Interpreting Islam through the Internet: Making Sense of Hijab
The primary focus of the Reformist intellectuals is the Qur’an, which is itself seen as a highly
dynamic and progressive text. What is essential to a proper understanding of Islam is not the
letter of the text but instead the spirit of the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition. They maintain
that there is no single, valid interpretation of the Qur’an or the hadiths. The key is ijtihad, and,
more specifically, original ijtihad.1
- Mehran Kamrava, The New Voices of Islam (2006: 16)
The practice of modesty or “covering” known as hijab (which is not limited to wearing a
headscarf or even modest dress2) has become one of the most visible and controversial elements
of Islamic practice in the twenty-first century (cooke 2007). For many Muslims as well as non-
Muslims, hijab is a flash point in debates over feminism, neo-colonialism, and the secular state,
debates that have quickly expanded into cyberspace. It is important to recognize, however, that
these debates exist in part because the Qur’an, the foundation of knowledge in Islam, gives very
little guidance on the subject of hijab, requiring believers—or at least trusted scholars—to
decide for themselves the appropriate course of action. This process of interpretation is called
ijtihad, a powerful idea that also plays a critical role in jurisprudence (fiqh) (Muhammad 2009,
Bantekas 2009, Lukas 2007). While this concept has existed for centuries, new technologies
such as the Internet have opened up many new questions as well as new reasons for using ijtihad
to develop an Islamic way of living suited to the twenty-first century.
Over the last decade, increasing scholarly attention has been paid to what Gary Bunt has
termed the “digital umma” or “Cyber Islamic Environments” (CIEs). As technology along with
1 Ijtihad refers to the “interpretation” of the Qur’an or trying to uncover its meaning in order to apply it in daily life.
Some Muslims (particularly in Shi’a Islam) believe that ijtihad should only be practiced by Islamic scholars; others
believe that individual Muslims are allowed or even required to study and interpret the Qur’an for themselves.
2 As Fadwa El Guindi notes in her book, Veil (1999), hijab originated as a general term for anything that covers.
The use of the word hijab in reference to “head coverings” is a recent invention.
access and technological literacy have advanced, Muslims—just like people of other faiths
(Dawson and Cowan 2004; Campbell 2005; Brasher 2004)—have found novel uses for the
virtual world. Although access is still grossly uneven, “in some contexts, the application of the
Internet is having an overarching transformational effect on how Muslims practice Islam, how
forms of Islam are represented in the wider world, and how Muslim societies perceive
themselves and their peers.” (Bunt 2009: 3). In comparison to the physical world—where
interactions are heavily affected by local and national laws, space, time, and the bodily senses—
online environments are relatively unregulated (Teitelbaum 2002), anonymous, and allow people
to connect easily across time and space (Hine 2005). E-mail, instant messaging, podcasts, blogs,
chat rooms, videos, social networking sites, and even virtual reality games3 allow users to
interact and build a new sense of what it means to be Muslim (Eickelman & Anderson 2003). As
the traditional gatekeepers of publishing and the media have lost of some of their influence, new
voices have emerged. Miriam cooke has observed, for example, that “The virtual space of the
Internet is allowing for an unprecedented anonymity that [ironically] challenges and overcomes
the former namelessness and voicelessness of many Muslim women.” (2007: 149)
Yet even in this new context, many of the traditional foundations of Islam such as the text
of the Qur’an have continued to be vital touchstones, shaping the way Muslims think and
evaluate new ideas. This article focuses on one specific aspect of Islam—the practice of hijab—
in order to explore how Muslims are using the Internet to enhance their religious understandings
and behaviors. After exploring how the traditional sources of guidance such as the Qur’an and
hadiths are being used in cyberspace, I delve deeper into a case study of a multi-user blog with
participants from all over the world known as the “hijablog.” This blog, which is part of a retail
3 Users of the virtual reality game “Second Life,” for example, have built mosques where avatars can go to “pray.”
While this reinforces the tradition of salat, other conventions such as modest dress and the separation of genders in
places of worship are not enforced.
website called thecanadianmuslim.ca, represents one of the largest and most open discussions on
hijab ever recorded in the English language.4
Traditional sources and new resources
Far from replacing the central tenets and texts of Islam, cyberspace has become a place to
explore them in new, multi-dimensional formats. Instead of reading a printed version of the
Qur’an, an Internet user can download it to a laptop or a portable device like the “Kindle” from
Amazon.com, making it easier and less conspicuous to carry around in daily life.5 On
islamicity.com, translations of the Qur’an are available in twenty four languages along with
commentary (tafsir) from numerous scholars. Recitations of the verses are available for
downloading to an mp3 player as a resource for memorizing the Qur’an or performing ritual
prayer (salat). Users of the website can also search the text of the Qur’an in Arabic or one of
eight different translations by chapter, verse, keyword, and phonetics. These are invaluable
resources that have opened up the Qur’an to more in-depth use and introduced them to new
audiences. Being unable to read the original Arabic text6—due to a language barrier, a learning
disorder, or even a physical disability—is still somewhat of a hindrance, but not to the degree it
used to be. The virtual world has paved the way for more frequent and in-depth practices in
other areas of Islam too. Prayer times, for example—adjusted by zip code and the different
4 The article is part of a much larger, ongoing study into the role of new media in contemporary Islamic dress and
fashion. This combines local ethnographic research (in the Midwestern United States) with participant observation
on numerous blogs, discussion boards, retail websites, social networking sites, virtual reality games, and YouTube.
