Mirror On The Veil
What does the word “veiling” mean to you? For some it is an emblem of piety, while others condemn it as a patriarchal tool of oppression. Love it or hate it, the veil is one of the most prevalent and misunderstood symbols of feminine identity and power today.
“Mirror on the Veil” is an anthology of personal essays from around the globe that demystifies the individual significance of the veil by taking you inside the hearts and minds of those who have experienced it first hand.
We speak to Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi on the book and her work.
Faizah: Please tell us a bit about your background?
Nausheen: I was born in Karachi, Pakistan and grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Moving from one big city to another in a very different cultural context meant that much of my identity development was a reflection of my South Asian heritage, Muslim upbringing, and American individualism. As most of my immigrant experiences were not a part of mainstream discourse, I learned early on about the importance of navigating dichotomous cultural norms.
This is why I became interested in international human experiences. My graduate degrees are in Language Education and Psychology. These areas helped me learn more about power structures in groups and how they influence what societies consider “normal” and desirable. Growing up, individualism and achievement were promoted as highly desirable traits within my family, my peer group, and the South Asian immigrant community.
However, our family was greatly impacted by mental illness, which is still a taboo topic. As a result, I became interested in the plight of vulnerable populations and those who are considered outsiders, rather than the South Asian model minority experience. I found, and continue to find, peace in my religion and so the lived experience of Islam in different societies became of interest to me as well.
Faizah: How did the idea for ‘Mirror on the Veil’ come about?
Nausheen: My PhD research was on the perceptions of hijab among South Asian Muslim women who wear the headscarf and those who do not. The study yielded some interesting results, including the perception among participants (“hijabis” and “non-hijabis”) that Muslim women who cover their hair are more attractive than those who do not cover their hair, as well as the perception that Muslim women who cover their hair are considered less employable, even in Muslim-majority contexts.
The findings also showed that “non-hijabis” felt more discrimination within Muslim social contexts. As it was a quantitative study, however, we lacked the stories behind these perceptions. Originally, I was just aiming to get the stories of Muslim women and their experiences with the hijab, but as I began the project, I found that many non-Muslims were also interested in participating. Considering that the veil is something that influences interactions on a larger scale than just within Muslim communities, I decided to open the call for more diverse experiences. This is what eventually led to “Mirror on the Veil”.
"There are many reasons (why the veil is such a controversial issue) - fear of people and things we don’t understand, the notion of traditional Western feminism which often equates less clothing with more freedom, the remnants of colonialism which made veiling an exotic, sexualized practice reflecting the ways in which the colonized were considered “less than” or “different” from the colonizers."
Faizah: Do you feel you have learnt anything in the process of producing this collection?
Nausheen: I learned so much! Not only about the topic itself and the ways in which it is understood around the world, but about the process of research. Research is a very hierarchical process and the participants often have little say as to what interpretations are made of their experiences. In this collection, contributors were in charge of their message. As a result of multiple drafts and continuous feedback, we were able to feature the voices of people who are often missing in media and research - those who are not professional writers and those for whom English is not the first language, in particular. I also learned that even when English is the first language, the flow of writing and word usage is so different across English-speaking nations that making meaning can be a challenging task!
Faizah: Were there any essays that you particularly related to or stood out for you?
Nausheen: Each essay brought in a different perspective and I felt myself revisiting my own understanding of hijab and veiling as I read through each. As a result, I feel much more comfortable with myself as a Muslim woman.
Faizah: What was your experience of veiling when you were growing up?
Nausheen: I had many experiences with veiling growing up. In my family, we have a lot of different views on the topic and these are reflected in the clothing choices and the diverse conversations that occur. I have worn the burka in Pakistan and even wore niqab once on a plane ride back to the US. It was a different time in the late 1980s and so I wasn’t afraid then of being harassed because of my dress. I have always been entranced by the power of veiling and the varied responses it gets from people, which tend to reflect their own understanding and their own experiences (or lack thereof).
In my teens, I was diagnosed with alopecia and so, head cover became a very personal and painful topic for me. It is only with this collection that I even began to talk about it with people. I have spent most of my life covering my head in some way or another, with hair pieces, extensions, wigs, and scarves. From my own life experiences, the interesting thing is not what I use to cover, but rather what other people think based on what they see.
Faizah: Why do you think it is such a controversial issue, putting the negativity of the negative media coverage of Islam aside (if only it were that easy)? What do you personally think is behind the psyche of people who really have an issue with hijab and veiling in any form? And males especially?
Nausheen: There are many reasons - fear of people and things we don’t understand, the notion of traditional Western feminism which often equates less clothing with more freedom, the remnants of colonialism which made veiling an exotic, sexualized practice reflecting the ways in which the colonized were considered “less than” or “different” from the colonizers.
With regards to the views of men (and women), it often depends on their own upbringing and the ways in which they were socialized, and this varies across regions and time periods. The head scarf (or lack thereof) tends to elicit a visceral reaction in people which is often connected to their own experiences with religion, culture, family, friends, and a host of other factors.
Faizah: Modesty is being celebrated in the fashion world more than ever and hijabi ‘celebrities’ are becoming quite common, what are your views on this?
Nausheen: I love it! Fashion is one way in which we normalize physical appearances and so having more variety in the images of women is a step towards acceptance of diversity in Western media. It also shows that Muslim women are starting to become owners of our own narratives.
Faizah: Will there be a follow up to “Mirror on the Veil”?
Nausheen: Perhaps, we’ll see...
Faizah: Are there any other similar projects you have worked on/are working on that you can tell us about?
Nausheen: I’m currently starting a project to investigate the factors involved in the development of a Positive Islamic Identity (PII). A number of studies have shown that the practice of religion is correlated with well-being and Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world right now. Interestingly, that rate of growth is reflective of non-Western countries.
In Western industrialized nations, secularism is actually the fastest growing ideology. Given the influence of Western media around the world and its continued association of Islam with terrorism, I’m looking for factors that may be related to how young adults develop a positive identity as a Muslim.
I have a short survey that can be completed online here, and I would love to get responses from your Muslim readers!
We would like to thank Nausheen Pasha-Zaid for taking the time to speak with us and let us in behind the pages of “Mirror on the Veil”. Edited by Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi and Shaheen Pasha, the book is a collection of personal essays on hijab and veiling, and is available on Amazon. Click here to get the book.
If you would like to get involved in Nausheen’s next project in investigating the factors involved in the development of a Positive Islamic Identity (PII), click here to take a quick survey. Your participation will be of great help.
THE WRITER: FAIZAH MALIK
Faizah Malik is a writer and the owner of online accessories boutique Kenze. She writes her thoughts on her blog and was recently published in a collection of personal essays on hijab and veiling titled, 'Mirror on the Veil', which is available on Amazon. She is also a PR Officer at Inspirited Minds, which is a faith based, voluntary mental health charity based in London and is studying Counselling and Psychotherapy. She lives in Milton Keynes, England.
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