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.


17 thoughts on “On the ‘American hijab’

  1. ghada says:

    It is interesting to see your post side by side with the article you refer to as they shed light on the experiences of two different Muslim women in the US: an immigrant Muslim and a young, first-generation American Muslim. Here is another experience by a non-hijab wearing, young, first-generation American Muslim.

    Further, the young author’s concern about the rights of PoC has been shared by others and not only among Muslim women. A new breed of feminists is rising in the beginning of the new century that differs from the previous generation in that it is mindful of its own identity and active in bringing social justice, not only for themselves but for others as well including men, children, and women. Check out some articles here:

    But the most disturbing point in your post is generalization. You have chosen to throw a blanket of discrimination over eighty million Egyptian people because of your personal experience! In fact, my brother has been living in Egypt for years now with his family and they are the most liberal Muslims I know (no hijab included here) and their consistent view is that everyone is free to live the way they wish over there: one can go to a night club or go praying; or do both in one day if one chooses to.

    And by the way, you do not have to be Muslim to go for a degree in Islamic studies (orientalists?!)

    • Metis says:

      Thank you very much for your comment, Ghada and welcome to the blog.

      I’m finding it hard to address your concern as I get the feeling that you misread the post in several places and there are some things in your comment that I don’t understand so please correct me if I misinterpret them.

      For example, you said “It is interesting to see your post side by side with the article you refer to as they shed light on the experiences of two different Muslim women in the US: an immigrant Muslim and a young, first-generation American Muslim.”

      Who is the “immigrant Muslim woman” you refer to?

      Second, the post nowhere condemns the writer’s feelings for the rights of PoC. It comments on the importance the writer places on the hijab as a ‘sociopolitical symbol’ in fighting for the rights of PoC. I found that confusing and would be just as confused if a Christian woman of colour chose to wear a large cross on her chest to fight for the rights of all people of colour and called it a ‘sociopolitical symbol’ for all faiths and all people of colour.

      Third, this post is no more generalizing anyone than the original article which is also based on personal experiences of one individual. In fact, the writer herself says that there has been a “revival of Islam” in Egypt and so hijab has become very popular. The writer’s post is about America. My post is *not* about Egypt. I use the example of Egypt in only one paragraph to talk about hijab and personal narratives of young women living in Egypt because the writer refers to Egypt. Isn’t it a published statistical fact that 90% of women wear hijab in Egypt (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/weekinreview/28slackman.html?_r=1&)? Or read the Pew stats on how hijab is viewed in Egypt – http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/08/what-is-appropriate-attire-for-women-in-muslim-countries/

      I understand that your your brother’s experience in Egypt is different and certainly valid (even if that too is a generalization of 82 million Egyptians based on second-hand personal experience) but narratives of many other Egyptians are also valid who find that hijab is gaining unnecessary popularity (this is from 2010 but not that old – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/nov/23/muslim-girls-wearing-hijab). Ironically, the Egyptian media tell a very different story about alcohol, nightclubs and hijab and Egyptians’ “disgust at the clear discrimination” from what your brother tells you – http://egyptianstreets.com/2014/04/18/all-bars-in-egypt-should-be-shut-down/ Here are personal narratives of Arab women who chose to remove their veil (on is Egyptian) – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/valerie-tarico/unveiled-three-former-mus_b_5010742.html and this http://nadiaelawady.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/ive-gone-and-done-it-now-what-its-like-without-the-muslim-headscarf/ and this http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/1109/25/Individuality-and-the-hijab.aspx
      and why they wore it in the first place. There are many other articles but I’m sure you get the gist of my point. So I guess there *is* discrimination, coercion and judgment involved with hijab in Egypt and it all depends on who is telling the story.

      I also don’t understand your last sentence. It appears to be a comment on something I wrote but I can’t understand what it is in response to so would appreciate if you could clarify that as well.

      I hope that I have been able to clarify the points that you misunderstood.

  2. susanne430 says:

    I enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing!

    • Metis says:

      Thank you Susanne! What is your opinion as a non-Muslim American woman about the original author’s stance? I’d be happy to hear your views.

  3. ghada says:

    Thanks for replying!
    The author of one of the articles you’ve listed is disturbed about the view of young girls wearing hijab in the streets of Egypt; I wonder why he was not much more disturbed by the view of street children beggars in Egypt whose miserable looks only bring back scenes from Oliver Twist. And for the article about the young women who were forced to wear the hijab in Middle Eastern countries, how about looking at the socioeconomic, and surly political, context where such made-up, out of the question rules are formed and forced upon women?
    I have few close friends who are non-hijab wearing American Muslim women who keep their religious identity private because, whether you are aware of it or not, wearing hijab for them means moving them into the minority corner in the American society with all that comes with that from discrimination to rejection by their own people. And this is what the young author in your post is talking about. She’s got the guts to say: I am not going to hide just to get the approval of a society that will reject me if I looked different even though I have the option to do so. This is courageous. Not only is she holding on to her identity, she is also intending to stand up for social justice for people like the hurricane Katrina victims instead of preaching to other women to wear the hijab. Now if this is not feminism, I do not know what is!
    Here is an excerpt from Dictionary of Feminist Theologies:
    “The most destructive aspect of cultural imperialism is what it makes the oppressed do to themselves. The oppressed internalize the judgments of the dominant culture and find themselves acting according to the very image society has of them. Little by little, the culture and self-understandings of the oppressed become invisible to them as they are to the dominant culture. And that invisibility finds expression in rejection of their cultural customs and values and of themselves; all the more insidious because of its imperceptibility even to the oppressed.”
    And my last comment was because I wished that a PhD candidate and feminist would not wait for a nod from anybody.

  4. Metis says:

    Hi again Ghada,

    I’ll be paraphrasing the entire post if I go over the points, but I make four points in the post and your comments don’t relate to any of those. Your concerns about socioeconomical and political scenarios in Egypt are valid but they aren’t part of my post or the original post on which my post responds so we’ll go on a tangent if we begin those discussions.

    As far as feminism of the author is concerned or her courage in wearing hijab, not one of my four main points try to diminish that. I have neither said that she is not a feminist nor that she isn’t courageous, which is why I said earlier that you were misreading my post.

    Regarding my last sentence “Then I waited, but didn’t get that nod” – it’s a writing device. Sometimes writers use their thesis in the middle of the essay and close the essay with bringing a device they have used earlier to bring home the point. In this case my last sentence is related to one of the points I made earlier about hijab and sisterhood/solidarity for which I set the scene in paragraph 2 🙂

    • ghada says:

      It seems that you haven’t got my point; I understand the aim behind your last sentence and it reads as an accusation of intolerance and lack of education towards women who wear hijab. Such a cliché at this point in history.

      • Metis says:

        “I understand the aim behind your last sentence and it reads as an accusation of intolerance and lack of education towards women who wear hijab.”

        No! No! No! Where does the ‘lack of education’ or ‘intolerance’ come from? Where in the post can you find me saying that women who wear hijab are uneducated and intolerant? That is a very disturbing allegation!

        First you wrote, “And by the way, you do not have to be Muslim to go for a degree in Islamic studies (orientalists?!)” Then you wrote, “I wished that a PhD candidate and feminist would not wait for a nod from anybody.” And now you claim that you do understand the last sentence but that it reads as an accusation of hijabis being uneducated! You haven’t shown in any of those three comments that you understood the last sentence – you are contradicting yourself in each one of them.

        Misreading and accusing someone of what you misread is very dangerous. Please don’t try to put words in my mouth.

      • Marahm says:

        I disagree. Non-hijabi women would love to be recognized and supported as Muslims by their hijabi sisters. We know that hijab is a choice (in most countries, not all) that is made from various positions reflecting all kinds of differences in each woman’s background and personality structure. We even know that some women believe hijab is not a choice but a requirement. The lack of “that nod” from hijabi women sometimes indicates intolerance and lack of education on their part, not the other way around.

  5. hebahdwidari says:

    whether or not you decide to wear hijab or not wear hijab is up to you, but it is something that you will be questioned on by God on the day of judgment, as it is mentioned in the holy Quran. something like choosing to wear skirts and blouses, or dresses, that is something that is completely up to you and you probably won’t be asked, why you chose to wear dresses instead of wearing dresses. but not when it comes to a religious matter, when God clearly states that all Muslim women must cover their hair and body. (that is as far as I understand) God Bless you, in the end, there is no compulsion in religion.

    • Metis says:

      “whether or not you decide to wear hijab or not wear hijab is up to you, but it is something that you will be questioned on by God on the day of judgment, as it is mentioned in the holy Quran.”

      Yes! Yes! Yes! This is exactly what I was referring to in the post. Thank you so much for saying it. You’ve provided an apt example.

  6. aichah says:

    I dejabed two years ago and ever since I regret not doing earlier. I am a political activist and hijab was a choice springing from the need to be accepted by a very much closed community. After 18 years, I had come to terms with me and hijab just did not fit the person claiming racial mixity, gay rights, abortion rights…I have always had the same beliefs but I adamantly look for an answer in religion.

  7. Marahm says:

    I am fascinated by the fact that hijab has been elevated far above the pillars of Islam as a yardstick by which to measure not only a woman’s devotion to Islam but multiple socio-psychological positions. I have continuously been fooled into anxiety about my own commitment to Allah, based upon my attitude towards hijab. From time to time, I write about hijab on my blog, but never once have I written about my attitude and practice of prayer. I wonder, now, about the practices of other Muslim woman– hijabi and “bare-headed”– with respect to prayer and the other pillars.

  8. ” 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.”

    Yes, there are white Muslims and white Muslims should be able to celebrate their heritage.

    However, the greatest single ethnic group of Muslims are African-American Muslims. 44% of all Muslims in the U.S. are African-American.

    They rarely receive any media coverage from mainstream WASP society (besides the NOI) and even less validation by their immigrant brethern (besides folks trying to score points by appropriating Malcolm X)

    White converts are often lauded and applauded (especially when they’re heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class and conservatively practicing AND toeing the conservative line), black converts – not so much.

    Black Muslims are discriminated against on all levels within immigrant Muslim communities – sad but true.

    A Sober Second Look, though a white convert, has some very interesting posts about the intersection of race, class, gender and conversion:


    These are my personal favorites, from SSL:


    (My own comments on that post: “This is an interesting take on some of these issues: http://www.comingoffaith.com/culture/voicemails-to-his-parents-muslim-convert-on-dating/

    And here are my comments: This happens, but for black Muslim women, converts or not, it’s 10000 times as harder to find a suitable Muslim husband. White converts are often applauded, because:
    1. Many Muslims consider light skin as the most beautiful, and dark or black skin as ugly.
    2. Many Muslims consider whites as highest in their hierarchy and consider it a compliment if the “superior” white person converts to “their” religion. (This has to do with self-hate, colonialism, and racism that predated colonialism)
    3. Many Muslims consider black people “lower class”.
    4. Many Muslims are from communities that are rampantly racist, and engage in colorism and shadeism, especially Arabs, Turks, Persians and South Asians.”)

    Back to SSL:


    (This quote by SSL from that post is also very telling: “For one thing, whites—even white women—are a tiny minority of converts in North America. The problems folks like me have faced are often ugly, but they are only a very small share of the total amount of racism in the communities that I was involved in. There’s a much larger elephant in the room—the racism often faced by black North American converts within Muslim communities—that isn’t receiving anything like the attention it deserves. Other North American converts-of-color also often have to deal with racism from other Muslims, and that receives even less notice.”)




    https://sobersecondlook.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/so-much-for-sisterhood-when-white-convert-discourses-sound-an-awful-lot-like-white-racist-rhetoric/ (From this piece: “Anyway… Ozyurek’s book holds up a mirror to European converts, as well as other converts to European heritage. It is in many ways a very disturbing reflection, which goes a fair way to answering the question of why we often didn’t experience the “sisterhood” that we had anticipated. There’s nothing quite like unreflective racism, classism and unexamined social privilege (and simply bad manners and judgmental arrogance) to get in the way of sisterhood. No wonder “sisterhood” so often seemed to be in short supply.)

    https://sobersecondlook.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/so-much-for-sisterhood-being-the-self-appointed-face-of-pure-islam/ (From this piece: “Because of course, it should be all about her, and what she wants for her own kids. And there could be no good reason why the immigrant Muslims might see these issues differently—it had to be because they were “uneducated” or “nonpracticing.”

    Unfortunately, this way of thinking is far too familiar. I used to be like this. So were many of my convert friends.

    No wonder “sisterhood” with immigrant Muslim women was so often in such short supply. Because who would want to be friendly with someone who is judg-y and arrogant, and who is forever playing the “better Muslim than you” game?”)

  9. This is, IMO, the best part of Margari Azizas piece:

    “While it may be unintentional, the results of this exclusion have toxic potential, including but not limited to the following:

    1.Centering South Asian and Arab voices as larger groups that retain their own complexities (i.e. individuals are able to identify or not identify as Muslim yet speak for Muslim communities) while reducing other groups to only their religious identity
    2.Ensuring the idea of Islam and Muslims are linked most strongly to Arabs and South Asians
    3.Minimizing the historical contributions of Black and African Muslims, as well as of Muslims in North Africa who are not Arab and Muslims from regions including Southeast Asia and East Asia.
    4.Privileging Arab and South Asian perspectives as representative of the Muslim community at the expense of marginalized groups
    5.Allowing for South Asian and Arab Muslims with little ties or stake in mosque or Muslim community life to have the privilege to set the agenda religious and spiritual life in mosques and Muslim community centers.
    6.Marginalizing Muslims who strongly identify with their faith tradition by moving “Muslim” to a racialized but secular humanistic framework.
    7.Making South Asian and Arab cultures normative.
    8.Not allowing South Asians of Sikh, Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist religious identities or Arab Christians to speak to their faith traditions, while allowing solely Muslims to speak to theirs.

    1.Conflating Arabs or South Asians with Islam
    2.Reifying concept of a monolithic Muslim culture
    3.Ignoring overlap between Black and Muslim identities
    4.Promoting the idea that Islam is a foreign religion without American roots
    5.Ahistorical depiction of Black Muslims, downplaying the historical role that Black Muslims have played in freedom struggles of which #BlackLIvesMatter is a part. This includes people like Jamil El-Amin, (H.Rap Brown) who is currently imprisoned, and many others from centuries ago to today..”


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