5 Discretion can be important in regions (such as North America after the events of September 11, 2001) where
Muslims have faced harassment for their religious beliefs and practices.
6 Reading a translation of the Qur’an is not considered the same as reading the original in Arabic, since there are
some linguistic nuances that cannot be translated. Even a contemporary, native speaker of Arabic might not be
familiar with the classic Arabic of the Qur’an.
schools of Islamic law—can be downloaded to any number of electronic devices such as an mp3
player or an iPhone, giving users a reliable call to prayer wherever they might be.
For some matters that affect daily life such as prayer, diet, and family, there are numerous
passages in the Qur’an that Muslims can turn to. For instance, a search through the English-
language translation of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad7 turns up 94 verses about “prayer,” 97
verses about “death,” and 52 verses about “forgiveness.”8 Such large numbers of verses allow
for much greater depth and breadth of analysis and therefore application to a much broader range
of circumstances. Other traditional sources of guidance in Islam include the hadiths in Sunni
Islam, ayatollahs in Shi’a Islam, scholars (ulema as well as self-established scholars), and imams
at local mosques, who frequently counsel other Muslims in addition to leading prayers. As many
feminists have noted, however, most of these authorities have historically been men (Kort 2005);
as a result, there has been far more scholarship about men’s dress, particularly about cleanliness
and clothing for prayers, than there has been about women’s dress (El Guindi 1999: 135).
The Qur’an contains only a few short passages concerning clothing, perfume, and other
body adornments. Approximately half of these focus on the afterlife. Verse 35:33, for example,
describes Paradise as “gardens of perpetual bliss” where believers will be “adorned with
bracelets of gold and pearls, and… raiments of silk.” Similarly, verse 44:53 describes the
residents of Paradise as “wearing [garments] of silk and brocade, facing one another [in love].”
These passages are typically understood as portraying a future (ideal) life, not as something that
should be expected in the present life. Several hadiths reinforce this message:
7 Muhammad Asad was an Austro-Hungarian Jew who converted to Islam in the early 20th century. While his
translation is no more definitive than any other English-language translation, it continues to be one of the most
popular in the West. Counts conducted through the “Qur’an database,” islamicity.com.
8 The exact numbers vary depending on the translation. What is important is the relative abundance of these terms
compared to the number of verses concerning clothing and other body adornments.
None wears silk in this world, but he who will have no share in the Hereafter.9
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: If anyone wants to put a ring of fire on one he loves, let
him put a gold ring on him. If anyone wants to put a necklace of fire on one he loves, let him put
a gold necklace on him. And if anyone wants to put a bracelet of fire on one he loves let him put
a gold bracelet on him. Keep to silver and amuse yourselves with it.10
Based on this kind of evidence, scholars have typically forbidden Muslim men (but not women)
to wear silk, gold, or anything that appears to be gold such as garments dyed with saffron.11
Passages concerning dress in daily life are equally scanty. As scholar Fadwa El Guindi
has noted, political activists tend to rely on just three verses to support their position on dress:
Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most
conducive to their purity—verily, God is aware of all that they do. And tell the believing women
to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms in public
beyond what may decently be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over
their bosoms. And let them not display [more of] their charms to any but their husbands, or their
fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their
brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess,
or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire, or children that are as yet unaware of
women’s nakedness; and let them not swing their legs [in walking] so as to draw attention to
their hidden charms. And [always], O you believers—all of you—turn unto God in repentance,
so that you might attain to a happy state! (24:30-31)
These two verses make a number of important points: that modesty involves dress as well as
proper behavior (from both men and women), that a woman should cover certain parts of her
body, and that these parts should not be revealed to men outside the immediate family who
would otherwise be open to intimate contact. The issue of exactly which body parts to cover is
something that has been heavily debated. Some advocate that a woman should cover everything
but her hands and face; some argue that a head covering is not necessary. Some men and women
9 Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 726
10 Sunna of Abu-Dawood, Hadith 4224, narrated by Abu Hurayrah
11 The purposes behind this are twofold: certain hadiths support the use of gold and silk by women (but not men);
also, this serves to reinforce visual differences between the genders (i.e. men wear silver and women wear gold).
