Reigniting the Hijab Debates

It’s not enough that we had to live through the sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s but now feminists in the United States are engaged in yet another debate about what it means to be a feminist and anti-racist–two positions that are not always coextensive. Some women have taken to wearing hijab in solidarity with their covered Muslim sisters. In these times of heightened Islamophobia, such acts of support have been brave and well-meaning. They recognize that Muslims are facing an unprecedented onslaught of racism and bigotry fueled by politicians, clergy, and the media at large. For Muslims who are visible because of their race or their outward adherence to Islamic dress, the chances of being subject to physical violence have risen. Organizations tracking such violence have noted that there has been a notable uptick in attacks against Muslims and all who are mistaken as Muslims (generally Sikhs and other brown people). Anecdotally, we hear of Muslim women who have been spat at, pushed, and had their head coverings snatched off. Muslim men have been shot, stabbed, and beaten. It is clear that the inflammatory rhetoric of the Republican Party, which has harbored elected Islamophobes and racists and now has a slate of such hopefuls running for president, is bearing fruit.

One would think, then that any form of solidarity would be welcome by Muslims but we should think carefully before we uncritically applaud these moves. Nor should we disregard critiques of the assumption of the hijab as “the” marker of Muslim women simply because of the source of the critique. Recently, Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa have written in the Washington Post and the New York Times urging women not to don the hijab in solidarity. As is to be expected, there has been an almost instantaneous response from Muslims decrying Nomani and Arafa as native informants furthering the xenophobic, Islamophobic bigotry of the mainstream. The reaction is not surprising. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone from within the Muslim community in the US mounting a public critique of hijab, jihad, or any other problematic practice or belief without being subject to these charges and lumped in with opportunists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. While I cannot speak for their position on the War on Terror and their politics, to assert that Nomani and Arafa’s arguments are simply a part of liberal imperialism misses the very real overlap they have with large groups of Muslim women and Muslim feminist scholars from well before the War on Terror. We have been challenging the patriarchy of the dominant interpretations of Islam since well before 9/11, we have been arguing that the religion does not have to be interpreted this way, and there is no reason to suddenly change course because of the WoT and its attendant (and incredibly tiring) identity politics.

Furthermore, context matters greatly in this discussion. And the specific treatment of context is missing for many of the people writing in generalities about hijab. For many Muslim women, the veil is not simply a choice in the liberal, autonomy-possessing sense that many claim. The assumption that women “choose” to wear the hijab carries with it the possibility of choosing not to wear it. But this choice does not exist in every context. Women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran do not have a choice to wear the veil. For women who come to the “West” from states that mandate the veil and punish disobedience, its valence can be quite negative and the refusal to wear it can be resistance to the imposition of religion by an external authority–even if that authority has been left behind in the old country. On the other hand, for Muslim women who search their faith and hearts and adopt the veil because they believe the religion demands it, do not “choose” it because, if their belief is true, then the hijab cannot be unchosen–it is mandated by God. For faithful women, it’s particularly difficult to reconcile a position on the veil that requires women to adopt a particular code of modesty and the clear connection this has with the gendered ideas of autonomy, space, and equality even in the absence of an external state power that enforces a particular practice. After all, where is it that Muslim women find the requirement to veil. The Qur’anic verse is open to interpretation and all the subsequent interpretations come from men. If the interpretations are stand ins for the literal word of God, then how do other gender subordinating interpretations fare? In other words, If the rules on hijab are mandated by God, then should “believing” Muslim women not also adopt all the gender rules also mandated by God (as reported by many people on the words of the Prophet). Choice as a justification for hijab seems disingenuous.

I think there needs to be a more rigorous conversation about what hijabi women mean when they speak of “choice”. I have had enough arguments to wonder at whether this is simply a way of cutting the discussion short before it gets to what women think it means to be free and how that can be experienced through a dress code.  For years, many theorists like Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Laleh Bakhtiar have been contesting the gender subordination within Muslim societies. Conferences have been organized and organizations have formed to reinterpret Islamic law to be more fair to women. The very idea that this is needed is a recognition of gender subordination. And it is not necessary to state that such sexism is not particular to Islam. The sexism may not be inherent in the religion but it is undeniable that Islam treats men and women differently. And because it is a religion, such treatment and the underpinnings are difficult to challenge.

