The New York Times,
In My Life, Headscarves Have Been Symbols of Oppression, Not Solidarity
UPDATED JANUARY 6, 2016, 3:21 AM
The images of American women wearing headscarves in “solidarity” with
Muslim women take me back to a cold morning in the early 1980s. That
day, as a primary school child in Kabul, Afghanistan, I learned that,
as a girl born in a Muslim society, the hair on my head was not my
For the Soviet-backed Kabul regime and the Western-backed mujahedin,
my hair was a symbol to be negotiated without my consent.
Standing on the road that ran alongside the main school building, I
watched mustachioed secret policemen carry about a dozen girls out of
my school on stretchers. I was bewildered. The next day, at the
regular morning assembly on the school field, our headmistress told us
that the mujahedin had poisoned our drinking well because our girls
didn’t cover their hair properly. She declared that from now on, the
school would follow much stricter hijab rules. No more headscarves
that loosely hung over our heads. No more thin scarves that more
rebellious girls slung around their necks, “like snakes,” she said.
My school decided to appease, rather than defy and defeat, the
mujahedin, or “holy warriors.” From now on I had to wear a white
headscarf. I learned that the hair on my head was not just a
battleground for an ideological war between the secular government and
the mujahedin. It was also a political symbol that could be negotiated
without my consent.
My hair didn’t belong to me. It belonged to the Soviet-backed Kabul
regime and its enemy, the Western-backed mujahedin. My hair was the
target of a proxy war.
Even after my school tried to appease the mujahedin by covering our
hair, the violence around us became more intense. Our headscarves
failed to appease our detractors, and stop the religious violence.
Years later, as a young woman earning degrees in Hamburg and
Cambridge, I learned the power attributed to my hair was hugely
exaggerated. Strict traditionalists made my hair out to be a villain,
tempting men and dishonoring society, while the men who fired rockets,
blew up cars and poisoned girls got away with mayhem and murder. In
reality, my hair was powerless.
Five years ago, I returned to my school in Kabul. Headscarves now
covered the hair of even 3-year-olds in kindergarten. But it hadn’t
stopped the violence. Outside the school, the holy warriors were now
doing suicide bombings. By this time, though, I had stepped outside
the mujahedin’s moral circle. I had learned that societies can be
peaceful and prosperous when even women reveal their hair. This time,
I only covered my hair to protect myself from violence. But under my
imposed hijab, I knew that our hair had been innocent all along.
Women may want to express "solidarity" with Muslim women by covering
up. But Muslim women don’t need to cover up. This act of solidarity
perpetuates a version of Islam that says it’s O.K. to poison little
girls who dare to feel the sunlight on their heads.
Nushin Arbabzadah was raised in Afghanistan and fled to Europe as a
refugee. She now teaches Middle Eastern media at the University of
California, Los Angeles.