The separation of genders—different, but equally important roles for men and women—is a theme repeated in
numerous verses of the Qur’an.
believe that niqab (a garment that covers the face) is also required, while others see this kind of
practice as unnecessary or even degrading to women. The third verse in the Qur’an advises,
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all [other] believing women, that they
should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more
conducive to their being recognized [as decent women] and not annoyed. But [withal,] God is
indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of Grace! (33:53)
Although this is very similar to the preceding passage, it includes a caveat that one function of
modest dress is to protect women from harassment. This verse has been used to justify practices
ranging from seclusion (Sayyid-Marsot 1995) to the temporary avoidance of head coverings
(which attracted a great deal of harassment) after the events of September 11th, 2001 (Bakalian
& Bozorgmehr 2005, Akou forthcoming).
Other passages in the Qur’an about dress that are not as commonly cited include a verse
about women who are past the age of childbearing and sexual desire being allowed to wear lesser
amounts of clothing (24:60), two verses about nakedness (7:31, 24:58), and two verses that
present clothing as a divine gift to humankind:
O Children of Adam! Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink [freely],
but do not waste: verily, He does not love the wasteful! (7:31)
And among the many objects of His creation, God has appointed for you [various] means of
protection: thus, He has given you in the mountains places of shelter, and has endowed you with
[the ability to make] garments to protect you from heat [and cold], as well as such garments as
might protect you from your mutual violence. In this way does He bestow the full measure of
His blessings on you, so that you might surrender yourselves unto Him. (16:81)
Along with the hadiths—which record the behaviors and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed
and his Companions (peace be upon them)—these verses from the Qur’an have formed the basis
for scholarly opinions on the appearance and practice of dress for hundreds of years, even as
styles, aesthetics, and cultural influences have changed dramatically.
The conversation continues in cyberspace
As Gary Bunt has noted, one major function of the Internet has been to continue the
conversation where these sources leave off. “Important new issues, with no immediate basis in
traditional sources can be discussed. Opinions can be disseminated rapidly, but are not
necessarily observed or followed by readers, who may visit another site to solicit an opinion
more in line with their personal requirements.” (2009: 136) The Qur’an is still recognized as the
source from which all debate flows, but in the absence of established practices (or when those
practices are contested) the practice of ijtihad or “interpretation” is required to determine an
appropriate course of action12 (Weiss 1978). Paradoxically, participants in Cyber Islamic
Environments are both more likely and less likely to take seriously the ideas they encounter
there; websites do not carry the weight of the traditional sources, but they also cover new topics
in provocative new ways. During a heated discussion about ijtihad on the “hijablog,” one person
put forward her opinion that
The Scholars themselves [did not have] minds that were blank slates, they also have human flaws
and leanings … so why is there [sic] initial reading and understanding more valid than another
Muslim who is also gathering knowledge? The difference between one scholar and those he
teaches is information. Information about Islam that is publically and readily available. If his
student reads what the scholar has read then they become a type of scholar.13
This is a Sunni-oriented perspective coming from an Arab woman living in Egypt. A German
woman living in Iran countered with a Shi’a perspective on scholarly interpretation.
The only thing I do not agree with is that one should choose one scholar and follow him blindly,
without thinking for oneself. Without being allowed to say: "In this matter, I think he is wrong, I
cannot accept that for myself." Even if we have studied less, still it might be that the scholar is
wrong, and we are right. There are many ways to attain the truth, one of them is study. As an
12 The necessity, desirability, and qualifications for practicing ijtihad are heavily debated. See, for example, Ameer
Ali’s article on “The Closing of the Muslim Mind” (2007).
13 “Tawba,” 9/15/2005, http://www.thecanadianmuslim.ca/hijabs_blog.html
aside… unfortunately, not all scholars are pure persons. Taqlid gives great power to them. Iranian
history is full of good examples of this power. I mean when scholars would issue political
judgments, and people would follow them by the thousands. That was good. History does not
record the instances when scholars issued fatwas that were inspired by their desire to keep their
power and people would follow. There are two sides to every coin, you see?14
The “personal requirements” Gary Bunt referred to, which an individual Muslim in cyberspace
uses as a filter to discern the appropriate guidance for his or her needs, can include anything from
which branch of Islam s/he identifies with, to language, geographic location, level of education,
social class, gender, personality, and previous life experiences. A convert living in the United
States, for instance, had a very different (and very American) perspective on ijtihad.
Islam is not supposed to make you feel anything but free, equal, and happy. It’s best not to take
specific advice from other [people], as in what your husband should or shouldn’t do etc. because
this is highly based on peoples’ opinions, culture, and experiences. It is best to read the Quran for
yourself, and pray and study, while avoiding other peoples’ lecturing. There is a reason why
Islam doesn’t have priests or preachers, and any person can be an Imam in Islam. You must have
confidence in yourself and your beliefs and decisions, and listen to your heart.15
Although some discussions in cyberspace continue through relatively traditional channels
(a single-author blog instead of a book) other formats give a different, multi-sensory experience.
