Thinking about my experiences with hijab is very complicated. There are just so many layers involved—twenty-five years of wearing it, in different contexts, and for different reasons. And so much of the language that people use to discuss it muddies the waters rather than clarifies them.
Wearing hijab in North America in the ’80′s, where it made me hyper-visible and was a conscious act that I had chosen, was a very different experience from wearing it in parts of the world where it helped me to “blend in with the scenery,” and many women wore it. And wearing hijab in a country where it was legally enforced was a really different ball of wax. These were distinctly different experiences, not just for me personally, but (as I now realize, with 20/20 hindsight) in terms of what my wearing hijab meant for others.
One aspect of common discourses on hijab—both pro and con—that annoys the hell out of me is how unaware of history and context and privilege they tend to be.
At times, this led to rather silly results at best.
I recall a talk that was given at a local mosque by a well-known Turkish political figure, Merve Kevakci, who was elected, but was not allowed to take her seat in Turkey’s parliament because she wears a headscarf. The flyer for the event stated that all women attending “must observe the Islamic dress code.” (!) Apparently, the irony of holding an event which was marketed as all about how Kevakci’s “choice” to wear hijab had resulted in injustice to her, while denying other women their own freedom to choose what they wanted to wear escaped them.
And, taking into account which ethnic group typically attends that mosque, what the organizers were worried about was probably not that some woman would take it into her head to attend the event in a miniskirt and tube top. What they apparently wanted to prevent was women wearing saris, or shalwar kameez with a semi-transparent dupatta. In other words, they were trying to enforce modern Arab or Iranian-style “Islamic” dress standards on South Asian Muslim women who were wearing “traditional,” culturally-approved “modest” attire.
As converts in the ’80′s, we were led to believe that somehow, by wearing hijab, we were upholding 1400 years of unbroken, righteous tradition. “Correct” hijab supposedly represented the community’s “authentic” ties to the past. Not just to any past, but idealized pasts, such as when the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were alive, as well as various times that were presented as better than today, due to the presence of certain scholars or saintly figures, as well as the belief that back then people had somehow been more god-fearing and less worldly than they are today.
Somehow, it did not really occur to us to ask how or why garments which obviously don’t predate the late 20th century were thought to represent a hallowed past and even have the power to link us to it. Looking back on all the polyester, plastic buttons, elastic and even zippers used to construct these clothes, I wonder how we didn’t realize that what we were told is “proper hijab” is not the traditional dress of any Muslim country or community, but a modern “invented tradition” that is an expression of modern identity politics.
Not only were the clothes we wore quite modern, but the whole notion of “choosing” to wear hijab is a modern construction as well. Women in the past (in pre-Industrial Europe as well as in Muslim-majority communities worldwide) did not “choose” their own clothes the way we do today. Being able to make the range of choices about what we wear is possible due to modern-day consumerism, the modern capitalist system, and globalization, as well as our economic privilege. What range of “choices” existed in communities of the past in which clothing and the cloth it is made of were usually produced by hand, and all people were simply expected to dress in ways standard to their region, and thought to be appropriate to their social status, occupation, gender and ethnicity? In which clothing fashions change over decades or centuries?
This momentous “choice” to wear hijab that we were strongly urged to make was constructed over against the “bad” choices of other, worldly women, who in turn represented the sorry state of the world, which (we were told) is being engulfed by godless secularism, immorality and empty materialism. While Muslims everywhere were supposedly being torn from their cultural moorings, “properly” hijabed women were elevated to being the symbols of the community’s purity. Not just “purity” in the sexual sense (though that certainly mattered), but cultural and religious purity and authenticity. In other words, this was a very modern religious reaction to some aspects of modernity, that quickly went on to advocate various “alternative” ways of being conservatively and patriarchally modern.
