This piece was originally posted for the fantastic blog Sajjeling. Check it out!
This was a hard piece to write, mostly because critiquing movements that are helping the community can be construed as unconstructive and vindictive. However, I repost it in order to hopefully air alternative perspectives. I do not want any critique to de-legitimise what women have felt the campaign has done, but use it as an opportunity to reflect and then ask ourselves: what is next?
Perhaps not surprisingly, a campaign that calls for women of all stripes to don the hijab, take a photo and post it online has garnered mixed reviews over the past few weeks.
#WISH, or Women in Solidarity with Hijabis, came about with the idea of show support and solidarity for Muslims, and, particularly, Muslim women, around the country.
With hundreds and thousands of views, digital interactions and imprints, and almost 30,000 likes on Facebook, it is certainly making an impression in the wider Australian community. Women have used it as an entry point for discussion, posting their photo in a hijab and usually accompanying it with a message of hope or solidarity. On the surface, it all seems very positive and very encouraging, as it provides a space for those who support Muslim women and sisters to very visually ,and publicly, make a stand.
However, responses from other parts of the Muslim community have rejected the premise of the campaign entirely as belittling and disrespectful of the religious nature of the hijab. Not only does the campaign minimise the religious nature of the hijab, but it can allow people to engage without the difficulty of taking on the identity per se; the privilege to be able to remove the hijab and rejoin society as an accepted member of the mass group is one that doesn’t exist for many Muslim women as an option at all. Therefore, women who feel like they have ‘joined’ the group or, after wearing it for a week, realised how ‘difficult’ it may be or how ‘perceptions change’ when you are wearing a hijab are simply Orientalising the garment rather than engaging with its true meaning.
Nevertheless, in spite of commentary about the effectiveness and impact of the campaign, it is worth noting at the outset that it was begun by a Muslim woman in Australia. Therefore, it should be treated as reflective of the wishes of some members in the community. Some may argue that the campaign is a reactionary way of dealing with the superficial manner in which the public engages with religious belief, however that argument, again, becomes an assumption around a Muslim woman’s capacity for autonomy and choice. Rather than re-emphasise the perception that Muslim women are oppressed and helpless, especially in the face of adversity, this prime example shows that those very women are capable of taking matters into their own hands and finding new ways to change the narrative.
Another campaign in Australia, “Racism, Hatred, Bigotry – #NotInMyName”, is also pushed by a Muslim Australian woman, further defying stereotypes of men being the only leaders in the community.Objectively, there is no denying that the campaign is not the answer to all the Australian Muslim community’s problem, nor does it engage in critical policy creation or find solutions to the increasing incidences of racial and bigoted acts.However, perhaps this is a case of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
What the campaign has been successful at doing is allowing many women to engage with the Muslim community in a way they may not have done previously, perhaps because they are drawn to the superficial beauty of the hijab, however ironic that may be.
Most of the women who do engage are doing so in an effort to learn and to demonstrate their solidarity. Although some may fall under the ‘well intentioned but possibly misguided’ banner that volunteer activists sometimes do, there is still a positive intention that is worth recognising and working with.
Who are we to decide or determine how people learn about Islam? The Muslim communities expend immense amounts of carbon dioxide talking about how there is little knowledge or information about Islam in the wider community. Should we shoot down one of the most successful campaigns that has allowed positive information to be shared with thousands?
#WISH is not the whole answer, but it is not none of the answer either. What it does is open the doors to a conversation about what the religion means, what the reasoning behind its wearing is based on, and ultimately, what Islam is all about. It is a non threatening, low-barrier-to-entry way of engaging, and although it may make us as Muslim women feel insecure, frustrated, culturally appropriated and exploited even, no change is made without sacrifice and change is certainly not made if we continuously refuse to engage with the initiatives that have been positive and ultimately, successful. Right?
Honestly and personally speaking, the campaign can be uncomfortable for some Muslim women, although I speak for myself here. It takes a religious act that for some means daily struggle and constant judgment, and allows it to be worn by many others as a simple ornament, like any other item of jewellery. The significance of the hijab can be lost in that transaction, and not only is that sad, but it is a misrepresentation of its meaning. It should be noted that the concept of ‘hijab’ itself isn’t even only just about the headscarf, it includes modestly dressing across the board, and modesty in our actions as well. #WISH does not communicate that larger message.
