Head scarves rarer than media depict
Watching a recent television documentary on Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, I was struck by the fact that no female member of his family was shown wearing the "hijab," the tight scarf covering head, ears and neck worn by some Muslim women. Neither were any of the hundreds of the rural poor and uneducated Muslim women with whom Yunus works.
Shirin Ebadi of Iran, the 2003 Nobel Peace laureate, does not cover her hair, either. Neither do leaders of Bangladesh's two political parties, Hasina Mujib and Khaleda Zia, nor did Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, each of whom served twice as prime minister of their country. An outspoken critic of extremist Muslims, Benazir was assassinated Dec. 27.
Less than 20 percent of women wear this headgear in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Pakistan, where 60 percent to 75 percent of the global Muslim population -- 800 million people -- live. In rural areas it would be even fewer: Transplanting rice or harvesting wheat is impractical with hijab.
Of course, a high percentage of hijab wearers exists in countries where women are required by law to cover their head, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. How many women would continue to wear the hijab if they had a choice? After all, the Quran, the Muslim holy book, simply asks both men and women to be "modestly dressed."
Growing up in a conservative Indian Muslim family where girls donned the veil on reaching puberty, my late mother recalled that when she got married (an arranged marriage), my father asked her to stop wearing the veil and to continue her education. She recalled how "exposed" she felt the first time she ventured in public without veil.
Her subsequent master's degrees in Urdu, my mother tongue, and English came in handy when we moved from India to Pakistan. She became the family wage earner after my father died when I was 11. She worked as a schoolteacher and rose to lead the Rural Reconstruction Department of the All Pakistan Women's Association, the country's premier institution working for improving the status of women. I wonder how far would she have gone if she had continued wearing the veil.
This raises the point: Why is it that we see mostly hijab-wearing women when the media portray Muslims? I believe it is sensationalism. While the media showed scores of Muslim men and women in France protesting vociferously that country's 2005 ban on the hijab in French public schools, it was not considered newsworthy to show the many other French Muslim men and women who either did not care or welcomed this ban. Now, when some women have started wearing the hijab as a political statement, do we hear about how many have stopped wearing it?
I realize that something is "news" only when it is out of the ordinary. Viewed in this perspective, the media do bring to the public's attention things and events that are out of the ordinary. Hence, I believe, the ball bounces back into the laps of people like me to educate the public regarding what lies on the flip side of the coin.
Clearly our media need to maintain a balance between sensationalism that sells and educating readers.
Honolulu resident Saleem Ahmed is author of "Beyond Veil and Holy War: Islamic Teachings and Muslim Practices with Biblical Comparisons."