Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hijab: As Seen On TV

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.  

Introducing the Hijab 5000! Your life will be transformed within seconds of putting it on! Not only will it protect you from the untoward gaze of lustful and sexually uncontrollable men, but you'll sure turn heads when everyone hears of your hijab's scientific miracles. With just one application, the hijab will deep condition and protect your gorgeous locks from pollution; keep you warm by helping you retain 40-60% of your body heat; protect you from the sun's harmful rays; promote healthy hygiene – no more stray hairs in your salad; boost your self-esteem; pave the way for marriage proposals; grant you protection from the evil-eye and cure your infertility!

I love it when the media sensationalises the hijab – othering, exotifying and generalising a personal religious symbol. But Muslims sensationalise the hijab too. While a few of the above "facts" are actually true, they’re often used to market the hijab beyond reasons of modesty, religious adherence or identity with Islam.

Hijab influencing one’s fertility is something I recently heard on TLC’s All-American Muslim. Now, I know the show is reality TV – the aim is to sensationalise and pick up on minuscule but shocking sound-bites just to blow them out of proportion. So I wasn’t that surprised when looking through their online clips I found one called, “Hijab’s Influence on Infertility.”

Though after watching the clips, reading reviews, and speaking to fans of the show, I would have simply called it: “Women wear or don’t wear the hijab for a million different reasons.”

(But wood turtle, it's just a title – lighten up! I know, I know. But it reminded me of all the little, ubiquitous ways the media continues to perpetrate misunderstandings about hijab. So I'm going to take this opportunity to complain.)

So in last week’s episode, Samira Amen-Fawaz decided to put on the hijab. She wore hijab pre-9/11 but took it off believing that people saw the hijab as something “scary.”

One of her many reasons for putting it back on includes her desire to become closer to God, in the hopes that by doing so, she’ll have the support to get through this trying time of infertility while she and her husband attempt to produce a child. Now, she doesn’t overtly say, “wearing hijab will help me get pregnant” but simply explains in a twelve second sound bite, that her infertility struggles are a sign from God saying, “when are you going to wake up and listen to me?”

Naturally, this is the point reality TV wants to exploit.


Samira spends the rest of the episode experimenting with a funky, not-at-all-scary pink and orange florescent hijab; receiving compliments from her family when they see her in hijab; saying she wants her hijab to be friendly; claiming that she can still swim whenever she wants to and that she feels “God will protect her” from any negative attitudes.


The show also discusses hijab in a quick roundtable with a few of the other “stars.” The women all agree that non-hijabis are 100% Muslim and a hijabi on the panel states she has no right to say otherwise.

It’s the men who claim that, “a Muslim woman who wears the hijab is empowered because she controls how much men can or cannot see. And as men we sometimes don't think with our upper head.”
Classy. Well, it is reality TV.

In a blog post for Discovery.com Samira explains her decision more in-depth:
God has whispered to me for years now and I never quite understood the whispers, but always felt His presence. I know He has remained by my side during my most difficult times and has held my hand through many trying days.
Wearing the hijab does not make me less of a woman; in fact, it empowers me, giving me strength and comfort. I feel it brings me closer to my creator.
I have gained a new confidence and feel at greater peace with my inner struggles. I embrace my faith, my country and my hijab with great honor and pride.
Despite the fact that hijab gives Samira confidence, strength and a sense of peace during her struggles, TLC, Jezebel and the New York Times have all marketed or focused only on this supposed magical connection between hijab and infertility. And even if it's just a sensational title for an article, Samira’s reasons for taking on the hijab are depreciated and the meaning of hijab is reduced to a simple talisman.
The NYT goes so far as to say that audiences will be "uncomfortable" when, discussing her struggles with infertility, Samira’s imam "emotionally blackmails" her by saying, "When you have hijab, you will have more blessings from God. When you have more blessings from God, it means God will cooperate more with you and give you a lot of good things in your life" – leading the reader to conclude that he's made a connection between her infertility and lack of hijab.

Now, this is pretty standard advice some leaders dish out when they really have nothing to say or when the solution is out of their hands. It may be problematic advice, but he's NOT advising that florescent coloured hijabs will increase one's chances of conceiving. He's more likely saying that growing closer to God will help you find more good in your life (even in light of the bad). But of course, growing closer to God for women means starting with the hijab. *eye roll*

I know a few couples who have struggled with infertility and they've told me they'll do anything within their power to help the process: pee on sticks, take their temperature, sit on ice, stand on their head, acupuncture, vitamin supplements, sex scheduling, exercise and prayer just for starters. There's also surgery, IVF, hormone therapy, surrogacy, adoption and more to consider. It is deeply personal.

So why make a big deal out of Samira thinking that if she puts on the hijab, she’ll please God and in some Divine dispensation she’ll get the pregnancy she desires? Maybe she believes hijab makes her a "good Muslim" and this gives her peace of mind. Or maybe she’s just willing to try anything. Maybe she says it all in her blog post. If hijab helps her, then more power to her.

Regardless, her infertility and decision to wear the hijab shouldn't have be used for shock value or Google search optimization. Not when there's actually more substance to the topic (and episode) than one little sound-bite. The fact that it's a media selling point tells me that hijab is seen as something wrong, irrational or (haha) absurd.

People wear hijab for a million reasons – some are rooted in tradition, culture, religious belief, or yes, superstition. And no one has the right to judge another’s choice to wear or not wear the hijab. It's disingenuous to the hijab and Samira to purposefully focus on hijab's magical powers – even if it's only in a sensational title.