But it doesn’t pretend to, either.
Yes, it may be uncomfortable; but is rejecting it the only answer?
Perhaps it should be thought of in this way: #WISH can be the foot in the door. It may only be a little bit of foot in the door, and perhaps it’s only in the door frame to test the waters. Nonetheless, if we are serious about changing the narrative and engaging and educating the wider public, the door at least has to be a little bit open. Will we continue to squabble about how the foot got there, holding our post-colonial grudges in our hearts, or will we try to forgive the lack of knowledge and work to ensure that the vacuum is filled?
The choice is ours. Next move, hijabis.
World Hijab Day was celebrated by a reported 116 countries around the world on 1 February this year. The initiative, started by New Yorker Nazma Khan, seeks to promote understanding and harmony by celebrating the hijab and encouraging non-Muslims to try it on and see what it 'feels like to be a Muslim'.
It is fantastic that the world came together to celebrate the hijab. If, however, the aim is to foster true connection and understanding of Muslim women, the focus has to be on more than simply focus on what they wear.
The campaign has its merits; there is no denying that there is a space for symbolism in the public realm. But the initiative can also be seen as exploiting the symbolic nature of the hijab by using the style of covering as a gateway for people to engage with the religion in an introductory fashion.
The fact is, for better or for worse, the visibility of the hijab (and the ease in which it can be policed) has made it a powerful symbol. It has evolved into a lightening rod around which debates and discussions about Islam's role in the West are centered and goes some way towards explaining why the concept of a 'World Hijab Day' is popular.
However, if the conversation stops at symbolism, which it so often does, the effect becomes to trivialise rather than achieve any sort of deeper connection and understanding. By focusing on an item or style of clothing, we again run the risk of reducing Muslim women to objects.
Ironically, this is the complete opposite of what the hijab is designed to achieve. By intimating that donning the hijab will allow the wearer to 'see what life is like as a Muslim woman', it also subtly implies that the hijab is one of the only things that makes a woman Muslim. This does have the unfortunate side effect of ostracizing Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab.
This is not to say that the concept of World Hijab Day is entirely flawed. By demystifying it in some sense, progress is made. However, it becomes concerning when time and time again, the only discourse about Muslim women is confined to the hijab.
To enrich and broaden the narrative, we should instead focus on the stories, lives and achievements of Muslim women across the board, regardless of their choice of clothing. We should recognise Muslim women as active and engaged members of the community. These are women who are doctors, engineers, accountants as well as mothers, politicians and scholars.
Women like Ayesha Farooq, a female fighter pilot in Pakistan, or Ibtihaj Muhammad, a female fencing Olympian. Women like my very own mother, who tells stories of standing up to soldiers during the coup in Sudan when she was a student. She was never defined by her clothes but always by her steely determination to make the most of life and provide the best opportunities for her children.
It has to be said though, that part of the impetus is also on us as Muslim women. We cannot simply continue to be defined by, and allow the world to define us by, the clothing and modesty choices we uphold. We cannot wait for others to tell our story. Although it may be frustrating to have to do so, these are the times we live in and so we have to actively ensure that the narratives we tell about ourselves are more than just about our physicality.
When we reach the point where the hijab is no longer something 'remarkable' in the literal sense of the word, we have reached a true understanding. Let's aim for that.
I didn't feel like I belonged,
In my tights, scarf and t-shirt with the sleeves long.
The constant stares are never kind,
What are you doing here, they seemed to ask: Do you mind?
I minded a little, and it was becoming a lot,
Yet, why did I care, for what?
For the stares of strangers, as harsh as they are,
Cannot beat the bigger picture, which is never far...
One of my best friends is from South Africa, and loves the beach.
We always joke though that when her and I head into the ocean, we look like fresh tourists that would probably end up drowning on a TV show like 'Bondi Rescue'.
Why? Well given our 'ethnic' appearance, the loud squeals when hit by a wave and the fact that we - or I at least - don't wear the usual Australian beach attire means we look a bit different to your average aussie surfie. Gotta love fitting into a stereotype right?
As a teenager, the question I got asked the most by curious classmates was always along the same lines.
"So how do you go to the beach if you're all covered up?"