We chose, and felt (and were often made to feel) virtuous for having made such choices. And we were largely oblivious to some types of privilege involved in the ability to choose. Sure, we knew from unhappy experience that wearing hijab was a darn sight easier for middle- or upper-class women (who could afford good quality cloth, tailors, or expensive, modest clothing from “mainstream” stories) and for petite, small-breasted women with narrow shoulders and hips (who could buy hijab-compatible clothing from “mainstream” stores that was both flattering and affordable). But we were so self-involved. We were often so bound up in our own struggles that we didn’t see how our actions were affecting others.
A friend of mine went on a pilgrimage to Mashhad (in Iran). When she got back, she told me all about how wonderful the whole experience had been. The experience of visiting the tomb of Imam Reza, of course… but also, being commended by a male stranger at the tomb on the correctness of her hijab. She was wearing a black chador and a scarf, being sure to conceal her entire body and hair at all times. The man had apparently commented on how good her hijab was, in contrast to what many Iranian women often wear. (Given that Mashhad is a city that is well known to be conservative and to expect women to wear conservative types of hijab, I do wonder which “Iranian women” the man had in mind… maybe he’d been to north Tehran and had a culture shock??)
My friend’s eyes were shining. She felt validated. On one hand, I couldn’t exactly blame her. Being a Shia woman of color who was a convert, and living in a place where Shias were definitely in the minority and often cold-shouldered by Sunnis, and the Shia community was very ethnically bound was difficult for her. She didn’t feel at home anywhere, neither in her community or family of origin, or in any part of her local Muslim community. I knew that she had had a lot of difficulty trying to get a job while wearing hijab, even though she is a very confident and competent person. It must have been a wonderful experience, to be accepted for once, just as who she was.
But (a little voice in my head kept saying). But. Why does the validation of hijab-wearing converts so often occur at the expense of other women? Something is wrong here. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to rain on her parade… and I wasn’t sure how to put my timid reservations into words.
I began to get a glimpse of the extent of how we hijab-wearing converts are in effect used as weapons against other women, in order to guilt and shame them into making the “correct choices”—to wear hijab, and to accept patriarchal privilege—when I myself began to question whether I was going to continue wearing it. My marriage had gone from dysfunctional to frankly abusive. My then-husband married a second wife (without my consent), and put me in the position where I basically was forced to find a way to support myself and the kids. I was trying to find a job, when I had not worked outside the home for 12 years. I was also starting to question other conservative Muslim ideas about gender and family, and made the mistake of expressing my thoughts in the hearing of some Muslims, who gossiped about what they had heard.
When word of my changing views reached my then-husband, he was outraged—not just because of the views themselves, but because some people were gossiping about it, meaning that I had brought shame to him.
“What is the matter with you?!?” he shouted. “Why can’t you be like… like… that white woman who wrote that book about hijab?”
“Who? Oh, do you mean Sister X?” I responded, startled.
“I don’t know… she wrote that book, and it was published by XX, and she works in X Islamic Organization’s office in X. Why can’t you be like her?!?”
His friend, who was standing there as this whole thing went down (and who had probably brought him news of the gossip), nodded solemnly in agreement.
I was stunned, though of course, I shouldn’t have been.
Neither of them even knew her name. For them, she was a white face in hijab, who was known for her conservative views on gender roles, and that was all that mattered. Knowing nothing about her as an individual, or why she had made the choices that she had made, or how her life or personality might differ from mine, they simply assumed that her example could be and ought to be followed by every single woman. They didn’t even know if she wanted to be used as a “good example” in order to browbeat other Muslim women into submission. But they used her anyway.
As others had undoubtedly used me, in the past, against other women.
After that exchange, I began to realize how ethically murky my “choices” actually were.
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For a historical discussion (with lots of pictures) on how modern hijab differs, often dramatically, from traditional women’s clothing in several Muslim-majority countries, see here. This exhibit also makes the point that there was nothing particularly “Islamic” about the clothes that women in these countries wore, as Christian and Jewish women (and men) dressed similarly. Attire mainly marked differences in class and social status, as well as ethnicity and being urban or rural, rather than religion.