White non-Muslim women and hijab… and me

The other night when I was over at No Longer Quivering, I saw a post by a white American woman from an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian background who is carrying out what she calls a “burqa experiment.” (Insert groan here.)

Non-Muslims playing dress-up with hijab are playing with a particular expression of gender, whether they realize it or not. It seems odd that they are so fascinated by such an "exotic" form of ultra-femininity and apparently disinterested in the struggles of trans people in their own communities who face discrimination and violence, but anyway...

Non-Muslims playing dress-up with hijab are playing with a particular expression of gender, whether they realize it or not. It seems odd that they are so fascinated by such an “exotic” form of ultra-femininity and apparently disinterested in the struggles of trans people in their own communities who face discrimination and violence, but anyway… (graphic courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/transstudent)

Well, it’s not as though that hasn’t already been done to death by white women. It’s hard to see what she thinks she can add to the “findings” that are out there. Not to belabor the obvious, but when a white non-Muslim woman puts on hijab, she can only experience… what it’s like to be a white non-Muslim woman wearing hijab.

She can’t experience what it like wearing it as a white convert, even, much less what wearing it as a Muslim woman of color would be like. There are multiple North American Muslim experiences of wearing hijab. Even among my white convert friends, women who were very obviously white even when they wore hijab (due to their height, eye color, skin tone, mannerisms…) had different experiences from those whose whiteness was less evident to the casual eye.

Her post seems to suggest that her “experiment” is motivated in part by wondering how much discrimination hijab-wearing Muslim women face—in other words, what it is like to be “othered” in America. It should be unnecessary to say again what has been said before by many others, and a lot more eloquently: You can’t experience being an Other in this way, because any time you like you can remove that hijab and resume your “normal” unmarked existence with few or no problems.

As white converts, we both had and didn’t quite have that privilege, which makes our experiences of hijab much different from those of Muslim women of color. Those of us who did end up dehijabing were able to blend back into white society to varying but significant extents, which is an option that women of color simply don’t have. Yet, for many years, a lot of us honestly didn’t believe that we ever could or would remove our hijab, because that would be so grave a sin that it would be unthinkable. We wore it even in situations when we really should have seriously considered modifying it if not completely taking it off. I ended up being pretty much compelled to dehijab, and I had to make the decision much more quickly than I was comfortable doing, due to economic necessity. I found the process really difficult, and very guilt- and shame-inducing, for a number of reasons. The after-effects of that still haven’t left me.

I restrained myself from posting any comments, however. While I often find posts on No Longer Quivering helpful in my own process of recovery from conservative, patriarchal religion, in my experience, anything related to Muslims and Islam isn’t something that the folks on that site seem to be able to really “get.” I told myself to just let it pass.

That night, I had a disturbing dream.

I don’t usually remember my dreams when I wake up, but I remembered this one: My youngest daughter really wanted to go to an event that The Cult was holding. She knew of course that she would have to wear hijab in order to attend. (That was the way The Cult was—even little girls were expected to wear hijab at their meetings and events.) She happily threw on a white head-scarf and long clothes. But I held a plain white, oblong hijab in my hand, and hesitated. What was I going to do? I didn’t want to wear it, but there was no way that I could show up bare-headed.

When we reached the event, she left my side, and ran off with the other girls, all of whom were wearing hijab. She blended right in. She looked happy.

I stood alone, and watched her. I placed the white, oblong hijab over my shoulders, and then pulled it up so that it just covered the crown of my head, but left most of the top of my head bare. I tried to tell myself that this was a workable compromise between being completely bare-headed (and deeply offending them), and wearing the hijab “properly”, which would be in effect a lie. Who was I trying to fool? Maybe I should pull the scarf up higher? No, lower. I couldn’t decide.

I stood there, feeling worse by the second, hanging onto the edge of my scarf, unable to decide how to wear it. I desperately wanted to avoid having to put it on at all. I felt like an idiot, like a complete misfit. I didn’t belong there. But my daughter did, and I couldn’t leave her. But there was no way that they could accept me as I was. I had to go through the hijab charade, even though they all knew that I knew that they knew that I was lying, because that was the only way they could tolerate my presence at all, even though it was all a farce….

I was so glad to wake up, and to realize that it had been only a dream.

But I also realized that this whole hijab issue continues to bother me on a deep level.

For me, hijab was many things. It was about faith and piety and obedience to God and worship, as well as the framework of life and identity and belonging to a community and raising our daughters right and… being profoundly alienated from myself. Trying desperately to identify with a very particular mode of “femininity” that was not me at all, and feeling that I had failed to be human when I finally had to admit that this wasn’t working.

It is this tangled mess of issues that makes discussing hijab so difficult for me. Outsiders usually focus on the sexual aspect—on what they see as “extreme” modesty requirements, and how these feed into misogynist notions that women are somehow responsible for men’s sexual choices. In the communities I was involved in, however, the focus was on hijab as a religious symbol that is “an act of faith” (there’s actually a conservative Muslim pro-hijab film with that title).

In The Cult in particular, we were taught that for a woman, wearing “proper hijab” was proof positive that she had true faith, no matter what else she did, or didn’t do. I can even remember being told by one of the leaders that as long as a woman kept on wearing her hijab, then she clearly had sound faith, even if she was lacking in other aspects of her practice of Islam, or even if she persisted in sinful acts such as backbiting her neighbors (!?). In that community, a hijab-wearing woman deciding to dehijab was regarded as a very public declaration of a grave decline (if not loss) of her faith. Her salvation were now quite dubious. Therefore, it was a shameful scandal. Her bare-headedness was deeply offensive.

Though, the degree of scandal and offensiveness depended on her reasons for dehijabing. If she had done so because she had given in to her condemnable yet understandable feminine frailties—if she had been motivated by fear of not finding a man to marry, or led astray by social pressure, or seduced by worldly enticements such as fashion, for example—then there was hope for her yet. It was possible that she might repent in future, and put on hijab again.

But if she had dehijabed for a reason that could not be accounted for in The Cult’s worldview, then the scandal and offense was much greater. A stereotypically “feminine” woman who was misled by the ephemeral glitter of this world was deemed sinful, but not really threatening. But a woman who had researched this issue of hijab and decided that she didn’t believe that it is necessary (and then wouldn’t back down when reminded of the rulings of eminent male scholars past and present who insisted that it is obligatory) was regarded as much more sinful, because of her supposed “arrogance” and “ignorance”—which she was shamefully parading in public by going about bare-headed.

But the scandal and offense would be even greater in the case of a woman whose  dehijabing made obvious the existence of people in the community who didn’t fit the gender binary.

The world of hijab that we inhabited was a very gender-dimorphic and heterosexist one. It was a world in which men were supposed to be hyper-masculine, and women hyper-feminine. Men and women were not only to be instantly visually distinguishable in their attire, but their behavior and mannerisms were also supposed to be gender-appropriate. Women were expected to be “modest” in the way they spoke, walked, and even sat. Such “modesty” involved being unobtrusive, and taking up less space than men did. “Modesty” here was stereotypical “feminine” behavior, minus any overt flirtatiousness.

The usual discourses on hijab that we were exposed to acknowledged that such “modesty” in dress and behavior can be very difficult for women—because all women “naturally” like to flirt and display their charms in order to attract male attention. The remedy for this sort of ultra-feminine heterosexual transgression was supposed to be piety.

The harm caused to women who weren’t “naturally” hyper-feminine but tried to shoehorn themselves into such hyper-feminine ideals of “modest” dress and behavior so that God would love and accept them (and perhaps, so that they could accept themselves…) were rarely even acknowledged. Because they were not perceived as actual human beings. They were seen as abstract monstrosities, as proof that the end of the world could not be far off.

Such ungodly, disgusting creatures could not of course be found in any properly god-fearing Muslim community, where men were men, and women were women, and of course men and women had to be quite different. Trans people didn’t exist in our world. Neither did genderqueer people, or butch women or femme-y men. Such identities would be “unnatural” and deeply wrong and had missed the mark of being human in some essential way… so their existence had to remain unacknowledged, carefully masked behind stereotypical gender roles and under layers of cloth.

(graphic courtesy of: https:facebook.transstudent)

(graphic courtesy of: https:facebook.com/transstudent)

Somehow, I doubt that is is entirely a coincidence that this gender-policing aspect of hijab in conservative North American Muslim communities usually attracts little attention from outsiders. Likely because “mainstream” North American society is still quite transphobic, and all too often has little regard for the lives of people who don’t fit into the gender binary.

Outsiders who want to carry out “experiments” with hijab sometimes reveal a fascination (or repulsion—or both) with its erotic potential as an expression of hyper-femininity. And for them, it’s a game. How fortunate for them.

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  1. #1 by Jenny Jones (j.lynnjones) on January 21, 2013 - 1:32 am

    Love your writing and thinking…really thoughtful and deeply interesting! Do you publish?

    • #2 by xcwn on January 21, 2013 - 2:41 am

      Jenny Jones—Thank you.

      I don’t publish. Blogging is enough at the moment. But I hope that you will write a sequel to _Believing as Ourselves._ I enjoyed that book.

