Four Muslim and ex-Muslim women discuss hijabs, niqabs, burkinis, morality, and modesty

At her website yesterday, ex-Muslim “Nice Mangos” blogger, artist, and podcaster Eiynah hosted a two-hour discussion:  four women engaging in a Great Burkini/Hijab/Niqab debate. The other three were Hala Arafa (former newscaster/news editor at Voice of America, Arabic branch), Hoda Katebi (Muslim Iranian fashion blogger), and Sarah Haider (co-founder of ex Muslims of North America). If you have time, go over to Eiynah’s site (click on screenshot below) and have a listen.

This is a discussion that needs to be had—repeatedly—despite these four women differing drastically and apparently irreconcilably in their views. Eiynah and Haider, as well as Arafa, see the hijab as a garment of oppression, though none of the four discussants think it should be banned (Arafa wrote a Washington Post editorial with Asra Nomani urging people not to celebrate “Hijab Day”). On the other hand, Arafa wrote an editorial saying that the burkini bans by the French were justified.

Katebi is a scarf-wearing hijabi (she debated Asra Nomani in Chicago, a debate I posted about here and here), and in this podcast, as in her Chicago debate, she peddles a victim ideology I find distressing. In fact, as I’ve said before, I believe that some hijabis (and I see Katebi among them) persist in wearing the hijab because it distinguishes them from others, makes them “special,” and grants them a status as victims that they wouldn’t otherwise have (I wrote about this here). The victimhood trope is especially strong in this discussion.

Is there a rapprochement here? Well, none of the women favor banning the headscarf, though all but Katebi can justify bans on the niqab and burqa. (Headscarfs are banned in French public schools.) Further, none of them except Arafa favor a burkini ban on the beaches.

But beyond that, there’s severe disagreement about what the hijab even symbolizes (if it symbolizes anything), whether wearing it constitutes a “choice”, how much pressure there is, even in countries like Iran, to wear it (Hoda maintains that even in Iran there is more pressure to remove the hijab than wear it—despite the mandatory hijab laws—because “most” Iranian women let their headscarves expose a bit of hair!). Unfortunately, “lived experience” doesn’t constitute data; not unless it’s properly gathered and analyzed.

It’s clear that this issue won’t soon be resolved among Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West, but nobody expects a podcast to solve these issues. What’s important is that here we see four women of differing religiosity (two Muslims and two ex-Muslims) discussing the issue without any men weighing in, so there can be no accusations of “mansplaining”. And the discussion is civil: although there are plenty of fireworks (Katebi and Arafa butt heads repeatedly), there’s a touching expression of mutual admiration and affection at the end. Kudos to Eiynah for maintaining an atmosphere of civility.

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  1. fernando
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The largest muslim community in Latin America is in Argentina (400,000). I worked 17 years in downtown Buenos Aires and never saw a hijab.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Victims yes – victims of religion.

  3. Merilee
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink


  4. Katherine
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Definitely a fascinating conversation. But I don’t think you’re giving Katebi’s argument enough credit, here – did she not publish a book documenting and discussing street fashion in Iran?

  5. Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    There is more than 100 years of precedent for the censorship of the public display of speech and ideas that are nevertheless Constitutionally-protected in private.

    Nudity is not allowed in public, but IS protected in your home or private club. Pornography is not allowed to be displayed unwrapped in public stores, but is allowed in your home, or in indoor theaters.

    Cigarette and alcohol advertising is restricted in public, but smoking and drinking is allowed in the home and elsewhere.

    If society felt that the wearing of the burqa or niqab was was oppressive to women and not conducive to Enlightenment values, why should wearing one not be restricted out of the public square, but allowed at home or at the mosque?

    Why would religious speech be assumed to be more highly protected than political speech? Indeed, we already have precedent that it is not: the tradition of Native Americans to use peyote in religious observance was not protected.

    If it is rightful that children should be protected from the public sight of the naked body or a tobacco commercial, should they not also be protected from the sight of the human-rights cruelty of a patriarchy forcing women to live their public lives in a bag?

  6. Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Ms.Ketabi seems to confuse the two types of bigotry. State-sponsored crackdown on women and girls in countries such as Iran is infinitely harsher than the social pressure some Muslims experience in the West.

    I do not like the second either. But people are “arrested” for not adhering to Hijab codes in Iran. They are thrown in vans with covered windows. They are taken to precincts and “processed” like common criminals. They get a “record” in their files.

    It is beyond me how anyone who has even watched a movie about how stressful being arrested by the police could be (even in a Western country), can say the two types of pressure are somehow equal with a straight face.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    That was kind of touching at the end. Interesting conversation overall. I like Eiynah and Haider a lot — Arafa, too, although her views on free expression are a problem. I wanted to like Katebi, but her thinking tends toward incoherency.

  8. Cate Plys
    Posted September 3, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I only had time so far to listen to the first five minutes or so of the discussion, but intend to get back to it. Einyah is very impressive as a speaker and moderator. The other two anti-hijab speakers are just as wonderfully articulate. It’s a breath of fresh air, since I feel that most mainstream media give most of their space to women who want to claim it is freeing to jail themselves in hot yards of cloth on a nice summer day, and that no one is making them do it. Here’s what I wanted to point out:

    Within the first five minutes, Hoda Katebi defends wearing the burkini or any other veiling, using an example that is horrific– and she has no idea that what she is describing is unconscionable rather than wonderful. Here it is: She approvingly described swimming once in the Caspian Sea, in a country where they section off entire beaches to separate men and women, “so the women can wear whatever they want”. (She also betrays no understanding that she is then admitting that women aren’t able to wear whatever they want anywhere else.) The other women in the discussion were appropriately horrified and wanted to know how that worked. Katebi explained–laughing–how they use a tent-like fabric to stretch across the beach and far into the water as a wall between the men’s beach and women’s beach. Katebi would not admit that this is gender apartheid.

    It reminded me of a letter I read while doing research, in a late ’60s copy of the Chicago Daily News. An older white male reader wrote in to support civil rights and recalled that as a youth he swam at 63rd Street beach, where he made a black friend. But they couldn’t play together too closely–because there used to be a rope in the water to separate whites and blacks. He would play with his friend in the water, but they had to play next to the rope, each on their own side of it. As horrible as it is to think of that, it is actually better, incredibly, than what Katebi describes. At her gender apartheid beach, the men and women wouldn’t be allowed to interact even from different sides of their sea wall.

    The blindness of women like Katebi to their own role in promoting the subjugation of women in non-democratic countries is constantly sad and astounding.

    BTW, if anyone understood the name of the country where Katebi said she was, I’d be interested in knowing. It sounded like she said “Ural,” and the others all understood her and knew it was a theocratic Muslim state. But no country by that name is on the Caspian Sea. I would just love to know for sure which country it was.

    • Brit
      Posted September 9, 2016 at 12:52 am | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure she said Iran.

  9. Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kevin,

    Feel free to visit! Office hours are M & W 9:30 – 11:30. If you can’t make those hours let me know when you are free.

    Cheers, Dr. B.

    Dr. Michael Botwin Professor, Dept. of Psychology

    Department of Psychology 2576 E. San Ramon M/S ST11 Fresno, CA 93740-8039 559.278.2691

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