Hijab, “empowerment” and “choice”—the sunny side

In my previous post, I said that my (now ex-) husband did not force me to put on hijab. In the ’80’s, that was quite true. If anything, he resented the fact that I wore it, partly because he thought that it made him look like a fundamentalist. (While he was certainly growing into one day by day, he wasn’t ready to publicly announce it through his wife’s clothing; his immigration status was tenuous, and he was worried about what might await him if he ended up having to return to his homeland, where Muslim fundamentalists were often suppressed by the government.) Sometimes, he’d refuse to be seen with me in public if he thought that my attire was too conservative-looking.

And frankly, he also found my amateurish attempts to design and sew modest clothing for myself pretty embarrassing too. If I’d been able to buy some hijab-compatible clothing off the rack and wear it with style, that would have been one thing, but it wasn’t possible, given our poverty, plus what was in style at the time (which was NOT long-sleeved loose tunics or ankle-length skirts). This was of course years before “hijab fashion” stores existed in the area that I was living in, and without the internet, online shopping for Muslim clothes did not exist.

At times, I did encounter Muslim women whose husbands had pressured them into wearing hijab, but that wasn’t the majority in my community to my knowledge. Especially not among the converts. If anything, we converts tended to enthusiastically embrace wearing hijab. Looking back, I can see several reasons why this was the case. First, because we had read and/or been told that it is our Islamic obligation. Second, because it gave us an identity and a sense of community. Third, because it was one of the few “approved” ways that we could publicly practice our new religion. And fourth, because a number of us already had various issues with our bodies and/or sexualities, and hijab was a handy way of covering these rather than addressing them; it was easier on us and on the communities that we were trying to join.

Back in the ’80’s and ’90’s (and to this day, in fact), I often encountered non-Muslims who found the notion that a North American white woman would convert to Islam practically unbelievable, because they saw Muslim identity as an issue of race and ethnicity. For them, to be Muslim was to be Arab—or possibly, to be Turkish, Iranian, or Pakistani. Being Muslim meant being born to a Muslim family, which in turn had been ethnically Muslim for generations. Some had heard vaguely about African Americans converting to Islam, but whites…? As far as such people were concerned, I couldn’t possibly be a “real” Muslim.

And, my gender was also an issue. Perhaps black or brown men could convert to Islam, but a woman? How could a woman choose to join a religion which (they believed) had no room whatsoever for females making any kind of independent choice? How could it be possible that Muslims themselves would recognize female converts as part of their community?? But then, since I had married a Muslim, surely I hadn’t really converted; I was just going through the motions to please my husband. Or, he had forced me to convert.

Less often, I encountered Muslims who found it almost mind-blowing that the world’s Muslim population wasn’t limited to their particular ethnic group, and didn’t really know what to think about converts. Some Muslims I met also jumped to the conclusion that since I had married a Muslim, I must have converted just because he wanted me to. (Down through the years, Muslim men have actually congratulated my (now ex-) husband for supposedly converting me and thus saving my otherwise lost soul.)

Putting on hijab was one way of dealing with such refusals by non-Muslims and Muslims to take our conversions to Islam seriously. Through our hijabs, we said: Yes, we are “real” Muslims. Yes, we are serious about practicing Islam. Yes, we chose this. Yes, we know what Islam is… and we probably know more about it than you do. Stop dismissing us. And yeah—in your face!!

In those days, when relatively few women wore hijab in the area that I was living, we would be glad to see another woman wearing it. We would greet any hijabi we saw, and we would often receive greetings from complete strangers in hijab. We felt as though we belonged to a small but nonetheless growing world-wide network of women devoted to righteous living. Hijab helped create a bond between female converts of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as between convert and born Muslim women. (There were lots of ways that it divided women as well, but that’s for another post.)

In the conservative Sunni communities that I knew of or was involved with, women’s religious practice was ideally centred on the home. Cooking, cleaning, bearing children, serving the husband… were said to be acts of worship. Like men, women were supposed to pray five times daily, but women were strongly encouraged to do so at home rather than at the mosque. While some women were involved in teaching at Muslim Sunday School or holding bake sales to raise money for the mosque, these sorts of activities were basically extensions of their domestic roles.