  2. #3 by Rachel Pieh Jones (@RachelPiehJones) on January 21, 2013 - 10:52 am

    Just found your blog a few days ago while searching for posts about hijab. And this post in particular is so interesting to read, I appreciate your honesty. As a white, non-muslim woman living in a Muslim country, I have wrestled with issues of covering or not covering and have probably not done a very good job expressing it, or living it. Sometimes I do cover, most times I don’t. When I do, it is because of where I’m going or who I’m spending time with. Most people have vocally appreciated my efforts at respect, though they know I’m not a Muslim. I would be interested in hearing your ideas on situations like this. http://www.djiboutijones.com

    • #4 by xcwn on January 22, 2013 - 2:07 am

      Rachel—Thank you for your comment. I agree that it can be quite complicated, depending on where you are and what your role(s) in the communities in question are. But showing respect when you are in someone else’s country is different from carrying out a “burqa experiment” in America. Asking people what is appropriate is a good idea (it sounds like you are doing that).

  3. #5 by Jenny Jones on January 21, 2013 - 8:15 pm

    Thanks…looking back, I feel that book slightly scratched the surface of something…your writing seems to come from a deeper space…oh, there is a sequel (kinda), but it’s in the publisher’s pipeline (I think it’s coming out in the spring).

    • #6 by xcwn on January 22, 2013 - 2:35 am

      Jenny—Oh good, I’ll look for it.

    • #7 by Rachel Pieh Jones (@RachelPiehJones) on January 22, 2013 - 7:36 am

      Thanks, yes, you’re right. They are different situations. Really interesting topic, thanks for your honesty in writing – both this and other posts. I’ve enjoyed cruising around the blog.

  4. #8 by Christine on January 22, 2013 - 2:52 pm

    Out of curiosity, is it all cases of white, non-Muslim women wearing the hijab that you object to, or just when it’s done as an attempt to be Other? I ask because of this: http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/wearing-hijab It was done as a project on a religious practice from a different culture (there have been, and presumably still are, Muslim students at the school, despite it being a Christian one, it’s a programme they have, I’m not sure of the details). Despite not living in a rural area where wearing hijab would make one stand out (although perhaps in the girls’ neighbourhood it did), the project seems to have turned into to a “how are women in hijab treated” thing though.

    • #9 by xcwn on January 25, 2013 - 4:30 am

      Christine—Sigh. It’s a complicated issue. Hijab is simply a very politicized question.

      In terms of white non-Muslim women wearing it as a “project” of some sort—no, I don’t agree with it, for reasons that I explained in my post. If someone isn’t Muslim, they can’t learn how Muslim women experience wearing it. And there is no one “Muslim women’s experience of hijab” anyway—there are many different experiences. Given these points, which have been made by many other people, why do these hijab “projects” keep being carried out? Especially since the internet makes personal accounts of Muslim women who wear hijab quite accessible to anyone who wonders about what they experience?

      • #10 by Christine on January 25, 2013 - 2:20 pm

        Thanks for the reply. Your post had only really addressed the one aspect of “wearing hijab as a project”, so I had wondered if the motivation for doing so mattered.

  5. #11 by Christine on February 6, 2013 - 8:42 pm

    Having read the beginning of the project at NLQ, I fully understand now why you object to this sort of thing. I’m used to a very different culture, and made rather erronious assumptions about the context of this project. I am fully in agreement with your objections.

  6. #12 by Nydia on June 30, 2013 - 1:27 pm

    Hi, how do you feel about non-Muslim women wearing it in respect to modesty (non-experiment)? I’m catholic but I think the hijab (and dressing and acting modestly in this semi-crazed American society) is something to strive for. How would you feel (and maybe the Muslim community) if a non-Muslim wore it for those reasons?

    • #13 by xcwn on July 3, 2013 - 4:30 am

      Nydia—Briefly, I don’t agree that hijab provides an alternative to our overly sexualized society. What hijab does is to promote a different flavor of the sexual objectification of girls and women.

  7. #14 by Ambaa on December 18, 2013 - 9:41 pm

    I have just discovered your blog and look forward to reading more. I grew up in a cult that was not Muslim-based, but Hindu-based. I have continued to be Hindu, but on my own terms. A lot of what you say is so familiar to me and really brings up the confusion that still sits in my heart. Though we didn’t wear headscarves, we did dress with extreme modesty and had similar lessons about being “feminine.” Sometimes I think you never fully heal from a cult experience.

    • #15 by xcwn on December 19, 2013 - 2:16 am

      Ambaa–Thank you for your comment. I really like your blog, btw, especially the post about your experiences growing up in a cult. A fair amount of what you said in that post was pretty familiar.

      I don’t know if full recovery from a cult is possible. It doesn’t seem to be happening in my case. Maybe it depends on how long a person was in it.

      • #16 by Ambaa on December 19, 2013 - 2:26 pm

        It seems like it is always a part of your identity. And yet no one would know to look at you. It’s such a strange feeling.

        Plus there are ideas that were snuck into your subconscious that can’t be rooted out.

        I find writing to be very healing and so I blog. I hope that you find your blog provides that too. I’m going through all your archives now!

        Of course, you are also providing a great service by talking about your experiences, questioning what you went through. Maybe you were meant to help others in that way?

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