I would always make some answer up that seemed to make sense. "Oh, I find a way". Truth was, my family just never really went to the beach! Both my mother and I wore the hijab, the beach was a little far and I wasn't a huge fan of swimming anyway. It wasn't a sport we were ever going to be competitive in. When was the last time you saw a Sudanese Olympic Swimmer?
Mashallah, no one can deny the beauty, the power, the draw of an ocean. So now, all grown up, what are the options?
I have been known to wade in wearing my normal, everyday clothes: a long dress or regular pants and a top and so on. In my mind, I look like this:
Where as in reality, I look more like someone who took a wrong turn and ended up drenched.
Most of the time though, I wear a pair of long running tights, a large, voluminous top and a bandana like scarf that is often misinterpreted.
It's hot, but you get used to it.
It definitely doesn't blend in, but I tell myself people are staring because they think I have swag.
I chose to cover up for reasons that meant something to me. Yes, going to the beach is an exercise in hilarity, but who said it was going to be easy all the time?
I've decided the beach is awesome, majestic and something that I am going to embrace and enjoy. I may look like a tourist, or a Sudanese Nile Perch out of water, but I'll be enjoying myself every step of the way! #Yolo, right? :P
When I'm at work on the rigs, it turns out I'm an undercover hijabi.
The experience I have reflects what blogger Leena talks about in her piece 'I took my hijab off for a day'. She describes a complete shift in the way she was perceived by society after she accidentally covered her hijab up with a knit hat and scarf.
"Oh, I much prefer hanging with guys. They're just so much simpler and there is isn't as much drama"
"Yeh, most of my friends are guys. I prefer it that way. Chicks are just so harsh to each other"
...and so on, and so forth.
Women hating on other women is an interesting phenomena, and more common than one would think.
In all honesty, I shared these very same sentiments for a long time. My actions reflected it: I did mechanical engineering and ended up in the oil and gas field, areas where women cannot be said to be the majority. The decisions were not made consciously because I knew there would be less women, but I dare say it somehow tapped my subconscious.
However, as I have become more interested in the concepts of (formal?) feminism, equity of opportunity and diversity (particularly in the workplace) I found that this attitude was something that I consciously had to stop. It was destructive, petty and I couldn't figure out why I was doing it!
On reflection, it may have something to do with the relationship between women and the male gaze.
This occurred to me early on in my oil and gas stint when I heard about a new lady joining the crew, doubling the female population. My instantaneous mental reaction was 'Oh, I wonder what she looks like / what the guys will think of her'.
Then... I mentally frowned (which is like a normal frown but no one knows you are doing it).
Why on earth did I care what she looked like or what the guys thought of that? Why was I making it some sort of competition?
It occurred to me that some of my thinking had become about (embarrassingly) competing for male attention. For someone who prides themselves on being an 'independent women' a la Bey, Queen Latifa, Aiysha (RA) and the like, it was a little bit of a shock.
In some ways, the hijab helps remove the dependence on the male gaze. In some ways it says (and this is something I have appreciated as I have aged), "well I don't want to be subject to your gaze, and I am not going to let you have the power to make a judgement on my worthiness. I am removing what you find desirable from your view.' But what I have been learning is that a simple veil and code of dress wasn't enough, it is also about changing the mindset.
Male friends have been confused at this choice:
"But why would you want to hide your beauty if you have it? Why wouldn't you want to share it with the world?"
Perhaps because it isn't all about you?
I am now working at a location where there is a large camp and plenty of female staff. It's awesome to have other women around, even if they are mostly in the admin and catering roles. I made a couple of acquaintances yesterday, who inquired about my role and expressed their delight when I shared that I was working on the rigs in a technical job.
"You go girl! Show them how it's done!"
"Oooooo!" the Philippino lady in the kitchen also remarked. "So good to see girls get out there!"
That's the sisterhood that I'm talking about.
Perhaps 'sisterhood' is too nerdy a term, or one that has negative connotations around, but we should be in a place where we back each other up rather than compete for some level of acknowledgement from the men around us. Unfortunately it isn't so easy, or at least it is easier said than done. In a world still mostly run by men (sorry Beyonce), acknowledgement and preference by the patriarchy adds an awful lot of social capital to one's account, and usually opens up more doors to achieving. Females who do in some way tap into that without compromising their integrity (perhaps by being a woman in a male dominated field...). Still working on ways around that one...
