Burkagate Response: Why I Wear The Hijab

April 9, 2010

Today’s guest post, a personal reflection on wearing hijab in response to the 2010 American Atheist Convention’s blasphemy session, comes from Sayira Khokhar. Sayira is graduating from Kendall College in Chicago with a B.A. in Hospitality Management, Meeting and Event Planning. She interned with the Interfaith Youth Core in the Summer and Fall of 2009 and helped organize their conference in October of 2009. She is now working for an event planning company, helping not-for-profits plan their events.

sayiraI was nearly brought to tears after seeing the video of three women donning burkas singing a radically misinformed song at the 2010 American Atheist Convention. The audacity they had to replicate something that has been rooted in tradition for centuries and to represent it in such an offensive way is shameful.

My name is Sayira – I am 21 years old and I recently started wearing the headscarf. I tried to wear it once before when I was a junior in high school. That did not work well for me; part of the reason was because I was treated horribly because of it. Some of my classmates asked if I had gotten married, if I was being forced to wear it, if my father beat me, if I was allowed to do anything on my own, if I had to marry a cousin – the foolish list goes on and on.

At the time I was not ready for what was being thrown at me. I was also dealing with teenagers that had limited exposure to different religions and cultures, and the information they did have was misconstrued. I was one of three other girls that covered her hair in a school of over 2000 students. It was not a pleasant experience, especially after 9/11. Everyone had their idea of what my religion represented – and it had nothing to do with “Peace,” which is what “Islam” literally translates into.

When I receive these questions now I cannot help but think, “gosh, people are really closed-minded.” It is as if they refuse to think logically and with empathy. Sometimes I want to give them the answer they want to hear so they can just leave me alone instead of having a look of disbelief when I say, “no, I am not oppressed and I wear the scarf by choice.”

But, as easy as it is to walk away and not stand up for my belief, I wouldn’t be doing Islam – or myself – justice. This time I was prepared. The first day I walked into work with my hijab, my co-workers had a list of questions. They knew about the symbolism and what it stood for because there were two other women that wore them. Their questions revolved around my personal choice; why I decided to wear the scarf. In Islam it is said by Allah (which literally translates into God) that women should cover their hair and their skin. At this point, I had decided that I wanted to be grow more in my identity. No one forced me: not my siblings, not my parents, not my friends, not anyone in my religion – it was all my choice and mine alone to deepen my relationship with my tradition.

Just like Atheists choose to believe that God does not exist or that religion is not necessary, I made this choice of my own free will. Of course I disagree with Atheists on God and on religion, but I will not disrespect them for having their own mind. And I would like to be treated the same way. But there is a balance – I will always express my opinon and offer friendly disagreements to not only open another’s mind but to open my own mind as well. We live in a world of great diversity and it would be hard to make our way through life without encountering people of a different belief or affiliation. At this point respect and an objective point of view play an integral role. You can only go backwards in a progressive society when you cannot open your mind and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

To say that all women who wear the headscarf or burka are oppressed is fallacious beyond belief. To say that showing skin is the only way of being free is taking away from the freedom of having the choice to be who you want to be. I can wear the hijib and cover from neck to toe yet still be free. Who is anyone to judge me? If you do not know me and the circumstance of why I cover my hair, how can you say that I am oppressed? Do you imagine that I am some timid woman dominated by male influence? What if I told you that I will be testing for my black belt in Karate within the year; would that change your mind? What if I told you that I will be graduating with a Hospitality Management degree this year, a major I chose all on my own and not something my parents decided for me – would that change your mind?

Once you see that I am just like anybody else with the slight exception that you cannot see my hair or my belly button or my midriff, will you call me free, just as you think you are free? Think about it before you turn me into a joke.

Sayira’s guest post is a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention.

20 Responses to “Burkagate Response: Why I Wear The Hijab”

  1. SkepticalSeeker said

    I think there is a misunderstanding here. I fully respect your right to wear a hijab or a burka or whatever you choose. As long is it truely is a matter of choice. From your story I can tell you are obviously living in a secular democacy which respect women’s freedoms to cover themselves or not. Do you really think it is a matter of choice for women in countries where Islamic law rules the day?

