Thursday, February 3, 2011

When Hijab is About Privilege


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.

Once when I was a young and naive new Muslim, I had a terrible conversation with a woman who was sincerely trying to learn about the hijab.

After saying hello, she very nicely blurted out her question: why do you wear that head-scarf-thing?  Thinking I was being witty, I decided to relate a particularly inspiring story I had just read online:  When a woman receives a diamond engagement ring and shows it off, everyone compliments how bright, beautiful and wonderful it is. More and more people, even strangers see the diamond and shower the woman with praises. But soon, the excitement of the diamond slowly starts to fade, and it becomes common. It grows dull and nothing special. But what if you hide that diamond and keep it secret -- showing it only to the people who truly love and care for you? Then the brightness of that diamond never fades and is valued each time it's shown. A woman's hair is a beautiful adornment, just like a diamond. And is so special that it should only be shared with her father and husband -- not with any strange man that comes along.

She smiled, and seemed to accept my explanation. I was elated -- and armed with more gems from Imam Internet we continued our chat. She asked, "aren't you hot in that thing?"  Without skipping a beat, I smiled and said, "Hell is hotter."

Our conversation slammed to halt. It's no wonder she glared at me and stopped smiling. I don't think I could have been any more ignorant, arrogant or rude.

A good portion of English, online sources about hijab are geared toward converts or aim to convince women to take on the hijab. Their arguments use sparkly, treasure imagery, presenting women as precious pearls who deserve to be safeguarded from the evils in this world. Women need to be proud and empowered. Hijab can do that for you. Islam asks its followers to behave modestly. Hijab can do that for you. Women deserve to be respected. Hijab can do that for you. Western notions of beauty require you to spend hours on your hair, make-up and starve your body. Hijab liberates you from superficial notions of beauty. Hijab makes you confident, allows you to move freely in society by removing your sexuality, protects you from assault, raises your status among believers, and helps people judge you for your words and actions, not your body.

Until it doesn't. 


Now, yes -- absolutely yes -- for many, hijab is about power. In certain communities, hijab can allow a woman to enter into public spaces to work and support her family, whether she believes it is a religious requirement or not. People do indeed choose to wear it for religious reasons, cultural reasons, identity reasons, as a form of protest or fashion expression and feel empowered by this choice. Women who may otherwise feel pressure by their community to cover up, may in fact feel confident, respected and protected by covering -- and may even garner a level of power within that community. Of course, people also use the hijab to oppress, restrict and control women, and it is absolutely a target for Islamophobia and an excuse for prejudice.

Often we hear about how hijab is about choice, oppression, culture, or religious freedom. But I've been thinking lately about certain examples where hijab is also about privilege.






Hijab as a marker of privilege has its roots in the Qur'an (33:59), which says that believing women should cover their bodies in public to protect themselves from being "abused" or "annoyed" by others. A popular interpretation of this verse argues that all civilizations have a distinctive dress or badge of honour, and that the purpose of the verse is to say that the identifying Islamic public dress protects women from harm and molestation. It then offers the example/analogy of pre-Islamic Assyrian laws that required married women to veil, and forbade slaves and sex workers from veiling.* Unsaid of course, is the suggestion that perhaps uncovered women in the early Muslim community were "bothered" because people assumed they were sex workers or slaves -- giving a reason to why the Qur'an asks women to cover for protection and be identified as Muslims.

What's gotten my hijab in a bunch are people who reason that hijab protects one from sexual assault and raises them above the status of the non-hijabi. Some of this online rhetoric reasons that covering makes you treasured, honoured, chaste and pure -- while uncovering makes you cheap, indecent, and unchaste. A hijabi is raised, praised, and valued for her Islamic faith and knowledge, even if she has none. A non-hijabi is hell-bound.

Hijab is a requirement for employment in certain Islamic schools and mosques -- and certainly for Islamic leadership. Apparently, the problem of not wearing hijab is more important than determining how a person can contribute to the community in works, knowledge and leadership.

Hijab is also a kind of privilege accorded only to cis-gendered Muslim women.

Hijab is expensive. In North America imported 'abayas start at $50, and overseas even the bargain-souq-basement prices start at $20. An Islamic inspired bathing suit is $200. Plain black scarves usually run between $10-$15, while the more fashionable scarf starts at $30. You're lucky to find a $5 sale at a bazaar, or even pretty scarves in the donation box for free.

And while I am excited for and proud of the young hijabista entrepreneurs making a business and expressing their modern style through modest coverings, I really wish they'd diversify. I have never, ever, seen a black hijab model, a fat hijab model, or a hijab model with a disability. Ever.

I'd love to go back and have that conversation all over again. I'm ashamed that I essentially told that woman she was going to hell for being a cheap, used diamond. It's frightening to see how easy it was for me to engage my position of privilege and be convinced of these arguments -- arguments I had picked up from popular online forums and articles. But perhaps that's precisely why these arguments are effective: they appeal to privilege.

It's dangerous to present modest dress and mannerisms as protection, when assault or oppression is not about clothing, and when clothing is used to restrict women. It's unfair to believe that you cannot be modest, respectful or a scholar without hijab and to do so marginalizes people who are certainly sincere Muslims, brilliant, and hijabless. Hijab does not mean you're chaste and sinless and everyone else is promiscuous. Society's ills are not solved with a piece of cloth, but with education, attitude changes and support. Hijab should not be limited, nor limiting. We are not commodities. And it's plain offensive to prefer a hijab wearer above anyone.

*From The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an by 'Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali.