Nourah Alhasawi, a graduate student at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, stands in front of a portrait of a veiled non-Muslim woman. The photography process and interviews of each woman were part of a capstone project to fulfill requirements for a MA in conflict transformation. Alhasawi is a professor of Islamic Studies at Princess Nourah University in her home country of Saudi Arabia. (Photos by Randi B. Hagi)

Saudi graduate student asks non-Muslim women – and portrait viewers – to move past the veil

Nourah Alhasawi invites viewers to confront their preconceived notions about face-veiled Muslim women. Not as an American, or a Christian, or a member of any demographic – but as one person to another.

Frances Flannery (right), director of James Madison University’s Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace, with Trina Trotter Nussbaum, associate director of EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement, at the gallery.

Alhasawi is a professor of Islamic Studies at Princess Nourah University in her home country of Saudi Arabia. She also wears a face veil.

For her capstone project to earn a master’s degree in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Alhasawi gathered 20 women and interviewed them on their feelings about face veils. Then, each participant was photographed in various stages of the veiling process – unveiled, partially covering the hair, fully covering the hair, wearing a colorful face veil, and wearing a plain black face veil. Each participant was again interviewed about their experience, and some met for group discussion.

The Margaret Martin Gehman Art Gallery was filled to capacity for Alhasawi’s presentation.

“These women are not terrorists … they are not even Muslim,” she told the crowd.

For the presentation, Alhasawi hung twenty hinged portraits in the gallery – the viewer first encountered a fully veiled woman, eyes appearing somber or powerful, a few mischievous – then “opened” the portrait to reveal the subject with only partially covered hair.

In America, Alhasawi says, “The more visible my face-veil is, the more invisible I become.” In light of the invisibility, harassment  and oppression she endured as a face-veiled Muslim woman in America, she created this project with the hope that viewers would set down their cultural baggage and encounter the portrait subjects as individuals.

Viewers in the Margaret Martin Gehman Gallery.

“It’s not about systems, it’s not about ideology, it’s about you and me,” says Alhasawi. She explained the various “problematic responses to difference” that people exhibit: acting as if the “other” has no personhood, demonizing and dominating the “other,” and portraying the “other” as exotic and therefore not dignified. Alhasawi also pointed out a problematic response that can stem from a desire for equality: minimizing the other’s differences.

“If you don’t see my difference, then you don’t see me. Or you don’t see me fully,” says Alhasawi. She pointed out that unveiled faces are not a universal norm: she had to become accustomed to seeing American clothing (and lack thereof).

Alhasawi also explained the danger of moral overcorrection: according to a Pew Research Center study, only 12 countries in the world legally require some form of religious garb for women, while 39 countries legally prohibit some form of the same. “They have this assumption that women would only wear this by force, so they force them not to wear it.”

“Nourah is a social entrepreneur, willing to take risks and cross her comfort zones,” says Professor Carl Stauffer, her practicum and academic advisor. She also enlisted the help of Howard Zehr, Soula Pefkaros, and Adriana Hammond to photograph the subjects of this social experiment.

“We overcame so many things in less than an hour,” says Alhasawi. One participant first described women in black face veils as “scary,” but closed their last interview by presenting Alhasawi with a gift of a black scarf.

“It made me think much more about myself than it did face-veiled Muslim women,” says participant Frances Flannery, director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace at James Madison University. The project made Flannery reflect on society’s “claims” on women – such as how they should appear and express themselves – characteristics which are covered by a face veil.

Alhasawi hopes there will be other opportunities to display the photographs in the United States, and intends to write further about the project’s implications. She has returned to Saudi Arabia to teach two graduate classes and continue research projects on women’s rights and English-language representations of the prophet of Islam.

Join the Discussion on “Saudi graduate student asks non-Muslim women – and portrait viewers – to move past the veil

  1. I was honored to be a participant in this project. I find it ridiculous that so many who are not offended by the lack of clothing on women in our culture, which I think can often be very provocative, are so upset about a veil-covered face. It definitely, in my opinion, comes from people choosing to remain in their ignorance of “the other” caused by the villification of a whole group of people because of a small group who have hijacked a religion for their own evil purposes. Thus we live in a vicious equation: chosen ignorance equals fear equals hate equals refusal of acceptance of the other to dare to be different. Different doesn’t mean right or wrong, it simply means different. Why is it so difficult to comprehend this fact? Because all too many get great satisfaction from thinking they are superior to “the other.”

  2. In one documentary I heard a teenaged Muslim woman, raised here in the U.S., talk about how freeing the hijab is from commodification. Meanwhile, many American girls of the same age wear clothing bearing obscene slogans indicating that their primary purpose is as a sex partner. I find it ironic that commodification is an accepted norm in our culture– women choose to (and/or are taught to) portray themselves as primarily sexual objects– and any variation is viewed as threatening. The hijab, the bonnet, and the homespun dress are all vilified as outmoded religious bondage. But who is really in bondage?

  3. Wrapping up in a veil and then unwrapping again is a (self)-revelatory process, no doubt. However much one likes to employ or indulge veiling and unveiling, in the end there is always the residual issue of the fundamental importance of Face-to-Face relationships in a society in which we are dependent upon each others as citizens. If modesty is adequate grounds for refusing face-to-face relationships, one must then inquire as to the motivation for such modesty. Gender hierarchy and the segregation of women, and in more extreme situations gender apartheid, inevitably arise as a chief motivating force.

    No doubt, veils can be beautiful and veils can command authority. But they prevent face-to-face relationships, especially between the sexes. Gender segregation puts unfair burdens on women, and also physically represents the broader inequality of rights between men and women.

  4. OK, now how about the Anabaptist “sister” in the Valley wearing a white covering and cape dress? Do we offer the same generous embrace of the diversity?

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