Photo: oleschwander/Shutterstock

The Veil Between Muslim Women and the World

by Tasbeeh Herwees Oct 26, 2016

A few years ago, I was walking down a city street when I heard a (white) someone yell something out of the window of his car. I immediately assumed that something was Islamophobic. It nearly always is. When people yell at me from passing cars, it’s usually to tell me to “go back to your country.” So, it took a moment to register what this guy actually said: “You’re beautiful!”

It reminded me of another incident I experienced in college, while I was covering the Occupy encampment at Los Angeles City Hall: a woman came up to me, clutched my hand, and told me, “You’re so beautiful, and we’re so lucky to have you here.” She was not talking about my role as a disengaged journalist. She was reacting, very explicitly, to my visibility as a Muslim, and the ways in which it contributed to the tableau of diversity at the encampment.

People react to my visible Muslimness in such confronting and entitled ways.

Only a few weeks ago, a Bernie supporter stopped me at a restaurant and asked me to teach him how to put on a headscarf. He was working on an anti-Trump ad, and the Muslim woman who was going to appear in it didn’t know how to wear a headscarf. He pulled out an American flag print scarf from his bag. I was in the middle of dinner, so I told him there were tutorials online for that sort of thing.

On their own, each of these incidents seems inconsequential. But it’s the accumulation of these experiences — the constant barrage of commentary and inquiry into my personhood I am forced to receive from every co-worker and coffee shop patron — that makes them painful. This is why I have tried, in the past few years, to stop writing about being a Muslim person who wears hijab: because it’s an incredibly exhausting subject, and one that bears little fruit. So when I was asked to put this roundtable together, I wanted to talk less about the cloth itself, and talk more about the realities, individual and systemic, faced by those who navigate the world as visible Muslims (whether they wear the headscarf or not). In this conversation, we have Kaw Thar, a writer and “person off colour”; Shireen Ahmed, a sports writer and reporter; and Mahdia Lynn, a writer and coordinator for the Transgender Muslim Support Network.

Tasbeeh Herwees

I’ve become really tired of discussions that seek to justify or explain the hijab. I’m far more interested in how images of the hijab, or hijab-wearing women, are instrumentalized to serve political or social purposes, both within the global “Muslim community” and outside of it. For example, in the run up to the Iraq War, images of Muslim women who were “oppressed” were circulated widely to justify American military exploits in the Middle East; often the only thing that communicated “oppression” in these photos were their hijab. Malala Yousafzai is an example. Although she has spoken passionately against the use of drone strikes in her home of Pakistan, the only thing people want to talk about is her work on girls’ education — only one of these causes, the latter, is useful to the narrative that these places require violent interventions.

Western feminist discourses tend to flatten the Muslim woman into a caricature, reducing her to a symbol for a specific type of oppression that occurs exclusively within the “Muslim world”, and never outside of it. We can see how this plays out in the way the Western media has embraced people like anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali but will not acknowledge writer Hebah Ahmed.

Kaw Thar, so much of your writing challenges those paradigms — what do you think is missing from these conversations?

Kaw Thar

Perhaps the fact that wearing the hijab doesn’t always have a special significance; it’s often just a mundane part of daily life. Others tend to understand veiling in terms of binaries: veiled or unveiled, choice or forced, religious or political. But these binaries don’t capture the nuances or realities of Muslim women’s lived experiences. I personally find headscarves useful on bad hair days and the looser clothing a lifeline on days when I’m struggling with my body image.

For me at least, veiling takes on a larger significance when it interacts with something like race. I’ve noticed, as a black woman, that if I do not wear a headscarf, I’m not acknowledged as Muslim.

Shireen Ahmed

Truly, not every (un)veiled woman has the same story.

For me, and here in Toronto, violence against Muslim women and Muslim-passing women (Black or Brown) increased after the Paris attacks in late 2015. One Muslim woman was attacked by two men while she was picking up her kids from school; another woman, who was just wearing a scarf to stay warm, was assaulted by a man who mistook her scarf for a hijab. And even more women received hateful threats on Facebook and other social platforms. The Islamophobic candidates in the federal election only exacerbated this already awful climate of tension around Muslim women and their clothing choices — mainly niqab. I knew many women who decided to de-jab during this time. It was painful to see but I supported the decisions. Headcover-clad women became easy targets for racists. Visibility of hijab was triggering physical danger.