For decades, radio and television have offered some scholars—particularly state-sanctioned
scholars—an outlet for their messages, making them more accessible to people who are unable to
read or prefer to listen. When cassette players and later camcorders and VHS players started
reaching the consumer market in the 1980s, it paved the way for a greater diversity of viewpoints
(Edwards 1995). No longer did individuals need to compete for airtime, they could produce and
disseminate messages on their own. However, without sophisticated tools for editing analog
tapes, many of these were simply recordings of sermons; one man talking into a microphone.
Digital recordings—which can easily be edited from a desktop computer—have taken this form
14 “Aminah,” 9/15/2005, http://www.thecanadianmuslim.ca/hijabs_blog.html
15 “Aminah from USA,” 11/9/2005, http://www.thecanadianmuslim.ca/hijabs_blog.html
of media to a new extreme. Websites such as islamictube.net and youtube.com, which allow
users to post digital videos for anyone to watch, often make use of Hollywood-style rhetoric and
plots to form their arguments.
Baba Ali, co-creator of the popular video series, Ummah Films, features a segment on
YouTube called “That’s Not Hijab,” which has been viewed more than 400,000 times (making it
one of the most frequently-watched videos about hijab on that website).16 Using humor along
with examples from his personal life—a strategy that is very different from citing the hadiths or
one of the schools of shari’a law as evidence—Ali guides viewers through the most commonly
understood requirements of wearing hijab for both men and women.
Isn’t it funny how society uses a double standard when it comes to women covering their hair?
What do you mean double standard? Compare a nun to a hijabi and you’ll see they both cover
practically the same body parts. Yet society labels the nun as one who is practicing her religion
and one who is pious and the hijabi as one who is oppressed. Google the web. Search for
“Virgin Mary.” Look at the images, the pictures that the Christians and Catholics think that the
Virgin Mary looked like. Notice what she is wearing. Notice the body parts that she is covering.
But no one views the Virgin Mary as being oppressed.
Although the video closes with a reference to the Qur’an (33:53), traditional scholars would be
highly unlikely to suggest “googling” an image of the Virgin Mary. Talking directly into the
camera Ali relates to viewers in a very personal way, inviting them to consider similar examples
from their own lives. Ali also reaches out to non-Muslims, not necessarily to evangelize but to
help them understand the principles of Islam,17 a function that is rarely undertaken in traditional
scholarship. While his videos are still based on the principles of Islam as contained in the
Qur’an and hadiths, the information is presented in a very contemporary style (the Qur’an
mentions “oppression” but not “double standards”). Instead of issuing a fatwa—which would
16 (2006), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4jQi0Gjy3M, accessed 19 August 2009
17 This is the explicit goal of another video by Ali titled, “Questions about Islam (On the streets with Baba Ali),”
(2009), http://www.youtube.com/user/ummahfilms#play/uploads/5/l8bE13u3YGs, accessed 22 August 2009
require a certain level of education to be taken seriously18—Ali gently persuades viewers by
presenting his own observations of the “mistakes” people commonly make when wearing hijab.
Using role playing—another effective, but non-traditional strategy for exploring one’s
beliefs and practices—the creator of another YouTube video series known as “Wassim” depicts
Satan (Shaytan) confronting various Muslim protagonists. In his first video, titled “DON’T
WEAR HIJAB, YOU WILL LOOK UGLY,”19 a young adult actress stands in front of a mirror
dressed in a black abaya (cloak) and a red, striped headscarf. She is not wearing any makeup
and her hair is completely covered. Satan emerges from behind the mirror and starts whispering
to her in Arabic (with subtitles in English):
Are you going out like that? What would people say? Your face looks so pale and your eyes are
swollen as if you’ve just got out of bed. No, no, you must at least wear some make up. Just a
little, no one will notice. Are you going to a funeral? Oh my God what are you wearing?! It
makes you look like a black bag. Do you want your friends to make fun of you? What do you
want them to say about you? You couldn’t find except to wear your mom’s abaya? You must
pick a cool abaya that suits you! Who told you must cover your whole hair? Loosen it a bit…
The guys won’t bite you!
Satan disappears and the mirror reveals the actress wearing makeup and a new, more stylish
abaya. Her headscarf is pushed back to show the edge of her carefully-styled hair and her cell
phone rings, beckoning her to leave the house and join her friends. The rhetorical message is
that the actress has (wrongly) listened to Satan, who repeats common negative stereotypes about
hijab in order to put doubts in her mind. Referring to more traditional scholarship, the video
closes with a partial verse from the Qur’an (translated into English in both printed and oral
18 This is an aspect of Islam that is often misunderstood by non-Muslims. Although anyone may issue a “fatwa” or
ruling on a practice as it relates to shari’a law, the extent to which other Muslims take it seriously (or don’t take it
seriously) depends on the background and level of education of both sender and receiver. A controversial political
figure like Osama bin Laden, for example, might issue a fatwa, but since his statements are lacking in scholarship
many Muslims do not them seriously.
