On the front page of Sunday's Washington Post — below the banner coverage of "A blizzard for the ages" — ran a long, long profile of a young Muslim woman from Kansas.
The nearly 4,000-word story, told by a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, follows a now-familiar media premise: Americans, particularly those in backward places like the Heartland, treat Muslim women who wear hijabs with suspicion and even disdain.
In this story — dubbed "The Education of Maira Salim" — the Post declares that Muslims like Salim are "enduring the worst spasm of Islamophobia in their lifetime as they decide their relationship with America."
We have, of course, repeatedly highlighted the problem with that word:
Granted, a lot of people on Twitter seemed to really like the Post's story on Salim. The piece was described as "beautifully sensitive," as "an engrossing read" and as "the very best of what the Washington Post does," just to cite a few examples.
And certainly, the story benefits from a talented writer:
WICHITA — It takes two hands, a safety pin and two straight pins to turn a scarf into a hijab. Three pins if the wind is blowing across the Great Plains. Maira Salim stands at her dresser mirror with a pin in her mouth and a bedroom full of scarves. Her long brown hair disappears and then her neck. Maira leans in for inspection, making sure not a wisp of hair is showing.
Different scarves go with different outfits. She likes a black scarf with her red Converse sneakers. Her emerald scarf is nice with the satin dress she wears on holidays, tottering on gold heels as she walks across the asphalt parking lot of her Wichita mosque. The camouflage scarf makes her mother cringe — “You look like a boy!” — but Maira thinks it’s perfect with her mirrored sunglasses.
“I never wanted to be the weird religious girl,” she says.
Without a hijab, she would be a college senior who lives in a subdivision with her parents, two younger sisters and grandfather. She’d be the annoyed oldest daughter who has to pick up her little sister from swimming. She’d be the 21-year-old who works at her father’s used-car lot haggling over Dodge Chargers by a chain-link fence. She would be a business major who binge-watches “Quantico” instead of doing her take-home exam.
With the hijab, her country sees a Muslim in a headscarf. Grabbing her purse and keys, Maira — pronounced MY-ra — leaves her house already knowing the questions that are waiting.
So what's my concern with the piece?
Mainly, I'm frustrated that the Post never really proves its premise. The newspaper starts with the assumption that there's a problem with Islamophobia but never provides firsthand evidence — never gives a voice to anyone who might disagree.
Instead, the story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the young woman. The rest of the characters — those accused of suspicion and disdain — don't get a voice. They are bit players (referenced mainly secondhand despite the narrative approach) in a long, long piece connecting dots that the Post obviously expected to find at the beginning.
This line from the story — describing Salim's day this past Sept. 11 — is typical of how the Post presents the supposed Islamophobia:
Maira got her first death stare that morning on her way to school when she stopped at Walgreens.
A few questions: What is a "death stare?" Who gave it to her? What did it look like? And did the Post writer seek comment from the guilty party to confirm that it was actually a "death stare?" (Apparently not, because the story provides no other details on the alleged "death stare.")
Apparently, most of the reporting was done — and photos taken — in September. Yet the newspaper pegs the piece up high to anti-Muslim sentiments after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks and after Donald Trump's call for a ban of Muslims. All of those developments occurred after September.
Yes, give the Post credit for devoting so much space to what could have been a compelling story about religion and life as a young Muslim woman in America.
However, most readers will find it difficult to get past the unproven assumptions and unanswered questions. Overall, this long, long piece rings hollow.