  2. Ryan said

    that is not what the song is about. from the lyrics:

    “They’re back in their burkas again / Women obeying their men / No other man should ever see / Her eyebrow or her knee… The burka’s a smothering affair… Freedom can only begin / When women can show off some skin… And on that glorious day / They will throw those rags away / And never wear burkas again”

    this song is not simply about law. it clearly says that burkas are universally oppressive. and as sayira has demonstrated, that is not the case.

  3. SkepticalSeeker said

    Also, dare I mention that there is a great deal of difference between a hijab and a burka? This is my first time I’d ever donned a burka, and I have to say I am counting my blessings that I am not required to put one on before I can go out. I could hardly see a thing, and it pressed my eyeglasses up against my face. At least with a hijab your face and eyes are not covered up. I would not conflate the two items.

    It also seems to me that requiring a woman to cover herself from head to toe is just as objectifying as showing her as a sex object in an American advertisement. One says she must show her body, the other that she must hide her body. Why can’t a woman just dress normally in what makes her comfortable? I’m a person, after all, not just a body that should be shown to or hidden from the prying eyes of men.

    My only advice to you is not to take personally what is intended as a satire of a religious and cultural practice. Don’t assume that when I say I think some practice is ridiculous that I am also saying everyone who does so is ridiculous. I’m not judging you, and I’m also asking that you don’t judge me.

  4. SkepticalSeeker said

    “this song is not simply about law. it clearly says that burkas are universally oppressive”

    I think this is the appropriate moment to point out that the song is satire, not an academic paper or a documentary. In other words, please take it with a grain of salt.

    sat·ire   /ˈsætaɪər/ Show Spelled[sat-ahyuhr] –noun
    1.the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.
    2.a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.
    3.a literary genre comprising such compositions.


    But I’m sure you already know that.

  5. Here is the link to the February meetup of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers:


    “Our guest speaker for February will be Haleh Karimi from Iranians for Peace. She will be giving us an overview of the Persian history, culture and religion and how it relates to global peace.

    From the Iranians for Peace Website ( http://www.iraniansfo… ):
    “Haleh Karimi is a native of Tehran, Iran. Haleh left Iran at the age of 14 to attend school in United States and Switzerland. She graduated from American College of Switzerland and later completed her degrees in Computer Information Systems in U.S. Haleh’s passion in life is to raise awareness to global issues about Peace and Justice through Education and dialogue. She is very active in the community where she lives and serves on the board of directors of several local and international organizations such as World Affairs Council, Interfaith path to Peace, Iranians for Peace, and others.”

    Haleh works with my wife (SkepticalSeeker) who wore one of the Burkas. We also had the leader of Interfaith Paths to Peace at that meeting.

    This blog seems like it is run by politically correct thought police. It is overly judgemental and makes broad accusations that are not rooted in fact.

    • Daisy said

      Let me get this right, because Haleh works with your wife (who wore the Burka) and attended a meeting you are affiliated with this was all acceptable?

      So if someone wore black face but her friend was black, that would be ok?

      That’s not political incorrectness, that’s a lack of respect. I’d rather be ‘overly judgment’ on the side of politically correct than disrespectful of diversity. I’m not saying we should ignore the injustices of those forced to do things by religion… I’m saying that there are more respectful and respected ways of making that statement.

  6. freethinker said

    Good for you! That is true freedom. The freedom to choose what is right for you. We have to be careful that we don’t “decide ” that someone is being opressed simply because it is not right for us. Frankly, I don’t find it freeing to “show off some skin” …
    As for Edwin Hensley…”politcally correct thought police”???
    How about just someone trying to find ways to disagree without alienating? I think this blogger (non Prophet) will make much more progress for good than you or your organization! More power to him!

  7. SkepticalSeeker said

    Wow. I guess there is a huge difference of oppinion about who is alienating and who is not. And about what it takes to make a difference. I don’t think you make a difference about being hush hush about everything that’s wrong about religion.

