To many, Asra Nomani is a hero, a champion of women’s rights, a reporter, and an activist. To others, she’s an infidel, a self-hating Muslim, and delusional. What no one seems to disagree about is her willingness to be an outspoken voice, even in the face of death threats and name calling.
Nomani, who began her journalism career with the Wall Street Journal in Chicago in 1988 has gone on to become the writer of two books — “Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam” and “Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love.” She is a frequent guest on national news shows, she has written numerous articles, including “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom”, the “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque”, and “99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds and Doors in the Muslim World”. Her own story was featured in the documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown, aired nationwide on PBS as part of the series America at a Crossroads. Born in India, Nomani also is the founder and creator of the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour. She has defied literalist interpretations of Islam that segregate women from men in prayers at mosques, and was a lead organizer of the woman-led Muslim prayer in New York City on March 18, 2005, which has been described as “the first mixed-gender prayer on record led by a Muslim woman in 1,400 years.” She also worked as a journalism professor at Georgetown University, home of the Pearl Project, which she also cofounded. The Pearl Project is faculty-student, investigative-reporting project into the kidnapping and murder of her former friend and colleague, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Nomani, who lives in Virginia, was recently back in Chicago to speak in a Chicago Humanities Festival discussion on “Politics and Clothing: The Hijab” along with Hoda Katebi, an Iranian-American activist and fashion blogger. The discussion was moderated by Chicago Tribune reporter Duaa Eldeib.
The Chicago Ambassador recently spoke to Nomani about her position on hijabs, or headscarves, her career as a journalist and the opposition she faces from the Muslim community, much of which she believes emanates from Chicago.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) Your talk on Saturday in Chicago was entitled: Politics and Clothing: The Hijab. This is something you’ve been very outspoken about. What message are you trying to send?
NOMANI) My main position is like any piece of clothing, people wear it for different reasons. So, for example, if somebody wears a hoodie they can just be wearing it because it’s cold out. Or they can be wearing it for other reasons. I cannot get into somebody’s head to understand their intentions. But as a journalist, I’ve been able to unravel how it is that the headscarf has become the symbol of political Islam and that’s my position. Two points, one is that the topic is clothing in politics and that the headscarf, just like almost every other type of clothing, has a politics to it. The white whig of the British judges carried a message of status, power and authority in that period. In the same way, my argument is that the headscarf has become a symbol of piety, purity and I challenge that messaging. I argue that the headscarf is not Islamically required. But this machinery of political Islam has made it so that many people believe that it is Islamically required. But that’s the result of their own political propaganda about the headscarf. My argument is that it is a symbol of oppression because the assumption of the headscarf is that a woman has a responsibility to shield her hair from the view of men, to avoid dishonoring herself and her family by not being a sexual temptation. My argument is that in the 21st century most of us have abandoned the idea that a woman is responsible for a man’s dishonorable behavior. That’s what my argument is. The idea that the headscarf is God’s command makes it more a compulsion. The defense is that it’s always a woman’s choice. Most everything in our life is the result of a personal choice. In countries that demand women cover their hair, we have to choose whether to obey the laws. If you’re in Iran or Saudi Arabia, you make a choice to wear the headscarf or go to jail. But I say most of our choices are the result of some influence campaign, whether it’s where we are going to eat lunch or what we are going to wear. I think we would be well served to un-package what that influence campaign has been and that’s what I’ve been doing. I take the influence operation campaigns back to the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, now increasingly Turkey and elements in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia that are pushing this idea of the headscarf as a virtual sixth pillar of Islam, putting women and girls under this expectation that they have to cover themselves. That logic extends itself from the hair to our voice to our bodies to our mobility and that’s the assumption that I ultimately reject.
CA) What about Muslim women who live in America, who won’t go to jail if they don’t wear the headscarf? Do you think that the women who wear the headscarf are unaware that it’s not required?
