Is there value in having women of all faiths — women who don’t usually cover their hair — don a traditional Islamic hijab?
I ask because my Facebook feed has been filled with photos of women in hijab. Like those who wore hoodies in solidarity with Florida shooting victim Trayvon Martin, my friends are covering their hair to protest the murder of Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi woman who was found near death in her living room in El Cajon, Calif., last month. Next to Alawadi’s body was a note calling her a “terrorist.”
Though El Cajon police have not determined whether Alawadi’s murder was a hate crime, women all over the world condemned the incident as one of religious discrimination. Today, the “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi” group on Facebook counts more than 17,000 “likes.”
But in recent weeks, details have come to light that suggest that Alawadi’s murder may not be the hate crime it once appeared to be. And it didn’t take long for some to cast doubt on the “One Million Hijabs” project, insinuating that it glorified a culture that condemns women to second-class status. Commenters on anti-Islamic sites called Alawadi’s death an “honor killing.”
Alawadi, as The New York Times reported, was at the center of a “family in crisis.” Alawadi’s daughter, Fatima, was “resisting” an arranged marriage to an Iraqi man. And Alawadi herself was planning on leaving her husband and moving to Texas.
Time magazine also brought up honor killings in the context of the Alawadi case: “Female immigrants from so-called culturally conservative countries like Iraq often start taking advantage of the freedoms available to women in the U.S.: the right to travel alone and work outside the home, to choose whom to date and marry, the relatively easier legal path to divorce,” wrote Nina Burleigh. “Their men, on the other hand, have been taught to regard such behavior as ‘dishonoring’ the family. Sadly, in countries like Iraq, men can murder women over ‘honor’ and are rarely prosecuted.”
And on The Feminist Wire last week, Adele Wilde-Blavatsky wrote that she could not think of anything “more ironic and counter-productive” than “One Million Hjiabs”: “The hijab, which is discriminatory and rooted in men’s desire to control women’s appearance and sexuality, is not a choice for the majority of women who wear it.” In response, dozens of academics and activists decried Wilde-Blavatzky’s “patronizing” column, saying that the “questioning of women’s choice to war the niqab and the presumption that this decision is rooted in ‘false consciousness’” is “deeply problematic.”
Overnight, it seemed, the conversation about Shaima Alawadi went from condemning anti-Muslim bias in the United States to subtly buying into it. So the question is, if Alawadi’s murder is found not to be anti-Muslim hate crime, but an incident with overtones of familial and cultural expectation, does that invalidate “One Million Hijabs”? Not in the slightest.
The power of “One Million Hijabs” is not only in that it asks women who cover their hair to share their photos publicly, but it asks women who don’t cover to don the hijab. Suddenly, Christian women were showing up to Easter Sunday services in headscarves, provoking conversations with their fellow parishioners. Some of these conversations, I hope, had to do with the implications of perceiving Muslim women as victims, a trope oft repeated by the most recent Bush administration in advance of the second Iraq War. But more than that, I hope that “One Million Hijabs” has done its part to demystify the hijab itself. Azar Nafisi, the Iranian author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” who chooses not to cover her hair, put it this way: The hijab “is not about religion; this is about choice. Women should have the choice to relate to their religion any way they want.”
Another apt commentary comes, yet again, from Facebook. Way before the Alawadi murder, a Palestinian friend of mine posted an image on her Facebook wall entitled “Western Hypocrisy.” It featured four smiling religious women, all of them with their heads covered. Next to the Jewish woman was the word “Tradition,” next to the Catholic nun, “Devotion,” and next to Greek Orthodox nun, “Religiosity.” But next to the Muslim woman were the words “oppression, submission, and terrorism.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Lessons in 'One Million Hijabs' on Facebook