    I’ll guess everyone here has the best of intentions anyway…no need for us to agree about everything. Then we would really go nowhere 😦

  8. Toby said

    Thanks for that, Sayira. I don’t know you, but through a number of people I’m one degree of separation from the IFYC.

    The comparison to black-face in the last post is instructive, but not quite right. Here is a closer parallel:

    Imagine a group of professed abolitionists, who claim to be motivated by concern about slavery. They put on a show in which a group of white people dress up in blackface and do this song and dance number, “Back on the Plantation Again” in front of an audience of people hooting and laughing.

    Or, imagine a group professing to care about spousal abuse, bringing up a trio of women made up to look like they have black eyes, singing “Back in the Bruises Again” (a satire!) as the audience hoots and laughs.

    You might well cry. And wonder about what sentiment is truly being expressed in that display.

  9. SkepticalSeeker said

    I could accept that comparison with black face and spousal abuse only if the point of the demonstrations in those cases were to say that blacks should reject slavery and fight for their rights, and that abused spouses should say “no!” to abuse and leave their abusers. Because that is what is being said. Women should not be FORCED, religiously, culturally, or by their families to cover themselves with those sweaty, sight-restricting, and isolating burkas. Whether they choose to do so of their own will is another matter entirely (though I would not understand that choice.)

    • Toby said

      “I could accept that comparison with black face and spousal abuse only if the point of the demonstrations in those cases were to say that blacks should reject slavery and fight for their rights, and that abused spouses should say “no!” to abuse and leave their abusers.”

      I accept these amendments to my scenarios. The result remains grotesque. This is my point.

      To submit this to further analysis: you want to cut people down with mockery? Great! Aim that at the powerful. But according to most critics of the veil, the actual wearers of the veil lack power, are under the power of another–that is precisely what is wrong with the veil. And yet the mockery and the disapproving gaze is on the veil and its wearer. There is a massive contradiction here.

  10. SkepticalSeeker said

    Before I go on, I would also like to thank Sayira for her input. I don’t think her situation is much to do with the song or satire. But after thinking about it I think I can understand her reaction. In a secular democracy, where it is not required by law for a woman to cover herself (whether by hijab or burka or something else) such a practice can be a sign of great courage and individuality. You are marking yourself as different than many of the people around you, and facing their possible misunderstandings on that point.

    So how about this…
    Maybe when women in counties like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are able to walk about the streets wearing whatever they like (be it a burka, hijab or a plain t-shirt and jeans) we will stop ridiculing the burka here. Instead of putting ridiculous restrictions on whether or not she can show her face or neck or ankles in public, why not just let women wear what is comfortable to them and that expresses their individuality? Lets not give an oppressive practice the respectable veneer of “holiness.” We can and should ridicule it, because it is ridiculous.

  11. […] NonProphet Status « Burkagate Response: Why I Wear The Hijab […]

  12. […] of the session to other hate exercises and decried my friend Sayira’s declaration that she found wearing hijab empowering the day after she posted the video. We are exchanging emails at this time; I’ll keep you […]

  13. califyah said

    That was a incredibly good read, I just subscribed to your rss feed.

  14. […] For one example of someone who feels empowered by wearing hijab, check out my friend Sayira’s guest post on my […]

  15. […] of agreement with people we disagree with. And whether it is the decision to cover one’s head with a hijab, to believe in God or pray, or to utilize childcare while pursuing a career, I am grateful to live […]

  16. […] The real issue is that so often we confuse “Islam” with “Muslims.” We must not, as we so often do, look at the Koran and say, “I know what Muslims believe!” No, we don’t. Religion doesn’t work like that. If we want to understand what Muslims believe, we must stop assuming and actually talk to Muslims; ask them what they believe and how they live their lives. […]

  17. […] some pretty incredible guest posts from the likes of Tim Brauhn, Jessica Kelley, Nick Mattos, Sayira Khokar, Rory Fenton, Nate Mauger, Kate Fridkis, Andrew Fogle, Miranda Hovemeyer, Nat DeLuca, Mary Ellen […]

  18. […] by the media. The site features essays from Stedman as well as a whole host of contributors, from Muslims to LGBT activists to secular Jewish clergywomen. Of course, with so many contentious issues bottled […]

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