On the ‘American hijab’

Some years ago my hijab wearing friend was approached by an older woman in Melbourne and told to “go back home”, there was no place for her in Australia. My friend is Caucasian Australian. She was at home!

Earlier this year I was making small talk with an acquaintance, a hijab wearing Indian Muslim woman, as I waited for my pizza order. She asked me what I was doing these days. I told her that I was comparing two major tafsirs of the Quran on women’s issues and collecting various interpretations for Verse 4:34. Without a moment’s thought she said, “Oh, wow Mashallah! I didn’t know you’d be interested in something like that I mean I’d understand if a woman with hijab did that!”

So when I read this article (American Hijab: Why My Scarf is a Sociopolitical Statement, Not a Symbol of My Religiosity) two days ago it perplexed me.

To be honest, I am very happy that the author wrote this article because I’m old enough to see the shift in clothing symbols for Muslims pre and post 9/11. I was born Muslim in the West, in a world when Muslim majority countries were more secular than religious and grew up in the pre 9/11 time when Islam was being revived so I see post 9/11 world through the eyes of an older adult who has experience of what it was like before it.

I always believed that even if many Muslim women who have chosen to wear hijab (women from my generation, particularly) after 9/11 don’t realise it, it is a political symbol.

I don’t know if I agree with the title of the article, though. I think it is more of a religiopolitical symbol than sociopolitical symbol and I see the author shifting between the two ideologies without intending to do so.

The way I understand it (and I may be wrong) is that the American system may be able to understand religiopolitics (although they may still be terrified!) because of the first amendment but a self-proclaimed sociopolitical rebellion or resistance is political dissent that can become dangerous (and some may argue is even ‘unIslamic’ – live in peace with the people of the country that you migrate to and don’t indulge in political dissent etc…). Personally I don’t see a problem with hijab being seen as a sociopolitical symbol of rebellion or resistance, but I don’t think that’s what the author means it to be.

To support this I would say that her thesis is that hijab is “the antithesis and retaliation to whiteness and the American media, and a nod of solidarity to other people of color” which is confusing since hijab is none of that:

1) There are white Muslims. Many. More white women convert to Islam than men. And they wear hijab. Since the writer wants to embrace her ethnic identity, white converts to Islam should also be allowed to embrace theirs. Unfortunately converts to Islam are given a hijab even before they enter the masjid to proclaim the Shahadah. If hijab is “an antithesis and retaliation to whiteness” then scores of white Muslim women are forced to negate their ethnicity. Except that they are not.

2) Many PoC are not Muslim and I’m not sure how much they would be able to understand this ‘sociopolitical nod’ when it is a very deeply religious symbol and identifier. In fact, many PoC oppose the hijab and see it as ‘oppression’ and ‘backwardness.’ Unfortunate, but true.

3) Hijab is definitely a symbol of solidarity and sisterhood. But for many women, including Muslim women like me who *choose* not wear it, it is also a strong symbol of division because it is a religiopolitical symbol. As a Muslim woman and a person of colour, I don’t get that nod from hijabi sisters. I want it, but I don’t get it.

The sentence I found the strongest and with which I could relate strongly is “I was not in control of my narrative so long as I still sought the acceptance of those who might never want to understand me.” And that is the crux of the ‘American problem’ – that different ethnicities try to be accepted by mainstream society and media and are never understood.

I don’t know if hijab is going to help there, though. For one, a woman without hijab in Egypt will face the same problem at some point in her life. She will not be in control of her narrative as most people will not understand her post the ‘Islamic revival’ that the author mentions. If she dons the hijab (like many young Egyptian women eventually do) to seek the acceptance she so desires then it’s not her peculiar narrative any longer, is it?

As someone who has lived for years in various Muslim majority countries, my experiences as a non-hijabi woman is exactly like the author’s only that I face discrimination, dismissal, rejection and prejudice because I don’t cover my head. In my case hijab is a sociopolitical symbol because the established religion of the countries under discussion is Islam and religion permeates into everyday life 24/7, it is not something that is ‘shed or stifled’ but exhibited and celebrated and if you don’t exhibit it (through hijab) then you are not “one of us.”

Thus for all these reasons I found it odd that the author thinks that hijab can become “a symbol of rejection of white-passing” and I think for the most part, she is quite confused. I see her as having the desire to oppose White Supremacy, racism, and bigoted American media. Instead she claims to be retaliating against Westernisation (while choosing to live in a Western country!). She thinks that without hijab she could be passed for a white woman but hijab will remove that ‘privilege’ her lighter skin tone offers her. However, many white Muslim women also wear hijab. A woman can be white, Muslim, muhajabah and Western. And like a woman wrote on Facebook, a woman can be Muslim, brown, not a muhajabah and live in a ‘western’ country, wear western clothes but “never pass as white.”

The other problem I see with the ‘American hijab’ is its effects on Muslim women living outside of America because of the very heavy influence of internet media on younger generation. When pictures of American Muslim women in hijab are tweeted, shared, trended, exhibited, written about on blogs, even exploited, women living outside of America, who face very different religio-social politics, begin to think that hijab is all there is to Islam and if their sisters are wearing it despite severe backlash so they must wear it too. However, their reasons are very different and so women who don’t wear hijab become the target of discrimination.

Hijab grants the author the ‘empowerment to declare where she stands in a world that is in opposition to all that she is’ which makes sense and I fully support it if it’s a sentiment shared by most Muslim women. I only wish that this burden of rebellion and resistance was not always placed on Muslim women because generally Muslim men still don’t wear their religiopolitical symbols to show resistance.

When the Indian Muslim woman showed her surprise that I was studying Islamic texts, I had to remind her that I am a doctoral research candidate – in Islamic Studies. I am a born Muslim who chooses not to cover her hair. She looked confused but (predictably) said, “hijab is not a choice!” I ended the conversation by thanking her and told her that the next time a muhajabah tells me that hijab is her choice, I’ll tell her that it’s not!

Then I waited, but didn’t get that nod.