Whatever it may be, at the end of the day we should consciously choose to shift our attitudes in each and every interaction. Let's support each other and not pretend life is a zero sum game where only one woman may win.
Let's create our own worth and be proud in that.
'Everybody else was doing it'...
That was the first answer that popped into my head when asked by my parents why, at the ripe old age of 10, I had decided to don the hijab. The first answer, but definitely not the whole story…
The hijab is an Islamic head covering and an all-round code of dress that encourages modesty and self respect. A simple piece of fabric and a mindset perhaps, but one that carries connotations and political ramifications beyond what I understood at the time. It is now, 12 years on, it is an irremovable part of my identity and expression as a Muslim, but the decision to wear it is something that is constantly under question.
As I attended the local Islamic primary school at the time, the hijab was part of my school uniform. It wasn’t therefore a huge jump; I was already a part-time ‘hijabi’ and this was my conversion to full time. It was the year 2001, and the date I chose for my conversion was November the 10th. Why? It was the federal election, and I wanted to choose an auspicious date just in case I forgot. Forward thinking, always!
I walked to the house door wearing a huge white scarf, wrapped clumsily around my head and shoulders, pinned at the base of my neck. I distinctly remember my father looking at me with slight concern and asking,
“Are you sure you want to do this? This is it?”
“Yes, yes, I am sure”. Off I went…
What I didn’t realise at the time of course, was that I had chosen to wear the hijab in a politically charged environment. It was only a few months after September 11 and Muslims were now sharply visible and constantly in the media. However, wearing the hijab for my 10 year old self wasn’t about political statement or being forced into following a cultural expectation. I believed I had come of age and it was time for me to wear the scarf! Other girls might have wanted to start wearing makeup out or be allowed to date as a way of ‘growing up’; I chose to cover myself.
Why? Why do you do it, people ask. Doesn’t the concept oppress women? Don’t you miss the wind in your hair? Don’t you miss wearing a bikini to a beach?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I understood the full implications and reasons behind the concept when I made the decision, however I have settled into it with heartfelt conviction.
The concept of the hijab is cushioned in the value of modesty and of personal freedom. It means something different to each individual who wears it, that is certain.
For me personally, the hijab is about being judged for who I am rather than what I look like. There is extraordinary freedom in that, especially in a society where a woman’s looks, physicality and beauty are of such ‘importance’.
It is about being visible and proudly so, of my religion and what it stands for.
It is about saving my body and its womanly ways for those who I choose to see it (i.e. the eventual husband! Women, children and family are also allowed the hijab-less experience. The idea is to be covered from those who are marriageable).
That is not to say that those who don’t wear the hijab or choose to interpret it differently are any lesser, let me make that point clear. We tend to get very defensive about personal choices such as dress. I have respect for every woman’s choice, and that respect is the basis of all interaction. This is just how I choose to express myself.
Yes, some versions of hijab, such as the Burqa, are used as tools of oppression and invisibility in places such as Afghanistan. However, this is not the case around the world! Particularly in the West, those who choose to wear the hijab are most often following a personal choice and conviction. For some, it is their way of becoming closer to God (Allah), forgoing the material obsessions of this world. For others, it is about public expression as a Muslim. The reasons are as many and as varied as the women themselves.
In fact, the concept of wanting to ‘free’ the ‘oppressed’ covered woman is insulting to the personal choice being made. It is presumptuous; assuming that one idea of freedom of expression is socially acceptable. If it strays from such a path, it clearly must be backward and oppressive, right?
Women do not give up their voice and their thoughts when they choose to wear the hijab.
In fact, part of its intention was to give woman more agency and capacity to interact in a society, taking out the judgement of beauty.
I personally find it freeing, and it allows me to be more creative with my outfits!
So when you ask if me and my hijabi sisters are oppressed, I’ll likely just cock my eyebrow at you.
Who was it that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011? Three women, all who were covered when they received their awards.
That’s what I thought.
Let’s move away from the conversation of being ‘saved’. There are thousands of more constructive dialectics to be had – ones were hijabed women are partners rather than mere silent victims.
Isn’t it ironic that in the very act of ‘saving’ women from oppression silences them?