.
ARE: Have you had people contact you and say they want to, but they don’t dare?
Oh, yes. Some will post, “oh, you’re so lucky, I can’t wait to feel that freedom you’re talking about,” and then someone will respond and say “why don’t you?” And she’ll say, “because my father will kill me,” and Muslims will answer and say well, you deserve to die. So they can’t theoretically daydream about freedom without having people heartlessly attacking them.
It’s really shocking to be the recipient of that. You’re still the same person, you just don’t want to wear this thing on your head anymore. And suddenly you go from being their daughter whom they love and adore to being someone they want to kill.
ARE: Hijabs have become very politicized now. I know many women who wear it not for religious reasons, but to assert themselves as Muslims. Has that changed the environment at all?
YM: Yes. And it has been exacerbated by the fact that Western society feeds into that, because how do they show a Muslim woman? Wrapped in hijab. So they are supporting that stereotype that Muslim girls wear hijab. Girls these days are getting that message both from home and media – they’re seeing girls on the runway, in GAP ads, in fashion magazines, all in hijab – and they’re seeing it as something to be proud of, something to define them and make them stand out.
Whereas there is nothing a man has to do to constantly put himself front and center as just a symbol of this, and nothing else. When a Muslim woman puts on a hijab, she is nothing else. She’s just a Muslim. That’s why I say it’s dehumanizing,
ARE: Many people will defend the wearing of hijab as a religious expression. How do you get across that wearing that a hijab is not like wearing a cross?
YM: I’m not a fan of banning it, because I know there will be a backlash that will only encourage people to wear it even more. I think it’s more important to educate the women themselves, to see that they are indoctrinated. We will be on the sidelines cheering them on, but we can’t be on the sidelines forcing them to take it off. It has to be a decision they make because they have come to that conclusion. That said, It’s easy to convince a woman all this. The hard part is getting her to pay the price of making that decision.
ARE: Can we help make non-Muslim women understand what you’re trying to make Muslim women understand, so they support them rather than enable them?
I would love that. Whenever I talk about this, the only thing that stops Westerners from completely agreeing with me is that there is religion involved. But if they are able to look at it objectively with all the things they understand about women’s equality then they understand why the hijab is a dangerous tool of misogyny. In the Muslim community I find that harder, because in Arabic, the word “feminism” doesn’t even exist. These are topics that have not even been broached before. So it’s a much bigger battle on that side, because they have from birth accepted this indoctrination that they are lesser-than. So to come to someone who already believes that she is lesser-than, and believes it because the idea of defying the word of the creator means spending eternity in hell, it’s hard to talk to her and tell her you are equal, and you deserve freedom, and you deserve rights. These are concepts that are totally foreign to her. Those are options for the non-Muslim women. When it is something you can never even attain because it is too far from your world, you don’t even think about it – you just find a way to survive in your own world, whether it’s cognitive dissonance or whatever. You find a way to survive in the world that you are in. So that’s where the bigger fight is.
ARE: There seems to be more and more interest in, even support for, the whole “modesty” thing among Westerners. You see it, as you mentioned, in fashion, but also other areas.
YM: I think Western people getting on the train with modesty culture is a very new phenomenon and I think it can be swatted away effectively if Muslim women start to show them what they’re saying is not true. Mine is just one voice – but I want them to see and hear voices from all over the world, saying this in unison. And if you are a human being, then this is not difficult to understand. If you are a human being, then you know, someone telling you, whether it is your god, your government, your father or brother or husband, someone telling you what you’re going to wear every day, is not something any human being desires or appreciates or wants.
ARE: I’m not entirely sure. Many women, especially converts, have talked about how much they prefer having these rules, these guidelines. They make them paradoxically feel even more free.
YM: But we have to fight that. Because I feel like that human need for freedom is in there. It might have been completely stifled out, but I feel like the pilot light is still burning, that the basic humanity that we all have, that basic need to be an individual, to be free, is in there.
Having said all that, I’m sure there are some people that really would make the choice to cover themselves head to toe. There are people who will kill themselves and their families for the sake of a cult. But we should not be celebrating that. So who are the women I will support and celebrate? The women who are fighting back and aligning with enlightenment values and these basic ideas of personal autonomy and freedom.
And even these women who spit back poison at me, I still know you’re spitting back poison because you’re trying to convince yourself and you’re trying to convince your god, but I know, that deep down, the spark of humanity is still in there.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands Her next book, on domestic abuse and terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books. Follow her at @radicalstates.