19 The title of the video was entered in all caps, which would ordinarily be considered “shouting” on the Internet.
(2007) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5kNNn-hciQ, accessed 22 August 2009
format), “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their
modesty: that they should not display their beauty and [ornaments] except what (ordinarily)
appear there of [24:31].” Unlike traditional scholarship, however, the viewer is left to draw his
or her own conclusions about the meaning of the verse since there is no scholarly commentary.
These two videos, “That’s Not Hijab” and “DON’T WEAR HIJAB,” are some of the
most popular videos on YouTube concerning Islamic dress.20 Other hijab-oriented videos that
have been viewed more than one hundred thousand times include songs with slide shows of
women wearing hijab, personal webcam statements, “day in the life” segments, instructional
videos on how to wear various styles of hijab, and replays of clips produced for conventional
television programs. Although similar videos exist on sites operated by Muslims such as
islamictube.net, YouTube is much more widely known and used. Islamicity.com—one of the
largest and most influential websites in the Islamic world—links to YouTube as one option for its
multimedia resources.21 It is important to note, however, that users of YouTube are not passive
recipients; they can post comments, rank the videos on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, “flag” videos that
are inappropriate,22 and produce their own videos in response. This is truly an ongoing, multi-
A new kind of face-to-face
20 As determined in September 2009 through the number of “hits” (viewings) of each video
21 As Gary Bunt has noted, islamicity.com is one of the largest and most influential Islamic websites in existence
(2000: 26). The site offers a vast array of resources such as audio and visual files, a database on the Qur’an and
hadiths, educational materials, discussion boards, a match-making service for “marriage-minded Muslim singles,”
and webhosting for other individuals and businesses.
22 YouTube does not allow videos that are sexually explicit, violate copyright laws, or constitute “hate speech.”
Viewers can “flag” these videos, bringing them to the attention of the staff. YouTube’s online handbook notes,
“YouTube staff review flagged videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate our
Community Guidelines. When they do, we remove them.”
Since the earliest days of Islam, one of the most important sources of guidance has been
face-to-face interaction with other Muslims. Interactions between the Prophet Mohammed and
his Companions (peace be upon them) were recorded in the hadiths to be used as examples for
proper behavior, but in the absence of clergy, particularly in Sunni Islam, face-to-face interaction
has continued to be very important. Historically, this is how children, converts, and Muslims
renewing their commitment to the faith have learned about rituals and other standards for daily
living such as cleanliness, dress, language, and behavior. For many people the Internet has
intensified this process, offering more opportunities for interaction and more personalized
instruction. At the same time, the anonymity of the Internet has opened up new spaces for debate
and disagreement; Muslims can question the very foundations of their faith and perhaps even
reach a more clear understanding without fear of embarrassment or negative repercussions (such
as creating mistrust or fueling gossip) that might result from asking sensitive questions face-to-
face in their local community.
As Alexis Kort has observed, the widespread use of English on the Internet also “de-
emphasizes an Arab/Middle Eastern Arabic speaking monopoly on Islamic discourse, opening up
discussion and debate between Muslims worldwide, regardless of their mother tongues” (2005:
364). English does not replace the language of the Qur’an or the primacy of that text, but it does
disrupt the primacy of Arabic and the Middle East as the focus of examples and knowledge. This
is particularly important as a counterweight to fundamentalist ideologies (Shirazi 2009). For
individuals feeling oppressed or disregarded—whether on a local or global level—the Internet
offers a welcome outlet for debate and relatively free expression, albeit one that might threaten
(for better or worse) established standards. A wide variety of topics, ranging from politics to
theology to women’s rights are a regular source of online discussion.
When it comes to dressing modestly, community standards vary widely around the world;
this has strongly impacted the kind of social conditioning children and new converts receive
about “proper” Islamic dress. In some countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, hijab is not only
expected but mandatory under the law, required of all visitors and residents regardless of their
professed religious affiliation (McGoldrick 2006). In other countries such as France (Joppke
2009), Uzbekistan (McGoldrick 2006), and Turkey (Sandıkcı & Ger 2005, Tatari 2006),
lawmakers have banned citizens from wearing certain types of hijab or from wearing it in
particular locations such as public schools and universities out of concern for preserving the
secular state (Tatari 2009). In the United Kingdom (Tarlo 2009) and United States (Bakalian &
Bozorgmehr 2005) freedom to wear religious dress is guaranteed under the law, yet reports of
discrimination and violence rose sharply after incidents of domestic terrorism attributed to
Muslims; among other cues, men have been targeted for wearing beards and women for wearing
head coverings (Akou forthcoming). Even within countries where hijab is accepted, but not
expected, such as Indonesia (Arthur 2000) and Egypt (El Guindi 1999; MacLeod 1993), attitudes
toward the practice of hijab can vary widely depending on personal preference, social class, level
of education, and local politics. Although these differences within and between countries will
likely always exist, in many ways the Internet has begun to serve as a bridge between the gaps,
allowing users to compare their experiences and develop strategies for dealing with less-than-
ideal circumstances in their local communities.