The violence has not stopped, unfortunately. Just a couple of months ago, a woman was grocery shopping with her four-month old baby when another woman came up to her, punched her, spat on her and tried to pull off her hijab. This was horrifying to me. I wanted to be able to defend myself if I ever was in such a precarious position — I wanted to be prepared to fight back — so my daughter and I attended a self-defense workshop. It provided us with basic tools and concepts to protect our bodies if we are ever physically attacked.

My daughter, Jihad, decided to start wearing hijab a few months ago. It makes me feel slightly reassured that she can get herself out danger and perhaps protect herself against violent Islamophobes.

Tasbeeh Herwees

De-jabbing is an interesting term, particularly within popular Muslim-American discourse. It shows how the conversation on hijab has stalled, even among Muslims, because the de-jabbing is often seen as an abandonment of “Islam” rather than a reconceptualization of it. The term itself seems to reinforce these binaries Kawthar talks about. Many of my friends have a very fluid relationship with hijab. It is a force of habit for most. Like putting on socks or shoes in the morning.

But certainly, when I am wearing it, I suddenly become hyper-aware of how my body takes up space and the ways in which I am being perceived. Especially in my capacity as a journalist, when I am forced to interact with people who don’t know me, I become sensitive to my visibility as a Muslim. I feel fatigued by this — by being, as feminist scholar Miriam Cooke says, a Muslimwoman wherever I go — trapped by whatever expectations or assumptions the beholder might have. Our survival often depends on how we negotiate or navigate within those spaces, whether we’ve performed the “right” kind of Muslimness for our audience.

Kaw Thar

Until recently, beards were also a marker of Muslimness for Muslim men. But given the rise of the hipsters with their bushy beards and cropped pants, the line between devout Muslim and urban youth has become quite blurry!

I’m being facetious of course, because while scarves can be removed and beards can be shaved, our ethnic and racial backgrounds, names, countries of citizenship continue to mark us out as Muslims. Which is why I find “wear hijab for a day” campaigns ridiculous; a headscarf does not capture the totality of Muslim women’s experience.

Tasbeeh Herwees

Yeah, exactly! As the most visible “symbol” of Islam, popular discourse has rendered the hijab a locus for racial, religious, social and political identity. In 2008, Cooke wrote that the veil, or hijab, had become a “marker for essential difference” for Muslim women. The Muslimwoman becomes a canvas for whatever images/identities may be projected onto her, whether those come from Muslims or non-Muslims; everything else becomes subsumed under this Muslimwoman identification. What becomes invisible when the Muslimwoman is visible?

Mahdia Lynn

Right on, Tasbeeh. I think that what we as Muslim women lose most when we become “Muslimwoman” is our agency. We are pigeonholed into a singular narrative of the woman as an object that is subject to the whims of men.

I felt this particularly as a revert who discovered Islam later in life and came from a very woman-centered and progressive place. I took on hijab at 25 and my decision was largely based on the assertion that my body does not exist for others to consume. As a woman (and particularly as a woman of trans experience), my body has been politicized and turned into a vessel for society to pour its insecurities, prejudices, and desires. Taking on hijab was a way for me to reclaim my body as my own — as a facet of my personal relationship with the divine, as a rejection of the female body as public property.

The great irony is that while taking on hijab was, for me, a fiercely independent assertion of ownership over my body, the western/liberal feminist cultural narrative was the exact opposite. When I took on hijab the story immediately became: 1) I was coerced into an oppressive religion, 2) by a man, 3) who was doubtlessly abusive towards me. My intentions, my politics, my claim to ownership over myself, meant nothing. The veiled woman in the public eye can only ever be a sympathetic victim in need of rescue.

Kaw Thar

Absolutely. The creation of the Muslimwoman is closely linked to the foundational myths of nation states in the early 19th century. It was deployed by colonialists seeking to whitewash their exploitation and cast themselves as the guardians of civilization. And it was later deployed by the political elite of newly independent countries attempting to define national identity. And post 9–11, it was used to paint Muslim-majority countries as a unified bloc, rife with violence and backwardness.

So, whether it’s a term used by Muslims or non-Muslims, imperialists or anti-imperialists, so-called Islamists or secularists, the Muslimwoman is an amalgamation of patriarchal fantasies of Muslim womanhood: heterosexual, docile, silent, etc. Which leads me to the question I’m really interested in, “Who defines the category Muslimwoman?”