It was men who led the prayers in the mosques or elsewhere, preached the sermons, went abroad for advanced religious study, answered people’s religious questions, gave nearly all public talks on Islam, led Muslim organizations, publicly recited the Qur’an, chanted the Eid takbir, gave the call to prayer… and in Sufi or Sufi-oriented groups, it was the men who sang religious songs in public and actively participated in the dhikr. When women were present in the mosque, Eid celebration, religious commemorative event, talk, conference or dhikr circle, they sat separately from the men (at the back, behind a partition, or even in another room), were not allowed to take any leadership or publicly visible role, and were supposed to keep silent. Even women’s praying voices were not supposed to be heard by men.

By wearing hijab, we asserted our presence as believers in Muslim as well as in public spaces. We were believers in our own right. We were more than our biological and culturally-imposed domestic functions; we had another, more important, spiritual dimension to our existence. We were Believing Women. Here we were, living out Islam day to day to the best of our abilities, refusing to blend in with what we saw as the increasingly amoral society surrounding us, setting a shining example for others, as well as for our children.

And, many of us had issues. With our bodies and sexualities. We had been raised in a society in which girls are given very contradictory messages. On one hand, I remember believing when I was young that beauty meant being blonde and blue-eyed, with very pale, flawless and freckle-free skin—and that since I didn’t look like that, I couldn’t possibly be attractive. (Despite my parents’ severe limitations on the TV we watched, they clearly didn’t manage to shut out the damaging media messages about women’s bodies.) At school, at the playground, and even at home, body policing of girls and women was everywhere. This girl had big boobs (which supposedly meant that she was “easy,” and in any case, boys felt free to comment, to joke about her, and even scrawl graffiti about her on the desks at school). That girl was flat-chested (which supposedly meant that she was an ugly loser who nobody would ever want, and the boys felt free to tell her so).

Girls’ and women’s bodies were sexualized, to the extent that it didn’t seem as though there was much else to them. But at the same time, there was so much anxiety about girls’ bodies and sexualities when I was growing up.

Our elementary school cracked down on girls wearing shorts, halter tops or skirts above the knees to school, even in June (and needless to say, the school building was not air-conditioned). We were told by the vice-principal (a conservative Christian who was particularly concerned about pushing these restrictive rules) that the girls’ clothing was “distracting” to the boys. While some concern was also expressed about the boys wearing t-shirts with suggestive messages, the focus was clearly on the length of the girls’ skirts and the amount of coverage that their shirts provided. At the same time, girls whose skirts were regarded as “too long” to be fashionable were scorned and teased by other students, both male and female.

Girls were supposed to be attractive to boys, but not really sexual. Girls who weren’t sexually passive, who initiated make-out sessions with their boyfriends, were viciously gossiped about and labelled as “sluts.” But girls who didn’t dress fashionably, who showed no interest in boys and didn’t date were whispered about, and their possible non-heterosexuality was a subject of speculation. It seemed that girls couldn’t win, no matter what they did or didn’t do.

One of the cheerleaders got pregnant, and that was a scandal. Shocking! As she walked the high school halls with bulging belly, other students stared.

The milk delivery man was reputed offer girls rides in his truck as a way to seduce them. People whispered about it, and warned girls not to accept rides with him, but nothing to my knowledge was ever done about him. A (married) teacher at high school hit on at least two socially marginalized girls, and ended up carrying on an affair with one of them. He was finally charged—with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” But he wasn’t charged with rape, although she was definitely underage, and in the program for students who weren’t thought capable of going on to any type of post-secondary education to boot.

The onus was definitely on girls and women to protect their reputations and to behave in certain ways in order to avoid molestation or rape. Boys and men were expected to look, to judge and “rate” girls and women, and to be sexually assertive (if not aggressive). Supposedly, if girls and women used good judgment and behaved “appropriately,” they’d be fine. If molestation or rape occurred, then the first question would be what the girl or woman had been doing that enabled this to happen.

In other words, I was raised in a rape culture, where sexual double standards were taken for granted. So, typical conservative Muslim rhetoric about hijab—“it protects women from being treated as sexual objects by men”—made sense to me. As a teenager, and for the next few decades. But I gradually became aware of what I would describe as hijab’s darker side…. which is the next post.

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  1. Modesty, Body Policing, and Empowerment: The Hijab (Part One) « The Phoenix and Olive Branch
  2. Wortwhile Reads: Hijab Series
  3. Does covering up protect a woman? | bodycrimes

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