NOMANI) I think the women who have decided to wear the headscarf have clearly made their choice. They have accepted the idea that their hair is sexual and must be covered. If you don’t believe all women have to wear it but believe you are better served by wearing a headscarf, you believe that your hair is part of your sexuality and the assumption is that you’re then hiding your sexuality in some way. They, of course, have the right to make all of those choices. My point is that I just don’t agree with them. I don’t agree with those choices. The Amish in America make choices that most of us don’t agree with, and we don’t try to change them. In no way am I ever going to argue that if someone wants to wear a headscarf that they should not wear it. Everyone has to make their own choices in life, but what I’m trying to do is say ‘Hey, there’s another way of looking at it.’ And there are many scholars who do not believe you have to wear it, I don’t believe you have to wear it and I could show you book after book of these governments trying to promote this idea that women and girls are required to cover their hair. With that idea I see very dangerous leaps of logic that then say that, well, you have to separate yourself from society, separate from people who are not Muslim or not believers like you. The headscarf literally means curtains and it’s literally meant as a barrier and so, my deeper reflection is that it becomes a barrier in one way or another to issues of marriage, friendship or any other thing like that. I came to Chicago as a 23-year-old young woman who didn’t wear the headscarf but always wore my long skirt, below my knees, virtually to my ankles, I fell in love with somebody who was Christian but had a barrier in my heart. I couldn’t marry somebody who was outside of my religion because I was told that a woman didn’t have that right in Islam. And I get that other religions have had that same barrier. I support all people to love who they want to love. So, that’s how those barriers impacted my life. I was an American woman with all the rights that you get in America but there was a barrier that was still in my heart.
CA) Do you still consider yourself a journalist? Is there any danger that you may be crossing the line into activism and lose your objectivity?
NOMANI) I was afraid of that many years ago when I first started writing pieces but I talked to a friend of mine who reminded me that we have a rich tradition in journalism of advocacy journalism. It’s absolutely on the opinion pieces, and I absolutely think the types of writing I’m doing should be on the opinion pages, I always pitch my pieces to the opinion pages. To me, the best columnists are the ones who actually do reporting and do interviews so I use all of my skills and abilities as a journalist to inform every word that I write. I don’t do rants, I publish reported opinion pieces. I think there’s a lot of advocacy journalism out there that violate the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, especially among bloggers. They don’t call people for comment, they don’t check quotes or check facts. I’d like to really develop this universe where we have a code of ethics for advocacy journalists.
CA) Would you agree that while you can write columns and opinion pieces, to go cover a news event for the WSJ again that you wouldn’t be seen as the most reliable source because of your opinions?
NOMANI) I don’t, and I wouldn’t. Once you take a position, then you can’t cover a beat on that. Everything I write is not traditional media reporting.
CA) You’ve been a lightning rod for criticism amongst the Muslim community. You’ve talked about something that you call the Honor Brigade. Can you explain what you mean by that?
NOMANI) Yeah. I would say that I’ve been a lightning rod for some people in the Muslim community. Those people think that they represent the collective voices of Muslims, but in even asserting that I think they do Muslims a disservice because we are clearly a diverse community. I can’t even begin to tell you how many Muslims write to me in support. But what we’ve had develop over the last decade is a loose network of bloggers, activists, community leaders who have made an industry out of attacking fellow Muslims and others who they believe challenge the honor of Islam. I call them the Honor Brigade because they are essentially bullies who try to intimidate us into silence. Even before this panel I confronted them. I had written in the Washington Post about how there is a dynamic of Muslim mean girls who put other women down in they don’t wear the headscarf properly and I wrote in that piece how they call them ‘hojabi’s’ instead of ‘hijabis’. One young woman who has been harassing me for the last year wrote a Tweet about me and tagged my co-panelist Hoda Katebi. Hoda responded by Tweeting ’Muslim mean girl reporting for duty’ and then she wrote ’Shit’s goin’ down.’ I don’t appreciate that tone and spoke to the moderator about it. To me, that’s a tactic of the Honor Brigade that tries to intimidate and silence people when they have an opinion that’s different from their own. Hoda said that she was simply trying to say that she was excited about the event, and so I will hope that her intentions are good. I’m coming expecting a civil discourse, but to me the tactics of the Honor Brigade have always been to try to discredit and diminish people as ‘Islamophobes’ or ‘bigots’ only because we have a difference of opinions. I considered not coming to the event because I don’t want to participate in uncivil discourse but I’ve gotten reassurances that everything will be civil. [Nomani also requested and received extra security at the Chicago Humanities Festival event].
CA) One criticism of you is that you haven’t tried to change the community gradually, that you are too radical in your approach. Thoughts on that?