Case study: the “hijablog”
While numerous websites with discussion boards such as “sisters.islamway.com” include
hijab as one topic of interest,23 one of the largest-ever in-print conversations on hijab can be
found on the retail website, thecanadianmuslim.ca. During the months I followed it closely, from
February 2004 to October 2006, contributors posted nearly 250,000 words to the “hijablog,” with
topics ranging from women’s rights, to strategies for adopting more modest dress, to making
hearing aids more compatible with veiling. Unlike the typical blog, which is written by a single
person or small group of people,24 the hijablog is open to comments from multiple users all over
the world who simply need to register a username and password in order to join the group
(regardless of whether they intend to post or “lurk” without making their presence known).
Although respectful criticism is tolerated—the owner and moderator of the website, “Sister
Deneer,” issues warnings before removing any people or posts from the discussion—the focus of
the hijablog is to support women who want to wear Islamic dress. The home page invites,
Have a helpful hint to share about hijab or a story to tell? Spread the word on our hijablog page.
Check out the blog made on 10 most common excuses for not wearing hijab. Inshallah your
words will be an inspiration to a new Muslimah, or a person curious about Islam. Enjoy our
hijab tips by joining our Hijab Support Group!
In addition to the blog, thecanadianmuslim.ca also features a live chat room,25 “how to”
instructions for several types of head coverings, links to YouTube videos, and selected bits of
“Hijab Advice” from the blog, which visitors can read without registering.
Considering the highly personal nature of the topic, the amount of information shared by
participants has varied tremendously. At one extreme, the moderator has revealed a great deal of
23 Although one section of this particular discussion board is devoted to “Hejab and Islamic Ettiquette,” the number
of posts in the “Muslim Wives Corner” (1:2) and the “Health, Beauty & Household Corner” (1:5) is much higher.
24 Examples of this kind of blog include: Hijabi Fashionista (http://hijabifashionista.blogspot.com), Hijabulous
(http://hijabulous.blogspot.com), Muslim Style Queen (http://caribmuslimah.wordpress.com), and Hijab Style
25 The rules of the chat room are the same as the blog: no spam, no soliciting, and no “explicit or vulgar material.”
Participants must register in order to participate and post “Islamic content only.”
personal information about herself including why she converted to Islam, how she decided to
wear hijab, some of the struggles she has encountered along the way, and what her parents and
sister (who are from Trinidad, but live in Canada) think about her conversion and style of dress.26
This degree of openness is fairly unusual. At the other end of the spectrum, some members have
revealed very little, posting infrequently and using generic usernames like, “Sister in Arizona” or
simply “Fatima” (a common Muslim name, like using “Sarah” in an English-speaking country).
My count from February 2004 to October 2006 revealed at least 21627 different participants, but
there is no way to be sure exactly how many people have posted or been lurking.
In the first few months of the blog’s existence there was tension over the content: what
should be discussed and how? Participants frequently stated that they wanted to discuss topics
that could have a real impact on the practice of their faith. At the same time, many preferred to
stick with traditional topics such as the Qur’an and tafsir, holding back their personal stories and
motivations for wearing hijab. Sister Deneer posted frequently trying to steer the conversation in
a different direction. One day, without any prompting, she observed;
I think that fear of wearing hijab is something common that we all go through u know… Fear of
losing ones job, losing ones friends, negativity from ones parents who don't support hijab, or
thinking it will take forever to get married... We all forget to realize that it is Allah s.w.t. who is
in control of what happens in our future, and it is his will for the muslimah28 [the believing
woman] to wear hijab. In a khodba [a sermon at Friday prayers], I remember hearing that the
woman who has not worn hijab, and who decides to wear it, that God will make it as if she has
worn hijab her whole life, subhannallah:) If you live in the area, and you're thinking of wearing it
26 Sister Deneer’s parents seem to be quite accepting of their daughter’s conversion, but have mixed reactions to her
dress. When Deneer was preparing to get her driver’s license, her mother asked if she was finally going to remove
“that thing” from her head, assuming she wouldn’t be able to see properly in the car while wearing hijab. Her sister,
an evangelical Christian, has been much less accepting of Deneer’s conversion.
27 This is a small number compared to the total number of Muslims in the world; however, this figure represents an
outstanding level of participation for an ongoing virtual “conversation.” Considering the diversity of members it
also demonstrates a global perspective on hijab, not just a Canadian perspective.
