Thursday, December 15, 2005
  On Feminism and Hijab
This post to Feministe and the long line of comments on it provoked a bunch of thoughts on hijab and feminism, which I've sort of thrown together below. Basically, the author of feministe assigned her class to do something radically different from their normal routine. One of the girls came in without her hijab, and confronted a bully who had been tormenting her little sister. The discussion was about, what else, the meaning of hijab and whether American Muslim women who wear hijab can claim their choice is a feminist one (and, or course, whether they really had a choice or not), what the limits to feminist action can be, can a symbol which has come to mean one thing be appropriated to mean something quite different, and so on. So here are my rather disorganized thoughts on some of the issues:

I have worn a scarf for 19+ years. As a teenager, I was one of those the other kids called "harry" cause I didn't shave my legs and wouldn't wear makeup, tight jeans, or heels of any sort. When I read about hijab, my instictive reaction that this was a far more proactive way to say "up yours" to the men who would wolf whistle when I was out for a jog, or say "hi girls" when my mom and I passed them in our canoe. I joyfully embraced what I saw as a way to unequivocally state-- "It's my body! Keep your hands, eyes, and mind off."

I don't think a lot of Muslim women necessarily embrace it in that manner -- for many it is tied up a lot more with spirituality and identity and modesty and what they believe God wants than it was for me. Yes, I did believe that God wanted women to wear it (I've since come to the conclusion that this is at best one of many possible interpretions of the Qur'anic verses surrounding identity and modesty, and that it is definately not a big priority on God's list of what a Muslim should do), but it made sense to me that God would mandate scarves, since God was non-sexist, and had a vested interest in women staking claim to their own bodies. So, while I accepted that it was a religious thing, I wecolmed it as a way to identify mysefl as Muslim, I felt that God was recommending it as a rejection of objectification.

And, you do hear alot of Muslim women, particulary American Muslim women who are highly educated talking about the fact that they percieve hijab as a means to reject the hollywood/mabelline/car ad beauty tyranny objectifcation of women. But I think that while a lot of them talk about the objectification of women's bodies, they may not be aware of how the hijab often represents the flip side of that coin -- in America women's bodies are sexualized, bared, and exploited; in Muslim communities women's bodies are sexualized, covered, and closeted. In either case, women's bodies are implicitly and explicity viewed as primarily sexual objects.

On a personal level, I have been increasingly dismayed to find that my attempts to buck the system while very successful in American society, are coupled with a lot of baggage in Muslim societies. There is an assumption that those who wear hijab are more pious and pure, which I reject completely, and that wearing the hijab means you accept the notion that men are uncontrollably attracted to women's bodies (again something I reject, this time as being incredibly anti-male). In compensation, I am known in my local community for arguing against the mandatory nature of hijab (it is NOT in the Qur'an), and I try to poke holes in Muslim peoples' assumptions about me and the meaning of hijab all the time. I also am on the forefront of arguing and acting for women's rights in Islam -- and by that I don't mean the right to be maintained by the men in your lives and have half the amount of inheritance as your brother, by that I mean the right to lead prayers, the right to financial independance, to self-determination in education, career, marriage choice, child-bearing choices, to live a life free from the worry of violence, arbitrary divorce or custody rulings, etc. Those things, to me, are umpteen times more important than what a person is wearing!

At the same time, it is frustrating, although I understand why non-Muslim people see it this way, to have to deal with the common stereotype that hijabbed women are submissive and oppressed. Get to know a few hijabbed women -- more often than not, in America, they are very outspoken. That may not be the case overseas, but the fact of the matter is, I don't live overseas, I live in America, that is my millieu and that is where my actions have meaning, and the context in which I should be judged. (if judging is going to happen at all!)

Be all that as it may, I wish your average American accepted that, in a place like America, wearing hijab is a young woman's choice, not something forced on them. I mean, honestly, how hard is it to walk out the door with your scarf on to please mommy or daddy, but the second the bus turns the corner, or you get to school, off it goes into the bookbag or the locker? Sure, in Saudi Arabia or Iran the situation is totally different, but as I said above, we're not living there, I never been there, or even places like Egypt or Indonesia, I really can't speak to how much choice young women do or do not have in those countries. I can imagine it being much like it is here in the US, and I can imagine a lot more peer/social pressure around the issue -- that is, pressure towards wearing it, not against wearing it as we have in America.

Indeed, an interesting dynamic that we're finding in the Muslim community these days, in fact, are kids who are wearing it in defiance of their parents. Many parents are, for good reason, gravely concerned about their kids experiencing unpleasant or even violent racism in response to the hijab. Some worry that public school teachers will discriminate against them because of a choice. Some come from countries where hijab is not the norm and can't quite understand why the kids see it as being so important. Others worry that like the Bangledeshi girl in NY, their daughters will be hauled in by homeland security. So, often, it is actually an act of defiance against the parents, as well as a rejection of the beauty myths of this country.

But, be all that as it may, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the perceived symbolism of hijab and the fact that my wearing can/might be interpretted as sympathy for those elements (particularly overseas) that require it (ala Iran, Saudi Arabia, and various Islamist parties who do violence to women who do not cover), or who interpret it as preserving a woman's dignity, honor, etc. As though a woman without a head scarf cannot be modest, has no self-respect, etc. (Which, it should be clear, I consider pure bull-sh**). I've often said that if I were living in a country where there was intense societal pressure to wear one, I wouldn't.

After 9-11, hijab has become more and more a political symbol -- those who wear it associated with political Islam (correctly or incorrectly) and as being apologists for some of the more egregiously anti-women aspects of muslim society. (Whether it be the lack of leadership roles within the mosque, gender-defined social roles, or a defense of polygamy as a man's right, etc). While I have for years felt that my personal stances and pov, which I have never had any hesitation to voice, compensated for some people's misperceptions, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that I can no longer wear this scarf because there is no way in hell I want people (Muslim and non-Muslim) to think I approve of or condone current misogynist practices in various countries, or the Islamist/apologist parties that promote them. I cannot reconcile my rejection of those movements with wearing a piece of cloth that says to most people (Muslim and non-Muslim) that I accept them, even if I find it personally useful.

For many years, I vociferously disagreed with anyone who tried to tell me that my choice wasn't essentially feminist. Sure, there are other ways to get the same message about objectification across, but this was my way, and it was damned effective too. Now, I am much more conflicted about it. I don't want to give up a tool that I found useful, and in particular, I don't want it to become a symbol of something that stands for exactly the opposite of why I started wearing it. But I'm afraid it is a losing battle, and I will in a very short time feel the negatives outweigh the positives enough that I will abandon it.

Anyway, this is getting to be a long post. One last note: a lot of people say, what the heck, it a piece of cloth, if a woman wants to wear it, it's her choice, what right do you have to judge what she should or should not wear. I tend to agree with this argument, but I also think that nothing we do is ever done in isolation. Yes, women should have the right to wear whatever they want to wear (or not wear whatever they do not want to wear), but at the same time, you cannot wear something that is politically, emotionally, and socially charged and demand people forget those connotations. When you choose to put on a piece of clothing (or take it off) you have to deal with the fact that it has meaning beyond its value as clothing. If I walked into a Republican Convention wearing a Che Guevara shirt, I would expect a reaction. If I walk into a feminist convention wearing a hijab, I expect to have to deal with a bit of crap. Basically, as far s I can see, anything worth doing, is going give you some crap to deal with.
Thank you so much for your comments. Although I don't know everything (actually, little) about Islam, I was so heartened to see my student stand up for herself in this manner. Wonderful stuff to see in person and I am so, so proud of her.
What an incredible post. I never really understood hijab, and when I saw pictures of you wearing it, knowing your beliefs about womens' rights, I have to admit I was curious but hesitant to say anything. This really explains so much - you really help bridge the gaps between various beliefs and cultures, in so many of your post. (and loved the quote about Bush below!)
I stumbled across your blog after googling 'losing my hijab'!
Initially I thought it was an obligation, then I realized that it wasn't but it still served a purpose as a barrier and I liked being identified as Muslim.
Now I have lost the desire to keep wearing it, but unfortunately mu husband cannot understand and if I take it off he will be extremely distressed. What to do? I don't know.

I can relate to your indecision. I find as many reasons to keep wearing as I do to stop wearing it. The question is which one outweighs the other?

My husband would also be very ambivalent about me quitting. But, ultimately, that is my choice, not his. I am the one who has to feel like a walking poster girl for a cause I often do not support. (whether that be terrorism, Islamism, or conservative masjid policies.) And if it makes him unhappy, I am sorry to have caused him distress, but ultimately it is my choice and my responsibilty before God.

Best of luck in making your choices.

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

Causes Worth Supporting

This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

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