NOMANI) Most of that criticism comes from people who have power and control in the community. I have now been at this work since the fall of 2003 when I walked through the front door of my mosque in Morgantown and tried to get the community leaders to change the rules that wouldn’t allow women to use the front door and pray in the main hall. It’s been 13 years. I heard the same criticism in the fall of 2003 and I can tell you that I go to mosques today and the women continue to have second-class status. We continue to pray behind walls and in balconies, in gyms with faulty sound systems, watching the imam lead prayer service on video screens. Suffragettes had to hear this when they were fighting for the right of women to vote — ‘Just wait for the war to end, and they will give you the right to vote.’ And they went to jail and were tortured because they said ‘No, this is a right we deserve today.’ So I think it’s convenient for people who are in power to tell those who are disenfranchised to wait and be patient. But that’s a timeline that I do not accept because ultimately I do argue that the challenge that we face in our communities has such global consequences. Blood is spilling from San Bernardino to Brussels, and we have to take responsibility for it yesterday. Not tomorrow. And that means challenging these interpretations head-on and I’m not willing to compromise on the timeline that’s convenient for the political leaders because ultimately I don’t want more lives to be lost.
CA) You were a Wall Street Journal reporter. You have written two books, Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam and Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love. You are frequently featured on national news shows, you’ve written numerous articles, including “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom”, the “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque”, and “99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds and Doors in the Muslim World”. Your story was featured in the documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown, aired nationwide on PBS as part of the series America at a Crossroads. You are also founder and creator of the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour. You have defied literalist interpretations of Islam that segregate women from men in prayers at mosques, and was a lead organizer of the woman-led Muslim prayer in New York City on March 18, 2005, which has been described as “the first mixed-gender prayer on record led by a Muslim woman in 1,400 years. What are you most proud of?
NOMANI) I’m most proud of having had the personal and moral courage, both with myself and my family, to have my son. And then stand up for the rights of all women to make her own choices regarding her body and herself. This extends, absolutely, to whether she wants to wear a headscarf or not. Ultimately the dark forces of strict theology tried to control me and make me a criminal in this most intimate and personal decision, and I am most proud of my parents, family and me for chosing love and life.
CA) Because you were an unwed mother?
NOMANI) Yes, because I was unmarried, exactly. And the first piece I wrote in which I crossed the wall from the news side to the opinion side was a piece in the Washington Post where I wrote that a mother in Nigeria didn’t deserve to be stoned for having a baby outside of marriage, and none of us do. That was the first time that I wrote about the choice that I had made. I think it was the most important place for me [to write about it] and then go out into the world and speak about these larger issues. Because if I couldn’t stand up in my own life to the tactics of shame that are used to silence us, then I could not do it on issues about the mosques — or about terrorism. My son is now 13 years old and is living testimony to me everyday of what it means when we can stand up with the moral courage with beliefs that are ones of love and of compassion and goodness. That’s what my parents embraced me with when I told them that I was pregnant and that’s what I fight for. Everything that I write is informed by the ideas of common sense and rational thought and ultimately compassion. So all the tactics of the Honor Brigade are distracting and disturbing for how vicious and ugly that they can get. One of my great detractors is [Muslim activist] Ahmed Rehab from here in Chicago. On Facebook he has called me clinically delusional for my position on the head scarf. When I challenged him, he’s just doubled-down and had no regrets about any of his personal attacks on me. That made coming to Chicago a very daunting consideration for me because I know the type of influence he tries to wield among Chicago Muslims. But if I cower in the face of intimidation, I don’t feel that I’m advancing the cause of humanity at all. Those are the types of many of the voices you’ll hear against me. I know it’s fear on their part and insecurity and ultimately I won’t be intimidated by it either.
[Editor’s note: Ahmed Rehab did not respond to calls for comment.]
CA) You also are co-founder of the Pearl Project at Georgetown University where you taught journalism. The Pearl Project a faculty-student, investigative-reporting project into the kidnapping and murder of your former friend and colleague, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Right now the status is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is imprisoned in the U.S., correct?
NOMANI) Yes, in Guantanamo.
CA) Do you hold him personally responsible for Daniel’s murder?
NOMANI) Well yes. The results of the investigation were that we found that he was the murderer. But, to me, as a journalist too, until someone is convicted they are always alleged. Unfortunately, the U.S. has decided that they are not prosecuting him on Danny’s murder. There is this man Omar Sheik who is in jail in Pakistan. He is the convicted kidnapper. He definitely is the one who orchestrated Danny’s kidnapping. The results of our report are that he wasn’t the man who held the knife, he jumped ship and got out of there to basically have an alibi. But the result of the project is that while four men have been convicted, we found that there were 27 men who were involved and most of them are free.