28 I have chosen not to change any of the spellings, punctuation, or capitalization from the original sources. The
reader should bear in mind that these quotes are from the Internet where the conventions of standard English (and
Arabic) are not always followed.
and want a better idea of what it would look like on you, I would love to offer a one on one
tutorial on wearing hijab… call me at 1-877-8-BUY-HIJABS to set up an appointment…29
The moderator’s willingness to reveal her own fears—and to make the leap from the traditional
sources to her own observations (ijtihad)—helped to foster a sense of openness and trust. Over
the next few months this became a popular topic—how one chooses and learns to wear hijab.
New members begged for similar stories.
I have posted here today to see if a few reverted30 or born muslim sisters could share their stories
about how and when they started wearing Hijab. I have such a strong urge to do so, yet
something keeps me from just jumping in and doing it. Also, how long did it take you to
"convert" your wardrobe for your new life as a muslim sister? It is a challenge that each time I
browse any kind of store (online or otherwise) that I am always aware of. I am embracing all of
these changes in my life, but would love to hear from others about any of these subjects...31
There is no hadith or verse in the Qur’an that comes close to expounding on this kind of
circumstance—how to modify a wardrobe after conversion—yet given the practical and political
nature of clothing in the twenty-first century, this is a topic that virtually every new Muslim is
forced to consider. Some of the ideas that participants shared included making a gradual change
(wearing long sleeves and long dresses before attempting to wear a head covering), “practicing”
by wearing hijab at home or at the mosque before going out in public, setting a deadline (for
example, making a promise to wear a head covering after the birth of a child), or praying to be
filled with the confidence necessary to wear hijab (complete with links to other websites with
examples of such prayers). Women who shared their personal stories often demonstrated how
29 Sister Deneer, 2/21/2005. Obviously, the moderator has a commercial interest in this topic. Although some might
argue that this “taints” the data, my perspective is that this website represents a place where women are confronting
the day-to-day reality of dressing modestly and making tangible choices about their appearance. Hijab is not just a
theory, but a practice that involves the purchasing and use of material goods. Compared to other non-commercial
websites that cover a variety of Islamic topics, the discussion about hijab on this website is much more robust. For
more information about the role of commerce in Islamic dress, see Akou 2007.
30 On the hijablog and some other websites based in the West, converts refer to themselves as “reverts.” The idea
behind this is that Islam (submission to Allah) is viewed as the “natural” religion of all created beings (all people)
regardless of where they were born or how they were raised. This reduces the distance between converts and the
“native-born,” as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims.
31 Lyse, 5/31/2005
they combined these strategies, going through a slow process of change in their dress and
mindset. Even one participant who argued that her decision to wear hijab was dramatically
motivated by a single event observed that she too went through a process of learning and prayer
before wearing hijab on a daily basis.
What really got me thinking was this... I am born muslim ALHAMDULILLAH. I am employed
as a banker. one day, the district manager of the bank was chatting with me. and all of a sudden
she pulls a question saying: "Iram, are there different categories of muslims? i believe you are
muslim. My (district manager's) sister converted to islam 30 yrs ago… but she covers her head.
and you don't. what's up with that??" BAMMM!!!! that felt like a slap on the face...That was the
start for me. and then I listened to few lectures from a very intelligent ALIMAH [female scholar
of Islam] and finally ALLAH gave me strength to cover myself up!32
Depending on the knowledge and experience of participants, the support on this kind of
discussion board can be quite sophisticated, drawing from both expected (traditional) and
unexpected sources. For example, one participant who identified herself as “Chef Zeynah”
posted a message to the hijablog comparing her experience wearing hijab in the United States in
the 1980s (after the Iranian Revolution) to the experience of wearing it after September 11th,
referring not to the Qur’an but to a book by sociologist Erving Goffman.
Stigma is a big issue psychologically. A good book title: "Stigma" by Irving Goffman illustrates
the problems of stigma. So that is what many people feel fear, in particular the siblings of
converts [especially] those who have been exposed to the hate rhetoric in some churches or
through the media... The only way I know to neutralise stigma [is to give] hijab and Muslims
more public exposure and Muslims some good PR. The more we wear it the better it will get for
all of us!!! I had this one pink Hijab, a cotton gauze shayla. I used to be the only muslima to
wear one, back in the days when people wore those tight gulf style hijabs... Every time I wore it
on the street I would get harrased, One guy yelled "Get a life!" I yelled back "Get a culture!"
