Years ago, I bought a copy of “Hijab–An Act of Faith” (way back when we still had VHS tapes). Recently, I noticed that I still own the thing, though I can’t actually watch it, because—like most other people nowadays—I don’t have a VCR.
But fortunately (?) enough, someone in youtubeland apparently was thinking of people in my situation, because they posted a copy of it.
Ok, so I watched it. Just for old times’ sake, I guess. I remember that I bought that video, even though it was kinda pricey, because I thought that on the whole, it was pretty good. Unlike most of the pamphlets and books and talks about hijab that I had ever run across, it didn’t feature some solemn-faced guy telling the womenz how they should be dressing and behaving. It was mostly women talking… and they were confident and articulate.
It’s interesting how the passage of time can alter one’s perceptions.
Back in the day, the main thing that struck me about that video was how new and fresh it all seemed. Instead of the books and pamphlets admonishing women to ensure that their clothing complied with x number of detailed rules, or warnings of divine punishment for those who didn’t comply, or suggestions that women who don’t wear hijab are somehow responsible for causing men to sin (or that they bring harassment on themselves)… instead, a number of clearly intelligent, informed and socially active Muslim women talked about a range of issues. Whether it was the history behind contemporary western stereotypes of veiled women, or the impact of advertising on girls’ self-concept, it seemed that these sisters had it all down. When I watched it, I felt validated. And, confident that my daughters would find it inspiring and validating.
But now, watching it again all these years later, I notice things that didn’t really register before.
Such as, that a lot of the things that the women say are basically canned talking points. While some of the vocabulary they use gave the impression of a new, improved take on hijab, once that veneer is removed, not much in the way of arguments in its favor are presented. Also, the whole racial and class dynamic of who is allowed to speak on behalf of Islam and Muslim women. And the constant insistence that hijab is designed to enable women to focus on developing their inner selves rather than being obsessed with their outward appearance, which now seems very ironic to me. What on earth was the point of making an entire film about women’s clothing (which did not present even one unveiled Muslim woman) if not to stress that a Muslim woman’s outward appearance IS absolutely crucial, and that who you are on the inside doesn’t matter if you don’t have a scarf on your head? As well as the rather prudish apologetic, such as when the narrator lists the male relatives in front of whom a woman does not have to wear hijab, adding, “Special regard is given to the intimacy between husbands and wives.” Err, well, yes, one could word it that way… euphemisms FTW. It would be funny if it wasn’t sad.
But what really shocks me now, watching it, is the way that boundaries are represented. Or more like it, NOT represented. Ingrid Mattson says at one point:
“If I look back on the problems that I had before I was Muslim, a lot of them had to do with, with, uh, the fact that there were no limits between men and women. Um, in terms of their socialization. And it led to a lot of situations in which you would find yourself uncomfortable. Those things are solved in a Muslim community, in which, um, Muslim men and women observe those limits.”
Really? Either we have a society in which how women dress, behave and interact with men is minutely regulated, or there are no limits? Is there no possible middle ground? Such as, how about people being socialized to seek active and enthusiastic consent rather than presuming that their sexual or romantic attentions are necessarily welcome, and taught how to decide for themselves what their limits are, and how to communicate them to others?
And I must say, I am rather bemused at the invocation of religiously determined limits as a way of preventing situations in which women find themselves uncomfortable. Perhaps Mattson has not has the misfortune of encountering Muslim men who have “borderline” sexual harassment down to a fine art—they know how to make women highly uncomfortable by a few choice words, a look, a tone… but do so in such a way that if the woman were to report it, then it would probably not be taken seriously, because “nothing really happened.” And they clearly enjoy causing this discomfort.
Given her age, I assume that she, like me, grew up in an environment in which there were a fair number of confusing messages about male-female interaction (the only kind of sexuality that was typically recognized back then was heterosexual). Girls were expected to want male attention, but also to walk that invisible tight-rope between popularity and what was usually regarded as “slutty” behavior. Male attention was supposed to be received as flattering. Little was said about things such as sexual harassment or date rape. What little that was said about sex to girls essentially boiled down to “Don’t do it.” But telling girls what they aren’t supposed to want, or warning them about all the negative consequences of being sexually active is not at all the same thing as teaching them how to decide for themselves where their boundaries are, and how to communicate that, verbally and non-verbally.
Reading about a feminist self-defense course recently, I was struck by how different its operating assumptions are from, well, almost anything I was taught ever, whether before I converted, or after:
“The self-defense we teach is a feminist self-empowerment model of self-defense and it speaks to women holding their own space, creating their own boundaries, feeling safe and secure in those boundaries, and secure enough to enforce those boundaries, with their words, with their posture and their voice, and that’s kind of like the groundwork for self-defense. It’s not very glamorous, it’s not like a knee strike to the groin, but it’s effective like 99 percent times out of 100. All you have to do is feel that it’s your space, you cannot come here, you put that energy out and people don’t come there. That’s a big part of what we teach. You’re worth defending, you can defend yourself, it’s not rude to defend yourself, it’s strong to defend yourself and you can do it all through your life. And sometimes what happens if there’s an actual physical attack and you have to have some fight skills.”
And (I realized) that’s the underlying problem. Boundaries. When did I ever learn to feel entitled to take up space, to set boundaries and enforce them through body language and words? Not as a child… and not as a convert, either. What I learned amounted to magical thinking—be good, and nothing bad will happen to you. (Oh, and if something bad does happen to you, then you mustn’t have really been good.) And the endless discussions of perfecting one’s “inner hijab” more often than not encouraged us to act in “modest” ways that actually communicated deference and passivity rather than assertiveness.