The Muslim 'Veil' Post-9/11: Rethinking Women's Rights and Leadership

Institute for Social Policy and Understanding Policy Brief, November 2012

43 Pages Posted: 28 Dec 2012

Date Written: 2012


Whether guilty by association through her marriage to a presumed terrorist or an active accomplice in secret plots to terrorize Americans, some headscarved Muslim women are perceived as incapable of developing their own beliefs and protestations. Instead, they are viewed as mere extensions of familial relationships with actual or presumed male terrorists. As national security prerogatives filter perceptions of Muslims through the prism of terrorism, the Muslim “veil” has become a stereotyped symbol of terror. This critical shift in perception results in palpable adverse consequences for a Muslim woman’s freedom of religion, freedom of individual expression, and physical safety. In large part, this shift in meaning is due to a recasting of Islam as a political ideology as opposed to a religion. Once this definitional shift occurs, acts that would otherwise qualify as actionable religious discrimination are accepted as legitimate, facially neutral national security law enforcement measures, or protected political activity by private actors. Recasting thus serves as the basis for calls to deny Muslims their rights, all of which are protected under the law. Moreover, mundane religious accommodation cases become evidence of stealth, imperialistic designs of a hostile ideology. Contrary to the United States’ traditional deference to religious precepts in personal affairs, opponents of mosque construction and Muslim religious accommodation dismiss religious freedom for Muslims as inapplicable by focusing on extremist Muslims to shift the debate to Islam’s alleged pathological violence.

The shift in symbolism of the headscarf results in two notable outcomes. First and foremost, Muslim women continue to be objectified within a larger conflict of ideas among predominantly male decision makers. Heated national security debates about the emergence of “homegrown terrorism,” now code for domestic Muslim terrorists, focus primarily on persecuting or defending male suspects. Stereotypes of the dark-skinned, bearded, Muslim man as representative of the primary threat to national security consume the (predominantly male) government’s anxious attempts to prevent the next terrorist attack. Sparse attention is paid to the impact of the post-9/11 national security era on Muslim women, and specifically on those who wear a headscarf. Irrespective of their place of origin or skin color, the headscarf “marks” women as sympathetic to the enemy, presumptively disloyal, and forever foreign. Further objectifying Muslim women are the predominantly male Muslim spokespersons responding to the polemical, as well as physical, attacks on American Muslims. Notwithstanding that the headscarved woman equally bears the brunt of the government’s harsh counterterrorism tactics and the public’s distrust of Muslims, her voice and perspectives are insufficiently represented in the discourse. Yet again she finds herself an object within a grander political conflict between two patriarchies that are different in form but similar in substance. Second, any meaningful discourse surrounding a woman’s right to wear a headscarf in this country must include the racial subtext of the “terrorist other” associated with her headscarf. Debates about her legal right to do so inadequately analyze the issues through the narrow lens of religious freedom, while, post-9/11, the headscarf has come to symbolize more than a mere piece of cloth worn by a religious minority seeking religious accommodation. It is a visible “marker” of her membership in a suspect group. Thus the label “Muslim” is both a religious, racial and ethnic identifier. The shift in symbolism of the “veil” from subjugation to terror(ism) causes palpable discrimination against Muslim women. Indeed, accusations of terrorism and disloyalty accompany many of the documented cases of discrimination that they face.

Gone are the days when the worst a Muslim woman could expect were patronizing and condescending allegations about her oppressive religion or wife-beating husband. Now she may need to worry about her own and her family’s physical safety, her ability to obtain employment, and the government’s harsh prosecutorial tactics. Many of them also suffer tangible economic harm via termination and demotion because they choose to wear the headscarf. In a country that promotes the economic independence of women as a means of preserving their legal and political rights, some Muslim women are forced to forfeit their right to practice their faith in their preferred manner in order to preserve their economic independence and the corresponding benefits. As the costs of wearing the headscarf become prohibitively high, the legal right to wear it rings hollow.

Keywords: Muslim, Muslim women, veil, headscarf, Islam, Post-9/11, feminism, counterterrorism, terrorism, women's rights, Civil Rights, oppression, Middle East

Suggested Citation

Aziz, Sahar F., The Muslim 'Veil' Post-9/11: Rethinking Women's Rights and Leadership (2012). Institute for Social Policy and Understanding Policy Brief, November 2012. Available at SSRN:

Sahar F. Aziz (Contact Author)

Rutgers Law School ( email )

Newark, NJ
United States


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