Nowdays I'm Wearing black. I get absolute respect and defference [sic], people step aside, say
"excuse me," lower their heads. This is very different treatment than I got wearing pink! So I
think it is a matter of projection and some styles project weakness and some project strength.33
32 Iram, 5/31/2005
Through this exchange of reflections on Islam and ijtihad mixed with personal stories,
many participants have been able to use the website as a support group or even a second family,
shifting their social reference point from the local to the global (albeit a specific location in
cyberspace, not the whole Internet). More than a year after the hijablog was launched, a woman
named “Lucy” reported back with an update:
It has been a while since I have posted on here! Last time I posted I was thinking of wearing
Hijaab but was worried about the reaction of family. Well, alhamdulillaah I have been wearing it
for four months now! It has probably been the most difficult thing I have done since reverting but
despite all the problems that have resulted (it's become necessary for me to move out of the
family home) I don't regret [my decision].34
Although Lucy did not identify what country she lives in, it is revealing how she turned to the
Internet for help—a place where she could get support and reassurance from any participant in
the virtual umma, not just her family or local community members (who were obviously not in
full support of her decision). In fact, the moderator immediately wrote back and told Lucy,
“Congratulations on your strength and conviction… Feel good that you have done something
very good for yourself despite the unfortunate reactions because in the end it's only you and
Allah and no one else will be accountable but you.”35
Theologically, there is support for this position; that each Muslim is accountable for his
or her actions and should not blindly follow inherited practices (based on the example of the
Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, who rejected the polytheistic religion of his ancestors and
established the foundations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). In practical terms, however, this
is easier said than done; local culture often exerts a very strong influence over the thoughts and
behaviors of individual participants. Having another source of support and guidance—even a
virtual source like the hijablog—might be the key that makes it possible for some people to make
35 Sister Deneer, 2/13/2006
a transformation such as converting to Islam or wearing hijab on a daily basis, even in the face of
harassment or legal restrictions. Conversely, a Muslim woman who chooses not to wear a head
covering can also find support for her position on the Internet.36 Although some aspects of Islam
—most notably the Qur’an—are consistent regardless of time, space, and the identity of the
believer, there is also a tremendous amount of space for different understandings and
interpretations (ijtihad) of how Islam should be practiced in daily life.
The impact of virtual conversations
Describing the Hajj, Caesar Farah observed that one of the most important outcomes of
the annual pilgrimage to Mecca is to convey a sense of the global umma to the individual
believer, “[instilling] him with a keener awareness of the power of Islam which can bring
together each year men and women of so many different nationalities and races. This is one of
the strongest forces working for solidarity among Muslims devoted to their faith.” (2003: 150).
In a smaller way—but perhaps equally powerful, since it occurs on a daily basis—interactions in
cyberspace can also help individual Muslims to gain a greater sense of the scale and diversity of
the umma. It is one to thing to theorize, for example, about what it would be like (for better or
worse) to live in a country where everyone wears hijab, but a completely different experience to
interact with someone in Saudi Arabia or Iran who knows first-hand what life is like under a
conservative, state-imposed interpretation of Islamic law. In the virtual umma, ideas can be
fleshed out with shared experience. One area for further research is the degree to which
individuals either seek out like-minded opinions—a forum like the hijablog where the shared
goal is to encourage wearing hijab—or seek out differences in order to push the boundaries of
36 An article at soundvision.com, for example, on “The Question of Hijab and Choice” observes that there is room
within Islam for great diversity of thought on hijab, including the idea that a woman should be able to wear a very
limited head covering or none at all. http://www.soundvision.com/Info/news/hijab/hjb.choice.asp
their understanding (a topic that parallels research on how the Internet is changing patterns of
civic engagement).37 The downside to cyberspace is that unlike the Hajj it allows for an endless
variety of unique niches.
In matters where the traditional sources of guidance are either scant or non-existent (the
very use of the Internet comes to mind), Cyber Islamic Environments also offer a means to
continue the conversation. Hijab—being the subject of much policy-making in the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries as well as attention from non-Muslims—is simply one area where the
virtual umma is playing an important role. Other topics that have been the subject of vigorous
discussion in Cyber Islamic Environments include regulations on halal food, birth control,
financial investments, and biomedical research. In many cases, interest in these topics is sparked
by interactions with people from other cultures and religions, which forces Muslims to think in
critical new ways about the meaning of the Qur’an and the practices of Islam. Although it has
always been part of the faith, ijtihad is a critical feature of the virtual umma. The question
remains, however, how much of an impact these virtual conversations will have on life in the
physical world.38 Will they inspire Muslims to create real, lasting changes in their daily lives, or
is the Internet simply another tool that can be dismissed as an unnecessary innovation?
37 Sunstein (2009), Putnam (2001).
38 In a study of “Catholics for a Free Choice,” a website operated by self-recognized Catholics who disagree with
the Vatican’s stance on abortion, sociologist Jon Bloch (2007) concluded that the group had not really impacted the
pro-choice/pro-life debate, since the opposite point of view could just as easily be represented online.
Many thanks to Kalpana Shankar, Theresa Winge, Eren Tatari, and my anonymous reviewers for
their insightful comments on this manuscript.
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