About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this winter.
Shaheen Pasha is a Muslim woman who doesn’t cover her head, a decision that did not sit well with some in her community, especially one girl who began pressuring her during her senior year in high school. But that experience has not dampened her excitement about toy maker Mattel’s latest addition to its Sheroes doll collection — a hijib-wearing Barbie.
The new Barbie is modeled after American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who in 2016 became the first U.S. woman to wear the Islamic headscarf while competing at the Olympics. This week the toy maker introduced the doll, scheduled to go on sale next year.
“The use of Ibtihaj Muhammad as a model . . . is a nod to the understanding that Muslim women are very much a part of mainstream society,” Pasha said in a recent interview. “They are athletes, journalists, models, medical professionals and the hijab is just a part of their identity. That’s kind of the message that our book was attempting to get across.”
Pasha, a professor of international journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is passionate about how Muslim women are portrayed and perceived in the West. She is especially concerned about how people react to and what they think of women who cover their heads.
“Too often, Muslim women who wear hijab are shown in one light as victims of oppression, unable to reach their full potential,” she said. “By normalizing the hijab through this Barbie, I think it opens a dialogue for girls from a young age to see that for many Muslim women, it is not an impediment to achievement. It’s just who they are.”
Pasha and her sister Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Houston, have put together a collection of essays written by women who get to explain, in their own words, why they do or don’t wear hijabs or niqabs. In their book, “Mirror on the Veil: A Collection of Personal Essays on Hijab and Veiling,” which was borne out of their own personal discussions and Pasha-Zaidi’s dissertation, they give us a glimpse into what it means to be a Muslim woman in the current times.
The sisters, whose parents are from Pakistan, grew up in the New York City area. They tapped into their network of friends to find women around the world who were willing to share their stories.
About US spoke to Shaheen Pasha about what she and her sister learned while putting together the book. This interview has been edited for length.
Your own personal essay was quite remarkable. I was struck by your story and how it took that one voice, different from your own and in this case your husband, to confirm what you probably already knew inside which is that you did not need to cover your hair to be a “good Muslim.”
That is accurate. It took that one extra voice to confirm it for me. My husband was most certainly that voice and now we have been married for almost 17 years. When that happened, I was very happy. My husband is more conservative than I am in many ways. He grew up in a more conservative family but he thinks for himself. And he ultimately is also very supportive of the person I am and how I choose to live my life. Would I have come to the same conclusion without him? Probably but a lot had to do with my age at the time — I was quite young. I would have eventually found my own truth but let’s just say that my husband helped me get there quicker. Today we have a 14-year-old daughter. If one day she decides to wear a hijab that will be her own choice.
Other religions such as Protestants or Pentecostals wear headscarves. Why do you think it’s so much more controversial in terms of Muslim women? It is Hollywood and the media as one of the writers, Kamran Pasha suggests in his essay?
Yes, I believe that the media and Hollywood really contribute to a lot of the negative perception that’s out there. In their portrayal of Muslim women for example, they always look for what they consider to be the picture of what a stereotypical Muslim female looks like. Many Muslim women, like myself, do not wear hijab but are supportive of those that do. But too often we see two categories: The Muslim woman who covers her hair, appears more conservative and is presented as the “other” to the Western narrative. Or you have a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear hijab, is vehemently and vocally opposed to it and is presented as being the modern and Westernized voice of Islam. That’s problematic to me and creates a false dichotomy. I was once interviewed by someone who wanted a picture of me wearing a hijab for the piece. I don’t wear hijab so I wouldn’t have a picture like that and didn’t understand why that was necessary. So, they took one of my pictures from somewhere else. I was in Egypt and I was wearing a headscarf, not because of my religion, but because it was simply hot and I was protecting my head from the sun.
Some of the contributors wrote about France where they’ve banned overt religious headwear. I was still living there when that law was passed in 2011, and I’ve seen the effect that it has had on the Muslim community. Do you worry that this could be implemented in the United States despite the religious freedoms here?
A few years ago, I would have said it’s highly unlikely because I had a lot of faith in freedom of religion as laid out in the American constitution. In the current political climate, however, I think it would be naive to rule anything out because there is a real vilification of Islam, and women who cover are the most visible symbol of the religion. And such bills and laws are being introduced in other countries so it’s not so far-fetched. Whether it’s France or Quebec’s recent introduction of Bill 62, which prohibits women who cover their face from even being able to access services like public transportation, there is a clear move to dictate what women can and cannot wear. To me, whenever someone tries to police a woman’s attire, that is oppression. As a Muslim feminist, I don’t believe a woman should be forced to wear hijab or a full veil and I certainly don’t believe a woman should be forced to take it off if it is part of who she is and her belief system.
Last month in New York City a terrorist attack occurred, allegedly by a Muslim. How do these types of incidents affect women who wear the hijab?
As soon as something like this happens, the first thing we do as Muslim women is pray that the person who perpetrated the crime isn’t Muslim. We fear for our safety whenever these things happen and that’s not right. We shouldn’t have to. But yet, we must decide if it’s safe to wear the hijab? Is it safe to ride the subway? Will we be attacked? Will we be ostracized? In the end, women bear the brunt of these actions.
A quote in your book was very telling, “The hijab has long been a deeply misunderstood expression where many assign their own meaning to it instead of listening to those who choose it.” What is the one lesson you hope that readers will learn from this book if nothing else?
The one lesson I really want readers to take away is that every woman has a voice and her own personal agency to decide what is right for her. Every woman who decides to veil or not veil has had personal experiences that have shaped her decisions. There really is such a variety of thought on hijab and veiling. Rather than judging those choices prematurely based on innate biases and preconceptions, we should listen to the women who are talking about it. Let us be the masters of the conversation, even if you disagree with our views on the subject on a personal level.
Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen is freelance writer and the editor and founder of Prissy Mag, an Anglophone webzine about life in Paris as an expat. She now lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
More from About US: