Thursday, October 21, 2010

burqas are all the rage

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

When I first put on the hijab, I felt the door to my community opening. Without that piece of cloth, no one would have known I was practicing unless I was spotted at the mosque, or I worked it into conversation. Suddenly I was being consulted on complex religious matters, receiving dozens of marriage proposals (okay... three), and was acknowledged  by other Muslims as we passed each other on the street. My religious relationship with my secular world also changed. Explaining to my colleagues that I wasn't going to the pub after work was no longer necessary and restaurant staff didn't blink when I asked for no bacon bits on my Caesar salad. There was suddenly no denying my religious convictions.

But I was also spit on, congratulated on my mastery of the English language, debated and shouted at while riding the subway and verbally assaulted in the middle of a Tim Horton's coffee shop. My colleague, however, was sexually assaulted. Hayat was struck in the head. A robber celebrated 'Eid by wrapping a Muslim woman in a carpet and setting her on fire. Anwar's hijab was torn off. Shaika had her niqab ripped from her face. Marwa was stabbed to death.

So what do these women have in common? Gendered Islamophobia. They are all identifiable Muslims and have experienced deliberate violence, harassment or prejudice based on their gender.

Hate crimes against Muslims have been steadily increasing over the past decade, with reports of yet another defamed mosque, assault or attempted murder occurring on a weekly basis. Racism tends to be the motivation behind attacks on men, who are first targeted by race and then physically attacked after it's determined they're Muslim. The latest example of this was the stabbing of New York cab driver Ahmed Sharif.

But women who cover are walking advertisements for Islam and are completely targeted on the basis of their religion and not necessarily because of their race. Naturally, when men are the perpetrators, the attacks are often sexual in nature. The least innocuous is the forcible removal of the hijab or niqab. Which in some strange Orientalist male fantasy represents the complete violation of a Muslimah's sexuality.

Proponents of the hijab argue that it protects and frees women from being perceived as sexual objects. Some even erroneously pit the hijab against stereotypes of non-Muslim women being promiscuous and obsessed with abstract notions of female beauty. It's better to be covered and valued for your thoughts, words and actions than your body. While I do believe that the intention behind veiling is related to sexuality, it's very dangerous to think that a piece of cloth will protect you from assault.
But for a woman who truly has faith that her hijab liberates her from sexuality or hetero-normative expectations of male-female interactions in public -- having her hijab ripped off effectively leaves her feeling exposed and naked. Often women who've experienced this have difficulties leaving their home. Or worse, are prohibited by their male family members.

The media's role in gendered Islamophobia is just as damaging. When it comes to veiling, the media obsesses over presenting two general types of Muslimah: the westernized fashionista who is reinterpreting the hijab according to Western standards; and the covered, "foreign" woman in need of liberation from their vapid, non-educated, oppressed lives.

This positioning assumes that all Muslim women are the same and fit into either the "good Muslim," or the "bad Muslim" category.  The "good Muslim" is pro-Western, anti-niqab, goes to parties and football games and plays the part of a good national.  The "bad Muslim" covers herself, hates music, is against peace, has absolutely nothing in common with Western culture, and is completely inferior.  Because, you know, a covered woman could never be highly educated, a sex therapist, the lead singer of a band, totally in love with her Western nationality, or the life of the party.

What's gotten my hijab in a bunch is that the media doesn't call this targeted prejudice "gendered Islamophobia."  They're calling it "burqa rage."  Burqa rage.  Becoming so angry, upset and offended by the sight of the niqab that people react with violence and lash out at the offending fashion accessory. Burqa rage. I'm almost afraid that one day it could become a valid legal defense.

So far there's only been two reported cases in France, with one alleged attacker saying:

    "For me, wearing the veil is an act of aggression; I felt attacked as a woman"...

I suppose I can understand where this feeling is coming from.  What we hear over and over by the anti-Muslim lobby is that people who cover their faces can't be trusted. People who avoid looking in your eyes are hiding something. Women who cover their entire bodies in black are an affront to "our way of life" and should just go back to where they came from.  They are oppressed and experiencing their oppression on our streets means that it's infecting our way of life.  While it is straight up discrimination of a piece of cloth, it's also so very interesting that non-Muslim women are feeling attacked and are then defending their sensibilities by lashing out against the niqab.

Interestingly, in the burqa rage cases the women in niqab were engaging in very Western activities: they were outside (*gasp*) shopping for clothes (*double gasp*).  One was a white French convert.  The second was a tourist from the Emirates.

Muslim women bear the brunt of Muslim stereotypes because we can be identifiable. I always say that the hijab is just a piece of cloth, but it's so much more than that. It's a symbol of piety, of oppression and its being styled as a symbol of extremist Islam.  When for the majority of Muslim women, it's a sign of their faith.

Women especially in the West have to wonder what kind of attention the hijab will bring them -- when ironically, the intention behind it is to remove attention and promote ambiguous sexuality. Gendered Islamophobia also creates a situation where the woman isn't seen -- she becomes replaced completely by an Islamic stereotype.  Her humanity is taken over by a perceived symbol of terror.

Meanwhile in the Muslim world, the hijab has become largely cultural and these hangups politicized to the point where women have to fight for their right to wear it as Muslim countries become increasingly secular. Then there are those who continue to have their movements restricted and are denied access to education, health care and economic autonomy. For them the oppression is not in the hijab  -- that's just one symptom of an overarching patriarchal system. The hijab doesn't oppress, people do.

Muslim women are struggling against external Orientalist portrayals and racism and internal patriarchy. It's beyond lose-lose. What's missing in the discussions on hijab and niqab are women who do not feel oppressed, who are pious and decide to not wear the hijab, who are peacefully bridge building, who truly believe that covering brings them closer to God and who do not see their faith as being in opposition to the West.