Tasbeeh Herwees

I think the category is defined by the economy of images circulated within global mass media. It’s significant that in 2015, images of Muslim woman began appearing more frequently and more prominently in the mainstream (or more specifically, commercial) cultural milieu while incidents of Islamophobia began to rise. A few of these events include: the hijab-wearing model in H&M’s “Close the Loop” campaign and the Dolce & Gabbana abaya line; the creation of Raina Amin, the hijab-wearing character on ABC’s Quantico, a character who in one scandalizing scene removes her hijab to kiss her love interest; and three, the brutal assaults of two hijab-wearing girls in London: Tasneem Kabir and Meanha Begum. How do we understand these moments of heightened cultural visibility within the context of an increasingly violent surveillance state?

Mahdia Lynn

I don’t consider the fashion world’s recognition that women in hijab exist a win. A company realizing they can make money off of us (and get a lot of free publicity for it to boot) doesn’t seem like a radical act of inclusion — it seems a bit more like a capitalist industry seeking profits in a “diversifying market.”

Tasbeeh Herwees

Shireen, I’m interested in your thoughts on this, particularly as it pertains to the sporting world.

Shireen Ahmed

As far as the sports world goes, it is not as black and white as some would think. Hijab-wearing athletes are fairly new on the international competition scene, mostly due to uniform restrictions, lack of resources or cultural and societal challenges. But non-hijab-wearing Muslim sportswomen have been competing for decades and decades. The media has erased the history of the women who do not wear hijab.

The sports-writing world is mostly white, cisgendered, and male. To them, hijab-wearing athletes are a far more interesting story. These women are “smashing assumptions” and “breaking the chains of patriarchy” as they strive for excellence in whichever sport. It’s an easy human story that can be molded into something pseudo-compelling. Hijab-wearing women are very obvious visual ambassadors of female empowerment. The juxtaposition of their scarves (often believed to be forced and oppressive) with their physical activity is fascinating and often fetishized by the white gaze.

That being said, sport is definitely an area where hijab has become a reason for women to organize and mobilize. Several Muslim women have designed sport hijabs (ResportOn, Capsters, Friggini) that would meet criteria set out by federations such as FIFA (soccer) and FIVB (volleyball) in order to overturn hijab-bans. As a soccer player, I was denied the opportunity to play because my hijab automatically “othered” me. To allow women to choose to cover and compete is important. It acknowledges her body autonomy in the way she might move and the way she dresses.

Tasbeeh Herwees

When we talk about “badass Muslim women” we are usually just talking about depictions of Muslim women performing mundane or everyday acts, in other words, just athletes who wear headscarves. What elevates these women to “badassery” is the identification of their Muslimness or the fact that they wear hijab. And that’s why Muslim, hijab-wearing athletes are so often subjected to commentary that over-praises.

These representations tend to “speak back” to representations we see elsewhere: Muslim women living under oppressive regimes, disprivileged Muslim women. I think this is why the H&M model and the Quantico character stand out to me so starkly. But what about the Muslim women being targeted by surveillance? Who are the Muslim women who are frisked and interrogated by agents of the state? Who are the Muslim women being attacked on the street? Who are the Muslim women who don’t have Twitter accounts or Tumblr pages to broadcast those experiences?

Kaw Thar

This makes me think of what we were talking about earlier: the mundane. Many do not speak out because we have come to view the surveillance (through webcams, cameras on the street, being monitored on the internet) and harassment as part of the everyday reality of being Muslim. We have grown to accept that to be Muslim is to be seen as dangerous.

Shireen Ahmed

I have seen many Muslim women use “badass Muslimah” as a form of recognition. What troubles me is the “breaking barrier” labels given by non-Muslim observers who correlate any such accomplishments of Muslim women in hijab to breaking the mold or achieving something great in spite of her hijab. This is reductive. There is a very long history of (un)veiled Muslim women who have resisted, accomplished, and their hijab is not the center of their story.

Mahdia Lynn

It’s important to recognize the accomplishments of women, but when it’s framed as a “breaking barriers” story it reinforces the idea that Islam is inherently oppressive towards women. Like Shireen said, it’s like we can only achieve greatness in spite of our religion.

When every popular activist in hijab is an “unprecedented game-changer”, what does that say about the rest of us? Why are all of these “game changers” light skinned, conventionally attractive young women? Why are Muslim women only considered worthy of praise when we fulfill certain ideals of femininity?

Tasbeeh Herwees

When people talk about “barriers”, they’re often talking about representation. Certainly, in our visual culture, covered Muslim women are missing from the landscape. But this focus on representation — on images, rather than power — makes us feel better about our progress as a society.

If we see hijabi’d people on big network TV shows, but Muslim women — hijabi’d or not — are still being surveilled, harassed, or otherwise antagonized as subjects of the state, what kind of progress are we making?

This story was first published at Muslim Women Speak on Medium and is reposted here with permission.

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