Thursday, November 3, 2011

hijab is not a Halloween costume, even if you're Muslim?

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. 

Two princesses, a killer clown, Avatar, a scary magician, three zombie cheerleaders and a baby bumblebee later, Eryn finally stopped fearfully burrowing into my cloak and finally got into the Halloween spirit. This year because of a rotten cold we're all generously sharing, the family decided to stay home to hand out candy. Eryn was a pumpkin with a purple witch's hat -- and for my costume, I just wore hijab.

This week for Halloween the HuffPo ran an article discussing why hijab is a terrible idea for anyone planning to dress up as a Muslim. It argues that in this anti-Muslim climate of hijab-bans and anti-shari'a legislation, it's wrong to appropriate a religious symbol that's also often used an excuse to incite hatred against Muslims. It's an interesting article (though I have to disagree with the author's statement that hijab is only a religious requirement. We wear it for cultural, personal and political reasons too – and those who don't wear it are just as pious as those who do), but I totally agree with the article's intent – that like any negative appropriation of religious or ethnic culture, it's just wrong to commodify a religious symbol.

But that got me thinking of all the times I incorporate my hijab into my Halloween costume. Whether I'm Princess Leia, a Ringwraith, witch, sorcerer or vampire, it's hard for me not to use my own clothes for Halloween because they lend themselves so nicely to some pretty awesome costumes. An abaya makes an excellent black cloak. And I'm going to be covering my hair and dressing modestly regardless, so why not use what's on hand?


In fact, the day before Halloween I played out an overzealous parental cosplay fantasy of dressing up my baby as one of my favourite characters from Frank Herbert's science fiction classic, Dune. We put on our abayas and hijabs, burned incense and cinnamon for ambiance and used the Hubby's Yemeni wedding dagger as a prop. We sat with our Bedouin sadu pillows and Kuwaiti carpet – easily pretending to be elite matriarchal leaders deep within a desert cave, imbued in a fictional desert society. 

For a huge fan like myself, being able to wear what I'd wear to any special event at the mosque and pretending that I can control people with the power of my voice is amazing fun.

But I'm not fooled by my love of the book. It's problematic that I can stage a fictional scene in my living room with items we have lying around the house and literally walk into the mosque without changing what I'm wearing. That's no coincidence. Even though it was mostly positive appreciation, the series was written by appropriating Orientalized Arab cultural stereotypes and Islamic themes – including a range of belief systems, clothes, language, personal names and food to describe what Muslim, Arab-Bedouins will look like 10,000 years in the future (only to be saved by a white, male saviour figure and his privileged, royal family).

The difference with me using my hijab and abaya to play dress up, is that I'm intending to be a Bene Gesserit, a vampire or Princess Leia. I'm not pretending to be Arab or Muslim. Just like there's a difference between a non-Muslim wearing hijab in solidarity and raising awareness of negative stereotypes and someone wearing it for a cheap gag.
The abundance of available negative Muslim or "Muslim cultural" and Arab themed costumes is really quite astonishing:

Now, Can I appropriate my own religious tradition? Absolutely. I could dress up as a niqabi for laughs and be just as offensive as when someone dresses up in sexy burqa. In fact, some of my sisters might be deeply offended by me wearing my hijab to look like a movie character or crypt keeper. They might question why I'm celebrating Halloween in the first place. I wouldn’t know, because gentle reminders against celebrating Halloween aside, I've never had a negative response to my hijabed costumes.

The hijab as a concept and as a religious symbol of one’s faith is sacred to many. Many still use their hijab to wipe their child’s face clean, or advertise Calvin Klein and Coach designer hijabs and abayas. Does this lessen the hijab’s sacredness? At what point does the hijab become a versatile cloth for costumes, house decorations or runway material?

The key is that when someone dresses up as a stereotypical Muslim for Halloween, they get an easy out.

I really don't understand the intention behind dressing as a religious Muslim or as a "Muslim cultural" stereotype, except perhaps to have the thrill of experiencing what it feels like being an identifiable religious or ethnic minority for a few hours – without any of the prejudice that comes with it. Because after the pumpkin candles go out and the make-up comes off, I'm the one who continues to experience Islamophobia based on what I wear on my head – even if I’m dressed as a character from Dune.

And while yes, I can take it off whenever I choose, the hijab for me IS my identity. It IS how I present myself to the world and it IS a reflection of my belief that I am following a religious tradition. And that's something no costume can ever capture.