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The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates
Book Review
Erum Alay Haider

Authors: Sajida Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough

Publisher: Women’s Press, Toronto

Year: 2003


While we often hear about conservative or radical Islamic movements, we hear less about alternative social and intellectual developments in the Muslim world.1

Muslim scholars have risen to the recent challenges presented by their Western peers in the war of ideas that shape the discourse of politics, development economics, and policy making by presenting and publishing exhaustive literature on Islam and Islamic interpretation, culture and practice, law and jurisprudence, history and world view. Historically, religious thought and opinion has been divisive. In Islam, the division of opinion began to split the Muslim community with the death of the Prophet (sws). The lines between belief and intellect became blurred as sectarian conflict manifested itself into different schools of thought. In caliphates under liberal rulers such as the early Abbasid such difference of opinion was allowed to flourish while in later times un-orthodox and scholars deviating from the mainstream were persecuted. The metaphorical “closing of the gates of ijtihad” around the 4th century may have been the first step, though initially innocuous, towards curbing the dynamic nature of Islam. Today Muslims find themselves facing challenges on the extremes of orthodoxy from the ‘ulama in Muslim countries, and misunderstandings from the non-Muslim majority in the world that borders on racism. There has been a call to elements in Muslim society whose voices are not often heard – women, intellectuals, scholars, scientists, historians, journalists – the educated elite, not to fight Muslim orthodox elements by giving up their faith or concentrating solely on secular education; rather they should fight misunderstandings from within the content of religion. The emphasis has shifted from simply embracing a more “liberal” i.e. specifically Western outlook to finding intellectual and academic ideals of logic, criticism and deconstruction within Islamic tradition and philosophy itself.

It is these very ideals with which the scholars who took on the four year project that is The Muslim Veil in North America rise to the challenge of the debate surrounding the hijab, which is, and always has been, a definitive symbol of the stasis in which Islamic faith is set, according to Orientalist discourse. The methodology and style of the book is a combination of an ethnographic study (largely tackled in the earlier chapters by anthropologists Homa Hoodfar and Sheila McDonough), a historical review and an extensive tafsir (comprising the latter portion of the book, by Soraya Hajjaji-Jarrah and L. Clarke). The book is divided into two parts: Part I: Veiling Practices in Everyday Life in Canada and Part II: Women Revising Texts and the Veiling Discourse.

Part I: Veiling Practices in Everyday Life in Canada

Chapter 1: “More than Clothing: Veiling as an Adaptive Strategy” by Homa Hoodfar

Hoodfar’s chapter sets the tone and paradigms of discourse for the book by introducing the subject of clothing as more than just utilitarian. A brief history of how clothes have been used historically to distinguish a person’s status and position in society occupies the first part of the chapter. She touches briefly on the colonial discourse regarding depictions of societies in the Middle East, and the prevalent concept of “backward” Muslim communities and the attention paid by travellers to veiling practices, as well as refuting several claims presented in these writings. She then goes on to explain the divide in the Muslim community with regard to the extent to which they agree with veiling practices. More often than not, she argues, the struggle for women’s empowerment by de-veiling was simply a façade to the underlying agenda of removing the orthodox clergy from power.

The latter half of the chapter quotes from interviews taken of Muslim women living in Canada. Hoodfar attempts to show the logic behind veiling practices, studying them as a means of mobility for women in a conservative culture of segregation. Hoodfar briefly outlines the study, undertaken in a largely anthropological style, which is prevalent not just in this chapter but throughout the first part of this book.

Chapter 2: “Coding Dress: Gender and the Articulation of Identity in a Canadian Muslim School” by Patricia Kelly Spurles

This chapter examines the role of gender in the construction of Muslim identity within a full-time Muslim school in Montreal. The case study involves fieldwork in several Muslim institutions, and the debate surrounding the compulsory veiling for both female teachers and students.

Beginning with reference to an article published in a Canadian magazine that brought out certain biases against Muslims, Spurles examines how racism leads to assimilation of the community under attack. Muslim schools are seen by the community as “One Solution to the Crises of Integration.”

Gender segregation in these schools is dealt with, first with respect to teachers. A lot of detail is given on clothing styles of the teachers, and the uniform requirements of the students. Like other chapters in the book, it is directed to those people in the media and western culture who are led to believe that Islam is a rigid, inflexible religion that allows little variation in implementation. The concluding remarks lay ground for further exploration of the diverse spectrum of Islamic attitudes and culture.

Chapter 3: “Banners of Faith and Identities in Construct: The hijab in Canada” by Reem a. Meshal

The chapter largely builds on Hoodfar and Spurle’s themes of Muslim identities and diversity, and presents extensive data dealing with certain issues in this context. The research takes place across ten Canadian cities; targeting Muslim women from a variety of ethnic, geographical and sectarian backgrounds. It is also important to note that the matter of which identity – religious, ethnic, national, racial or immigrant – is given the most importance when forming a personal identity. In the context of the veil, this becomes the question of who or what a Muslim woman subscribes to when she decides to “don or decline the hijab” – her family, her community, her personal interpretation of the religion, or another source? Efforts are made by the author to categorize and try to make sense of the varying shades of the veil – looking at socio-economic background, marital status, mother/aunt’s influence are just some of the ways.

Similarly, she tries to draw links between knowledge of Islam and practice of faith. Here, data on veiled women is juxtaposed with that on women who do not veil – data especially on issues such as family and community support and respect of the veil, as well as acceptance of the decision not to wear the veil. An interesting issue which arises here is that of justifying the veil as an Islamic requirement, and the ability to specifically mention verses in the Qur’an, and Hadith, that require a Muslim woman to cover her head. This comes with the understanding that when Muslim women in North America adopt the veil, she says, they become even more “visible” than before. The section entitled “The Mainstream Gaze” deals with the issue of the veil as an ostensible mark of a different culture and religion in a society that is portrayed as predominantly uncomfortable with such open banners of declaration, especially of a faith they think is “extremist”.

The idea of a sense of alienation in Diaspora and the difficult question of identity is what ultimately shapes the discourse of this chapter and later chapters. Ideas in feminism, or rather, western feminism that tends towards total equality of men and women, are discussed – perhaps in an attempt to show the reader that this is not the only “reality” that exists for many women around the world.

Chapter 4: “Voices of Muslim Women” by Sheila McDonough

This chapter, as indicated by its title, contains to a large extent only first-person, direct accounts of Muslim women in Canada who “responded to highlight the factors that had led to her decision either to wear or not to wear the hijab.” The interviews are carried out as a project of the Canadian council for Muslim women, an institution that is mentioned time and again throughout this book as an umbrella to the anthropological study, scholarly discourse and research that is presented in the book.

The seven women who contribute to this study come from a variety of theosophical, spiritual and ideological backgrounds. While one understood the veil as a requirement in Islam that she had practiced all her adult life, another was inspired to do so after returning from hajj. Another account deals with how the pressure of alienation had first led a woman to adopt the veil, which she later discarded as her knowledge of the history of veiling practices, to discriminate between free and slave women, increased. Many women who took up veiling at a later point in their life give no explanation, as such, for doing so, but defend it as a right that should not really need explanation in the first place. Finally, one informant stated that she had adopted the veil as a semi- socio-political strategy, and welcomed the attention it received as an opportunity to discuss Islam publicly. After a certain amount of time, however, she claims that she took “evidence of alleged piety out of the public realm” by becoming more lax about the veil.

Chapter 5: “Perceptions of the hijab in Canada” by Sheila McDonough

McDonough presents the concluding chapter to this section by closely studying some of the historical, political and social factors in the Canadian community that could possibly help to explain negative reactions to the practice of veiling in Islam. The prevalent attitudes that Muslim women professed to encounter in their dealings with non-Muslims are reiterated in this chapter by referring to paradigms set by popular literature and media – most of which are quite misguided and harsh in nature, to say the least. By quoting Said time and again, McDonough defines the parameters of her paper as an intrusive look at Orientalism as it exists in Western societies today; although her debate is nowhere near as cutting and critical of the Orientalist outlook as is Said’s.

The debate of the veil arose from certain events that took place in Canada and other countries in the West that made it to the mainstream news such as the banning of head scarves from schools. McDonough refers to Canada’s history of rule under the Roman Catholic Church and the struggle to break canonical power as a possible explanation for distrust of any sign of religious orthodoxy. She cites history of the suffrage movement in Britain and Canada and the hard-won rights of women who might feel that the hijab is a step back to extremism and gender inequality. Yet her concluding remarks also discuss Canada’s legacy as a diverse community of immigrants from various geographical regions, ethnicities, cultures and religions who have come to terms with their differences and have come to accept diversity. Canada, she claims, has not forgotten its origins in the context of “immigrants fleeing poverty and oppression in Europe” which is why when legislature ultimately allows Muslim women to wear the hijab in school and court, it is mainly motivated by a concern for human rights.

Part II: Women Revising Texts and the Veiling Discourse

Chapter 6: “Muslim Women and Islamic Religious Tradition: A Historical Overview and Contemporary Issues” by Sajida S. Alvi

The latter portion of this book goes beyond anthropological discourse and enters the forum of Islamic exegesis. Alvi presents her chapter as an introduction to the remaining two chapters which deal exclusively with Qur’anic verses and Hadith, respectively. The chapter therefore lays down a foundation of the history of Islam, articles of faith, the life of the Prophet and even introduces the reader to diverging schools of thought.

The chapter is divided into several small sections.

Section I, titled “Islamic religious tradition” deals with the language of monotheism, and conceptualizes the supremacy of the word of God in Islam. “Islamic Law” introduces the reader to the Qur’an, Hadith, Sunnah and the shari‘ah, as well as Sufism, in the following section.

Section II highlights the status of women in Islam, drawing on references to women in the Qur’anic text as well as poetry and art in Muslim history, and their historical role in society.

Section III combines ideas in the first two sections by dealing with issues of “social justice”, especially with regards to issues of testimony in Islamic law, and the misuse of religion in attempts to purge society by, literally, veiling women off from the public sphere. The old discouragement of reinterpretation of the Islamic texts, as well as a shift in public funding in Muslim countries to a more secular form of education contribute as debilitating factors to Islamic scholarly work.

Chapter 7: “Women’s Modesty in Qur’anic Commentaries: The Founding Discourse” by Soraya Hajjaji-Jarrah

As mentioned before, this chapter deals almost exclusively with the content of the Qur’an regarding the hijab. Hajjaji-Jarrah begins her discussion by briefly mentioning tafsir, and cites the tafsir of al-Tabari of the 10th century and al-Razi, 13th century as the central focus of her debate.

The verses are examined by both deconstruction and reference to specific words and how they have been used in other places in the Quran (hijab, zinah, zahara and khumur) as well as the context in which the verse was revealed. Reference to historic texts such as Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kubra to draw on how the hijab was practiced in early Muslim times also lends the element of Sunnah to the debate.

Closing remarks mention that although these ideas, formulated in the bests of interest, have predominated Muslim thought, the same traditional approach has also given rise to the opinions of scholars such as Muhammad Shahrur of Syria, and Fatima Mernissi of Morocco, who have taken a radically opposing view of the matter of veiling, much of which has inspired the discourse in this book.

Chapter 8: “Hijab according to the Hadith: Text and Interpretation” by L. Clarke.

The final chapter in this book deals with the Islamic text from which most injunctions for women to veil are quoted – the Hadith. Clarke explains briefly methods of collection, the concept of isnad, and verification; and begins her argument by discussing how interpretation itself was, and is, never free from the social paradigms it is set in.

The glaring lack of canonical Hadith on the issue of covering the head and the hair is taken as indication of it being more a construct of culture than a requirement of religion. This, considering how particular most Hadith are with the details of practicing religion, is given considerable weight. The “forced interpretation” of scholars such as Abu Da’ud only seems to add dimension to the argument that there may have been underlying motives to propagating the hijab in Islam.

Finally, she states how the only opposition has come from the Orientalists, who seem to have used the conflicts in interpretation and the seemingly totalitarian and misogynist dictum to criticize Islam itself. Clarke concludes her paper by calling for a more holistic approach to sift through not only the various Hadith and legitimize them on the basis of their relation to the corpus of Islamic texts, but also to examine interpretation in the light of the social forces that may have led to certain paradigms and methods of conceptualization and understanding.

