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UHD Professor’s New Book Explores Significance of the Hijab in Muslim Culture

Dr. Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi
(Photo: Thomas B. Shea)

The hijab – or the veil worn by some Muslim women – is more than just a piece of apparel. For those who follow the Islamic faith or have lived in Muslim countries, the hijab holds deep meanings related to spiritual beliefs, femininity and tradition.

Dr. Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi, University of Houston-Downtown lecturer of psychology, recently collected essays from more than 30 men and women for the book “Mirror on the Veil: A Collection of Personal Essays on Hijab and Veiling.” These essayists, from Houston and around the globe, offered their insights on what the hijab means to them, as well as why they either wear or don’t wear it.

“Mirror on the Veil” was co-edited by Pasha-Zaidi’s sister Shasheen Pasha, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. It was published by Critical, Cultural and Communications Press.

“This book explores veiling from many different perspectives,” Pasha-Zaidi said. “It includes essays from men, women, Muslims and non-Muslims.”

“Mirror on the Veil” is divided into five themes addressing visibility, normalcy, belonging, the pursuit of sentience and whether not wearing a hijab makes one a “lesser Muslim.”

According to Pasha-Zaidi, some Muslim communities hold those who wear the veil in higher esteem than those who do not. Outside of Muslim communities, however, the hijab is sometimes viewed through a different lens.

In the essay “Just a Piece of Cloth,” Tanya Muneera Williams, a Jamaican hip-hop artist, addresses how the veil cast her in a different light while living in London immediately following the city’s 2007 terrorist bombings.

“Although I was proud of my political message against Islamophobia, as a hijab-wearing Muslim, I was not prepared for the feeling of isolation and the loss of femininity,” she writes.

Other contributions to the book are written by Christian women, including the Rev. Nell Green. While living in Belgium, she inadvertently discovered the hijab’s cultural significance. One a rainy day, she covered her head with a scarf and was quickly met with questions.

“That day, three different friends asked me if I had converted to Islam!” she writes. “They assumed that wearing the scarf was an outward expression of my faith. It was my first introduction to the significance of hijab for my Muslim friends. I understood and respected their desire and their right to hijab, but until then I had not connected it with an open affiliation to Islam.”

Pasha-Zaidi began collecting essays for “Mirror on the Veil” in 2012, and admits that it wasn’t an easy process. Many people did not want to discuss the topic as it is often a very personal and spiritual topic. And some of the participants were not completely fluent in English, which required additional editing and translating from Pasha-Zaidi.

Although she faced some challenges in effectively translating the meanings of the essays from contributors whose first language was not English, she persevered. Ultimately, “Mirror on the Veil” emerged as a document that helps readers understand the role of the hijab in Muslim culture and its cultural meanings and interpretations around the globe.

“There were many people, who would not write about this topic,” Pasha-Zaidi said. “They were afraid they’d get into trouble. Others looked at me because I don’t wear a head scarf and asked why I was doing this. My idea in compiling these thoughts on the hijab is to show that there is a lot of variety in being a Muslim. It’s not an anti-hijab versus pro-hijab book. There are many stereotypes out there, and I hope that this book dispels myths and promotes understanding.”

Pasha-Zaidi arrived at UHD’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2015 and teaches Introduction to Psychology, Theories of Personality, Psychology of Women and other courses. Before arriving at the University, she taught English language learners in both the U.S. and United Arab Emirates.

At UHD, she has embraced the institution’s cultural diversity, dedicated students and commitment to the community.

“I wanted to work at a place that values diversity and has hard working students,” she said. “This University has all of these things, and I am pleased to continue my teaching and research here.”