CA) You were critical of the movie about Daniel, based on the book by his wife, entitled “A Mighty Heart.” What was your main problem with it?
NOMANI) The movie definitely captured everything about our hunt to find Danny. My issue was just that I had an expectation that the movie would be about Danny and my criticism was that he had a cameo in his murder story. But I do recognize that I had an expectation that probably wasn’t a realistic one for Hollywood and the narrative that they were trying to sell.
CA) Do you like the movie?
NOMANI) I would say that it definitely captured what happened to us during the investigation. I hope that we could tell the life story of Danny sometime in the future. Because I spent so many years focused on Danny’s murder, I would like to celebrate his life, especially now that so many years have passed, young folks don’t know his name. One, he was a remarkable person and two, his life captured a time in journalism before targets were on our backs like they are today. I left the Chicago bureau [of the WSJ] to marry a man that I thought I should marry and when that fell apart after just a few months, I was at the D.C. bureau and I met Danny. My therapist at the time told me that ‘I need to learn how to have fun because, as an immigrant child my life was all about work, work, work.’ Danny became my passport to fun. He showed me music clubs, and we played beach volleyball behind the Lincoln Memorial. I had never gone to my high school prom because I was told that good girls don’t go to dances, so, at the age of 28, I had my first prom. Danny helped me throw a party — my first party ever, and we called it ‘A Mid-Summer Night’s Prom’ — I wore this cheesy purple velvet bridesmaid dress. He was a great journalist but he had a lot of fun. For me, the way all of it connects is that people in the Muslim community, like Ahmed Rehab and these other individuals who want to criticize me, I think they just don’t understand or appreciate the mindset of the culture that questions things. Everything about journalism at that time was about the counterintuitive. So, even for me when I went to the mosque and they were like, ‘This is the way it is. Women go to the back door and sit in a separate section,’ my instinct was to say, ‘Really?’ Then I called all the scholars, looked at the original texts, looked at the traditions and realized everyone thinks one thing but the truth is something else. I’m not making it up. I’m reporting it out. So, with the headscarves its been the same thing. People say it’s required and if you’re a good Muslim woman you’ll wear it and now we have this fashion craze for it. So, the time when I worked with Danny was so special because that’s where I developed all of my skills and my own critical thinking powers.
CA) You must of had some kind of rebellious streak in you even as a child though, no?
NOMANI) I honestly didn’t realize this until a recent reunion of WSJ reporters. I had the rebellious streak as a child but I didn’t realize I had it in the newsroom also. When we met they told me that I was always a rebel in the newsroom and they were right because I would get stories into the paper that had never been published before. We had an ombudsman, and we would wait for him to go on vacation when we would publish my articles because they were counter-culture to the Journal. It was this very serious culture and I was a young reporter. I did a workplace column and before me it was always statistics and unemployment reports. My first item was about a survey that had been done on the percentage of people who report late to work because they had sex in the morning. The header was ‘Getting Late.’ [laughter] We had to sneak it past the ombudsman editor. As I talk about the big business of the headscarf, I’m reminded of a story I wrote years ago.I went to the Wal-Mart in Morgantown, West Virginia and saw that they were selling thong underwear. So I came back to New York and said that ‘I think there’s a big shift in the lingerie industry’, which there was. But my journalism tradition is okay, I saw it in one place, now I have to find it in two more places, talk to five lingerie designers, talk to three manufacturers…. We got that onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal and trust me, nobody had ever gotten thong underwear onto the front page of the Journal before. I think I’ve always had this counter-culture streak in me and it’s probably because I was this immigrant kid. I was always observing society and I was like, ‘Hmm, is this the way it’s always been?’
CA) You started your career in Chicago in 1988 as a 23-year-old reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Do you get back often, what’s your opinion of the city?
NOMANI) That’s a good question. I feel like I’m blanking because it’s so deep and powerful to come back. I feel like I’ve been back one time but it’s also a memory that I’ve blocked.
CA) How long were you here?
NOMANI) I was in Chicago from 1988 to 1992.
CA) What’s your opinion of the city?
