Posts Tagged hijab
Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.
Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.
I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.
In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??
My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.
I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80’s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.
Today, I tripped over a modern neo-traditionalist Muslim scholar’s discussion of reasons why hijab is a Good Thing when I was looking for something else.
According to him, there are three main benefits to wearing hijab. First, because women supposedly always dress with the idea of whether or not men will find them attractive (even when they are supposedly dressing in order to impress other women…), hijab protects women from being constantly concerned about the male sexual gaze. Second, because wearing hijab trains the wearer to behave in a chaste and self-disciplined way. And third, because it marks gender difference, allowing women to look like women while not also being sexually alluring to men.
This type of pro-hijab rhetoric was all too typical in the conservative community that I used to belong to. Back then, I used to say similar things when I was asked why I wore hijab. While the argument that it marks gender difference always made me uneasy—after all, if gender differences are so “natural,” why do they have to be highlighted through clothing?—I was very happy to go on about hijab as a shield against the male gaze. As a young woman who experienced street harassment (which had sometimes turned quite threatening…), the idea that I could wear what amounted to a magical harass-repellent suit was appealing. (Even though in my experience, hijab didn’t really repel harassment so much as change its tune—instead of receiving frankly sexual comments, I routinely got told to “go back to where you came from” and worse.)
It’s hard to begin to get a handle on white converts. Even if I limit myself to North America—though I’m not sure that doing that would be entirely accurate. Even back in the stone age (aka pre-internet days), when communications were so painfully expensive/slow, our experiences as white converts were affected by whatever contacts we had with the experiences or ideas of white converts elsewhere (particularly in western Europe). It seems that ours is a transnational experience.
There really is no “white convert community” in the sense of a fixed entity. It’s more like a flowing river… or less poetically, a revolving door, with people entering and exiting all the time (and some still whirling around and around). The convert population is forever in flux. There don’t seem to be many statistics available, presumably in part because it must be hard to study such a small population that is geographically dispersed. One study in Illinois by a Muslim researcher in the late ’90’s found that about 75% of American converts (race not mentioned) leave Islam, but how applicable these numbers might to elsewhere in North America or to the situation now even in Illinois is unclear. But speaking from experience, the converts I knew were often highly mobile in more ways than one: Some left Islam. Some left conservative Islam for much more liberal interpretations (which for us at that time meant pretty much that they had left Islam… and we lost contact with them). Some moved across the continent… or to the other side of the world. Some moved repeatedly.
What do… jumpers, alternative communities, religious hip-hop, incense, Malcolm X, traveling to Asia to find a religious teacher, long denim skirts, reading Rumi’s poetry, religiously-motivated home-schooling, Sufi chanting, preachy children’s videos, religiously-themed nursery rhymes and squeaky-clean boy-bands singing religious lyrics for audiences of ecstatic pre-teen girls have in common?
They are all North American Muslim fads that I have lived through.
Man, do I feel old.
Reading a post over at Love Joy Feminism, which quotes Julie Ann asking how she as a homeschooling mother ended up getting sucked into buying an entire conservative lifestyle “package” that included wearing jumpers, I was reminded of when I and a convert friend of mine experimented with them.
Our problem in the clothing department (as we saw it, back in the ’80’s and early ’90’s) was twofold: to somehow discover a way of wearing hijab that would not look alien to North America, but would also be “modest” enough to fulfil what we were taught were the requirements for a Muslim woman’s dress in public, and to devise something similar for our young daughters to wear. For a time, we saw jumpers as the answer. I designed and sewed jumpers for myself, out of plain broadcloth. For the first one I made, I used recycled fabric—it had originally been sewn into and used for something else. My friend had slightly more fashionable ideas (and more money to spend); she bought heavy cotton patterned cloth, and paid a woman with better sewing skills to make it into a jumper for her.
At the time, we thought pretty highly of our efforts to dress “modestly”, yet also not stick out too much. We sewed jumpers for our little daughters to wear too, over t-shirts and pants, and with matching hijabs. We thought they looked cute, yet also suitably modest, especially when compared to the “unsuitable” clothing that other girls their age were often wearing. We thought that we had managed to strike a balance between timeless “traditional” values of female “modesty” and the need to relate to the time and place in which we were living, by wearing North American clothing….
But when I looked at the photo of Christian homeschoolers wearing jumpers that Julie Ann linked to, it was unnerving. It was like looking back through time at ourselves and our daughters… and suddenly realizing that actually, we must have looked pretty… strange. Frumpy. Self-righteous. Cultish.
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.)
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.
We totally bought into the virgin/whore dichotomy. Hook, line, and sinker. But we didn’t see it at the time. Or to be more precise, I refused to see it. Actively refused to admit it to myself. But that was what we did.
What were we taught, exactly? And why did we buy into it?? And why does it have such a long-lasting influence on me even today?
In trying to sort through all this, I have found Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women to be fairly helpful. All this conditioning is so hard to disentangle, so reading her polemic is has made some things clearer to me.
First of all, although the ideas we were taught were presented to us as the morally superior Muslim way over against morally bankrupt “western culture,” the reality is that a lot of it actually reflects misogynistic notions that are found in “western culture” as well. That is undoubtedly why they had such a deep impact on me—on some level, they were already there to begin with. And, even though I am no longer surrounded by conservative Muslims, there’s enough in the wider culture that keeps reinforcing these destructive ideas.
Valenti points out that there’s a “virginity myth” in “mainstream” North American culture, that is mainly concerned with girls’ and women’s virginity. At best, lip-service is paid to male virginity, but the main focus is on female virginity.