A response to the New York Times
On May 3rd of this year, the New York Times published an article in their "What in the World" series about the types of veils worn by Muslim women in different parts of the world.
Here is my response:
Physicality is important. There is even a subset of religious studies devoted to the examination of material objects in relation to religion (creatively called "material religion"), which rightly suggests that if we want to understand religious traditions more fully, we cannot ignore the material in favor of the metaphysical.
However, we also cannot stop at the physical. Examining material objects allows us a window into a religious practice or tradition through which we might not otherwise peer, but material objects do not exist in a vacuum. In order to understand what an object does for a religious group—how it acts and interacts and what it means, symbolically and literally—we have to go beyond what we can readily see. For a useful examination of religious objects, we have to go beyond the material and delve into how the object informs practitioners' understandings of the cosmos and the daily practice of their religion.
As a piece of journalism, this article fails because it does not move past the physical object to place it within the context of Islam and a world filled with rampant Islamophobia. Like any religious object, veils worn by Muslim women are filled with meaning and symbolism, both for the women themselves and for the identities these articles of clothing broadcast to the world. For the women wearing the veils, for Muslim communities, and for the people who fear Islam, these veils create boundaries and identities that inform how these groups interact with each other and ultimately, how they view the world.
And perhaps an article like this—one which does not move past the physical—would be useful to shed light on other material objects in some other religious tradition, but for veils and Islam, this article is irresponsible. With so much prejudice, misinformation, and blatant persecution of Muslims in the United States and abroad, refusing to discuss the meaning of these forms of dress in relation to the religion does nothing but perpetuate a lack of understanding about Islam as a religion.
In this election cycle, with the rise of Donald Trump, with the spewing of hatred about refugees and black lives and Muslims, it is irresponsible to choose not to dispel stereotypes and correct misinformation. For the same reason that journalists do not report about Trump's proposed policies without also showing how and why they are problematic, at best, and dangerous, at worst, journalists should not write about Islam without also writing about the Islamophobia, racism, and bigotry that too often find their way into these conversations.
And maybe what bothers me most about this article and with the way many media outlets discuss Islam and women and head-coverings is that these conversations, too, are symbolic. When we debate whether Muslim women should wear a hijab or a niqab or a burqa or any other article of clothing, we are not having discussions about freedom of religion or expression or oppression. We are having another conversation in which we attempt to regulate women and their bodies and the way they dress.
So yes, the physical object is important, but so is context, and we cannot have productive discussions about Islam or about any other subject if we pretend that these objects exist apart from the issues that brought them into our attentions in the first place.