Criticism on The Muslim Veil in North America

I - “A Space for Diversity: North American Muslim Women’s Hijab” by Zeina Zaatari

Zaatari remarks that the book could have been made more useful to the reader by clarifying certain contradictions in the anthropological findings of the chapters one and three, where the former claims that the women who took up the hijab argued their right to do so by quoting the Qur’an and the Hadith, while the latter states that only about 37% of the women surveyed were able to identify the relevant texts. She therefore expresses the need for a conclusive chapter. She also criticizes, justifiably, the paradigms set in the chapter titled “Perceptions of the hijab in Canada” as an attempt to soften and depoliticize racism and discriminatory propaganda.2 She also feels that the last chapter, by Clarke, was a little difficult to follow in its construction and content, and yet accepts that no literature on the Hadith is easy to follow, given all that one must take into consideration while examining the vast corpus of the Hadith compilations. The rest of her article is full of praises for the book, summed up neatly in her conclusion where she comments “I was elated to see that the authors did not choose a “veiled woman” on the book cover.” Personally, so was I.

II- “The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates” by Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

Shafaat is of the opinion that “no religious discourse is worth much unless it also includes a discussion of how people should behave…had the book been written as a purely sociological or anthropological study, this question could have been avoided.” Unfortunately for Shafaat, it was intended as a socio-anthropological study, amongst other things. If a piece of literature changes the way a person might think about their religion, that does not compel the writer to make normative judgments of how people should and shouldn’t behave.

His other contention is that the book is largely biased, and women who “believed” in the hijab should have been represented not just as anthropological informants, but as scholars writing the articles. However the Traditionalist point of view was quite adequately represented by a host of scholars, not least of whom were figures like al-Tabari and al-Razi, in Soraya Hajjaji-Jarrah article. While he agrees that “background and assumptions” can enter scholarly discourse, he challenges the idea that all interpretations are “equally valid”. However, the difference between the influence of social constructs on writers who support the veil, including traditional, modernist, or conservative scholars, and their influence on the women who wrote this book is unclear; and hence so is the need to dismiss one as “biased” and accept the other as a “valid” interpretation.

He disagrees with the idea that the Muslim community in North America is in a position to assimilate at this point in its history, much less come to a consensus of opinion on an issue such as the hijab. The Qur’anic injunction to cover the bosom/neckline translates very clearly and obviously to an order to cover one’s head. He critiques the idea of several “viable” interpretations as a concept born in the confused and tangled Christian history of a Bible that has “no point of view of its own”, was written by several different writers, was abused by canonical figures etc. The rest of his argument in this context is a slightly confused battle between Christianity and Islam, where at one point he states that Islamic clerics do not claim priestly infallibility (unlike the Christian clergy), that the Qur’an is open to interpretation, however the only valid interpretation is that of certain scholars.

Shafaat has critiqued Hajjaji-Jarrah and Clarke, especially, on matters of contextualization, taking a stance that would relate back to early Islamic exegetes that favoured methods of atomism by taking each verse on its own, in isolation. Also, women figures have been misrepresented and taken to give undue meaning to certain ideas. The debate over Hadith follows extensively, reinterpreting the very Hadith used by Clarke to give different meanings.

There seems to be a constant pressure on Muslim women, and not their male counterparts, to prove themselves as pious and virtuous by donning the veil, and this is brought out beautifully in the first part of the book. It is that very paradigm that brings out the glaring sexism that Islam has been reduced to today. While focusing on political issues might have given the constructs more depth and dimension, it would shift focus from the flaws within Muslim discourse itself. The Muslim Veil is a bold assertion that the hijab, like all other constructs, is still very much open to debate.







1. Sajida Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, eds. The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, (Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003) xvii.

2. The reason behind the correlation in Canadians’ minds between hijab and domestic violence or “hiding” is not discussed nor is it self-evident. Given the numerous issues raised by Said’s theorizing on Orientalism and several postcolonial feminist writings (Mehdid, Abu-Lughod, Mohanty, to name a few), the reasons for these correlations have more to do with a historical unequal relationship between the Muslim world and those that aimed to dominate it. (

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