I still remember once quoting a hadith to a family member in support of women’s equality only for it to be shrugged off and dismissed as a questionable hadith. Muslim men do this all the time. They write off women’s interpretations, women’s experiences, and women’s desires for equality. And they are willing to ignore scripture to do it. They arrogate to themselves the authority to shut women up by deploying counter scripture and a dismissal based not necessarily on the validity of the idea but on the basis of gender! Please do not ask for examples, you can google any number of imams pontificating on the uppityness of women and their proper place. Pointing this out cannot be seen as playing into “imperialism” unless we are to tell Muslim women that they must sacrifice their demands for dignity, equality, if not humanity at the alter of anti-imperialism. And we then are put in the position of supporting all the foolishness spouted by Islamists and male supremacists as “the” anti-imperial mode of resistance.

So what is it about Nomani and Arafa’s claim that provokes the reaction among Muslim women?

  1. It plays into dominant Islamophobia. But then any critique of Islam/Islamism/Muslim bad behavior does that. It’s not that it plays into Islamophobia but that it flattens the hijab’s meaning into a political statement. The problem with many of the criticisms of Nomani and Arafa is that they do the opposite. Rather than acknowledging that it might be a political statement, the opponents simply mirror Noman and Arafa by stating that it is a choice. It does not reflect conservatism. Nomani and Arafa collapse Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran into a singular space conflating it with communities in the West. These contexts cannot be treated as the same, as Karima Benoune so correctly argues in her analysis of the veil cases in Turkey and France.
  2. It assumes that Muslim are oppressed by the veil. This is generalization that needs to be carefully given nuance and contextualized. Nomani and Arafa may be read over-broadly to suggest that no adoption of the veil can be “free” but, on the other hand, the counter assertion is the same by suggesting that all veiled women “choose” in the liberal sense of also being able to unchoose. For some women the veil is liberation, for others it is not. Nomani and Arafa are speaking for themselves and their own experience. Just as hijabi women professing liberation after donning the cover do the same. Nomani and Arafa can speak for themselves. Just as choosing hijabi women speak for themselves. And they do represent the experience of women who have been forced to veil, judged for not veiling, and so on. Non-veiling Muslim women are all to aware of the use of the hijab as a litmus test in the community. So while it may not be a 6th pillar, it is certainly used a yardstick in the community. Muslim women who don’t veil get treated differently in the community and outside the community and this can be flipped for hijabi women who are treated differently.  Both judgments being based on what women wear are very problematic and we should be critical of why this happens.
  3. In a time of violence against women, internal critiques are unwelcome because they fragment the community. Some hijabi women have emotionally called for non-veiling Muslim women to just shut up and sit down. We are called to support but not critique the actions. The community is already fragmented. One cannot seriously make a call for silence without coming off as an anti-intellectual hysteric. There has been a vigorous response to Nomani and Arafa and that should be welcome.
  4. Nomani and Arafa claim to be mainstream Muslim women. What is that? It grates hijabi women who don’t want to be considered “fringe” Muslim women and they are obviously not. These terms are ridiculous. Furthermore, the statement that all veiling is a declaration of support of regressive politics grates women who veil but are otherwise very progressive.
  5. What is not ridiculous is the mainstream stereotype that Muslim women are visible. That we are all under cover. Islamophobia thrives on racial profiling. And the idea that hijab represents Muslim women exacerbates the negative and violent gaze. Non-Muslims who want to wear the hijab in solidarity should do it and see how it feels to be the target of so much vilification. But just as we don’t really recommend white folk donning blackface to experience racism, we don’t have to go this far. What is needed is better and more open dialogue, more honest conversation about the problems within our communities, and more representations of our diversity including the representation of Muslims who are black, Chinese, Latino. And this also means we should represent all Muslim women with their many forms of dress rather than just the hijab.

Other points to keep in mind: for women, it is not necessarily the religion that gives us freedom to choose the veil but the liberal or illiberal political regimes in which we live. Thus to state that hijab is a choice really needs to account for how this choice actually occurs. Second, feminism is not merely everyone’s way of being a woman. It is a political movement that demands equality for women. Women have often disagreed about the content of equality and freedom. Some women’s freedom is others’ oppression. But what is pretty clear to me is that a feminism that takes marching orders from men with very gendered views of the proper place of women is not really feminism at all.