A Tale of Two Veils: The Struggle for Muslim Identity

A Tale of Two Veils: The Struggle for Muslim Identity

By Qanta A. Ahmed


Because fabric is supposed to unite, not divide.

By Qanta A. Ahmed

News of women being arrested in Tehran for protesting the country’s mandatory hijab contributes to the global confusion around the representation and use of the veil by Muslim women everywhere.

In recent weeks, Canada even saw a “Hijab Hoax,” with an 11-year-old Muslim girl falsely claiming she was attacked by an Asian man who forcibly removed her hijab. Before the story was debunked, the charge was investigated as a hate crime, generating national outrage, including heartfelt statements from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which also drew ire.

All these cases reflect a mounting resentment toward the most polarizing symbol of Islam in the West: the veil. This simple piece of fabric has been misappropriated, misunderstood and misused by many, including most dangerously by those who proclaim Islamism.

Many may be surprised to learn that the veil — culturally appropriated by the West to be the Muslim symbol of womanhood to the Western world — has a debatable role in the history of Islam.

In Tehran, we saw a 31-year-old mother of a young child imprisoned for removing and waving her veil. Her act against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s forced hijab mandate was simply an expressed desire for greater freedom. In Toronto, meanwhile, the 11-year-old girl in question was actually under the usual age for assuming hijab, even among orthodox Muslim families. Girls are not required by Islam to adopt modest dress until after transitioning through puberty; nor are they expected to adopt adult religious responsibilities until after age 12.


A young Muslim child being veiled in Canada, one of the most liberal and progressive secular Western societies today, may be an indication of the family’s investment in a deliberate otherness, one that Muslims are increasingly demonstrating in the West. By comparison, in Saudi Arabia, home to some of the most orthodox expressions of fundamentalism, where I lived for two years and was mandated in public to veil from head to toe, it was rare to see such a young child veiled.

Many may be surprised to learn that the veil — culturally appropriated by the West to be the Muslim symbol of womanhood to the Western world — has a debatable role in the history of Islam. There is a litany of diverse practices of Muslim women in Muslim communities concerning the veil. In the Quran, hijab refers to a partition, reserved to shield the women of the Prophet Muhammad’s family from the public who would come to visit. The hijab was a physical screen, a curtain shielding only women of the highest rank from public view — the Quran did not mandate hair or facial covering. Yet today, it is increasingly identified with Muslim female identity whether we Muslim women like it or not.

Advertisers have seized upon the hijab as a marketing motif, mainstreaming the falsehood that only the hijab defines Muslim womanhood. CoverGirl, Nike and most recently L’Oréal have all launched campaigns with hijabed women. Though the model in the L’Oréal campaign, Amena Khan, pulled out of the ad campaign recently after some controversial tweets of hers from 2014 surfaced, the example serves as a reminder of the confusion around the hijab.

Still, evidence exists that the earliest Muslim women, among the most revered in Islam, did not cover their hair. I personally believe banning the niqab and burqa (and sometimes the hijab in public spaces) is appropriate and compatible with Islam for Muslims seeking to live in the West. But Islamists adopt the veil as part of their neo-orthodoxy and as a cultural symbol of otherness. This has deterred non-Muslims and Western authorities from exploring the role and place of the veil for fear of incendiary reaction, both from Muslims and non-Muslims.

This most recent Canadian hijab episode hurts all Muslims because true reporting of anti-Muslim xenophobia in the future may be met with skepticism. While it may seem isolated, the incident reveals the power of Islamophobia to intimidate public discourse in the secular West. Islamophobia is a 20th-century construct designed to inhibit scrutiny of Islamism, which largely emerged in postrevolutionary Iran. There are no Islamic scriptures on Islamophobia in the 15 centuries of Islamic history; it lacks religious legitimacy.

But beyond curbing public discourse, animated debate and cultural examinations of Islam, Muslims and Islamic institutions, Islamophobia drives the appetite of Muslim victimhood in Western societies — even though, as Muslims in the U.S., for example, we enjoy religious freedoms and human rights denied us in dozens of Muslim-majority societies.

But on this International Women’s Day, Muslim and non-Muslim women alike should develop a better understanding of the symbols and practices of Islam. In that way, we can resist engineered efforts to use the veil as an instrument of division.

Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed is a British American Muslim, author of In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. @MissDiagnosis