NOMANI) I love the city and wish I had enjoyed it more because I was such a hard-working immigrant kid. All I knew how to do was work. I gave myself a couple days to enjoy it more now. My disappointment has been that Chicago has been a source of a lot of unexpected hostility to me from fellow Muslims. I don’t mind disagreement ever, but the aggression has been befuddling to me and saddening. So, when I got the invitation I saw it as an opportunity to express my voice in a positive space. So that’s why when the tweets went out [From her co-panelist Hoda Katebi] I was like, ‘Honestly? Seriously? What the heck?’ And the Ahmed Rehab stuff was distressing, and there’s a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who has been really ugly with me on Facebook also. I’ve called them out and tried to have a conversation with them but they are so uncivil. If you talk to any of them about me, they are so full of hate towards me. They just judge me and condemn me and call me an Islamophobe which is just outrageous and so irresponsible for people of professional standing. Trust me, I’m doing my reporting. I’m not done yet so I’m not revealing anything yet but I’m a reporter at heart and if it doesn’t make sense to me, I’m figuring out why people are doing what they are doing. I’m finding the story and it’s leading me back to Chicago. And it’s not a good story. It’s a story of bullying and a dark-side of Chicago history.
CA) So is your visit here to confront some of the things you’ve been facing?
NOMANI) I won’t say confront because I don’t want to take that approach. I’m here to do some reporting also.
CA) Is there a reason that a lot of the opposition to you has been coming from Chicago?
NOMANI) I think there’s a really strong, conservative Muslim community here. I think it has a strong political organized base. I don’t know if the Chicago Machine has spilled over into the Muslim community as a dynamic that tries to bully or intimidate people. That’s a question that I have: have people absorbed that history? It’s one that Chicago has struggled with and people fight it. I don’t know if that history and culture has bled into this issue or if it’s separate problem within the Muslim community. Obviously, we have a controversial history with the Bridgeview mosque and other elements and FBI investigations with Chicago. I’m going to try to catch up on all of it.
CA) Do you feel like you have more support than you did years ago?
NOMANI) I do. But part of it is about me also. I had the support when I first wrote about this issue, but what happened is the people that I call the Honor Brigade attacked me so ruthlessly and so aggressively and in the face of attacks like that, where do you go? What happened for me is that I heard them say that I was illegitimate, that I had no credibility. I let them get inside my head a bit. My nature as a journalist is to work alone and I’m very careful with who I work with because I want to make sure that I know them well. Thirteen years later I know people pretty well. I’ve watched their personalities and their character over the years. And that is why when I received an invitation in December to be a part of an effort of Muslims, the San Bernardino shootings had just happened and I decided that I’m going to stand with others now. I’ve finally accepted the legitimacy of myself and my voice and the vision that we have and that’s why we’ve created this Muslim Reform movement. We have so much support. We hear from people all over the world because there are communities everywhere where these battles are happening. The first letter I received after writing about my Washington Post article [about hijabs] was from a woman in Malaysia who said ‘Thank you for writing this. I’m under the tyranny of my older brother who won’t let me go out without a head covering or choose who I want to marry.’ She was afraid to give her real name, but she did finally and we connected through Facebook. I’ve heard from women in Chicago who know this whole dynamic very well and said ‘Thank you. We are so sick and tired in our Chicago Muslim community. We are always confronted with examples of good Muslim girls and we don’t fit in.’ One woman told me that a lot of the women lead a double life. I know that is torturous and that people make bad decisions from doing that. She said they lead double lives and they resent me so much for being honest about my own life. Instead of working on their own truth, they want to destroy me and put me down. She wrote, ‘ You are are reminder of them of the choices they made and are ashamed of.’ She’s one person that I’m hoping to meet because I want insight. Ultimately I’m a journalist. I want to know where this rage against change comes from. The people I’m identifying in the Honor Brigade I’m starting to call them for comment. I don’t want confrontations with people. I’m asking the questions, and if they give me the answers all the better. If they don’t, then they don’t. I’m starting to do that instead of allowing them inside my head and my heart and giving space to them. I want to build the community of folks that are supporters and I know in three years we’ll have even a bigger movement. I know that we’ll win against the darkest forces of tyranny because it always happens. Slavery was overcome. Apartheid was overcome. It’s just that these governments are part of putting that ideology in place so it means challenging them, but I think we can do it.
CA) Going forward, where do you see yourself in the next few years?
NOMANI) I’ve really been reflecting on that deeply. It’s been 13 years of this battle. It’s grueling, and at times, especially lately, I wonder if it’s worth it. I wonder if we can achieve a civil discourse about women’s rights but I see myself as stronger and even more actively engaged. I see us persevering!