Last week President Obama made his first visit to an American mosque. Speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he emphasized the values of religious freedom, tolerance, and inclusion, telling young people: “If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here.” [NPR, 2-3-16] Photos from the event show him surrounded by hijab-wearing women, which have become a visual short-hand for “Muslim.”
Women with their headscarves are literally the gendered embodiment of Islam in the U.S., where men far less often display outward symbols of their religious affiliation. The hijab, on the other hand, readily marks Muslim women, often making them targets of public scrutiny, harassment, and worse. [LA Times, 12-10-15] As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump calls for banning Muslims from the country and fans the flames of Islamophobia, others have pushed back with public demonstrations of inclusion and solidarity.
Not surprisingly, these efforts have used the gendered visual language of hijab. One High School in Chicago received widespread attention when non-Muslim students wore hijab to show solidarity and protest Islamophobia. [New York Times, 12-15-15] Wheaton College political science professor Larycia Hawkins did the same, and her college tried to fire her (specifically for suggesting that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God”). Just this weekend, Dr. Hawkins and Wheaton announced that they had reached an agreement to “part ways.” [Inside HigherEd, 2-8-16] And last week, many college students donned headscarves to note “World Hijab Day,” a movement that has taken off since its founding in 2013 by Nazma Khan, the Bangladeshi American owner of a headscarf company.
But some Muslim women suggest that these attempts at solidarity do not fully explore the modern context of patriarchal subordination of women through efforts to control their bodies. Journalists Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa recently offered a searing feminist critique arguing that we must understand hijab today in cultural, political, and historical terms [Washington Post, 12-21-15]:
For us, as mainstream Muslim women, born in Egypt and India, the spectacle [of non-Muslims donning headscarves] was a painful reminder of the well-financed effort by conservative Muslims to dominate modern Muslim societies. This modern-day movement spreads an ideology of political Islam, called “Islamism,” enlisting well-intentioned interfaith do-gooders and the media into promoting the idea that “hijab” is a virtual “sixth pillar” of Islam, after the traditional “five pillars” of the shahada (or proclamation of faith), prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage.
We reject this interpretation that the “hijab” is merely a symbol of modesty and dignity adopted by faithful female followers of Islam.
Nomani and Arafa explain that “hijab” does not mean headscarf, but rather “curtain” (or “hiding,” “obstructing,” and “isolating” a person or thing), and has been promoted by a modern ultra-conservative political movement in a backlash against progressive changes of the 20th century. The authors write, “we grew up without an edict that we had to cover our hair. But, starting in the 1980s, following the 1979 Iranian revolution of the minority Shiite sect and the rise of well-funded Saudi clerics from the majority Sunni sect, we have been bullied in an attempt to get us to cover our hair from men and boys.” They conclude in a piece that is well worth reading in its entirety:
…we need to clarify to those in universities, the media and discussion forums that in exploring the “hijab,” they are not exploring Islam, but rather the ideology of political Islam as practiced by the mullahs, or clerics, of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State.
In the name of “interfaith,” these well-intentioned Americans are getting duped by the agenda of Muslims who argue that a woman’s honor lies in her “chastity” and unwittingly pushing a platform to put a hijab on every woman.
Please do this instead: Do not wear a headscarf in “solidarity” with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with “honor.” Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.
This parsing of the political, cultural, and religious forms of Islam – and their gendered consequences – was the topic of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s talk here in Pittsburgh last month. Ms. Ali is the African-Dutch-American activist and author whose remarkable story illustrates the many ways in which women’s bodies have literally been central to global conflict: she was born in Somalia but grew up in political exile in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; she was subjected to female genital mutilation and escaped an arranged marriage to seek asylum in the Netherlands; she became an elected member of parliament and activist, only to be forced to flee to the U.S. after her film-maker colleague was murdered and a death threat against her was left pinned to his body.
Ali’s film and other work examines the oppression of women under Islam and she has called for reforms of the religion. As a result, she’s been labeled “anti-Islam” and accused of hate speech. [Salon, 5-4-15] Progressive students have protested her invitation to speak at Yale University and Brandeis University withdrew its offer of an honorary degree, setting off debates about “political correctness” on college campuses and the place of hearing ideas that challenge one’s own or that might elicit discomfort in an educational setting. [Inside HigherEd, 9-15-14]
Listening to Ali speak at Heinz Hall, I was reminded of Ms. Nomani’s and Ms. Arafa’s challenge to more fully explore the complexity and gendered meaning of hijab as well as ideas such as solidarity and inclusion. Consider the ad campaign of British clothier H&M last fall that included a headscarf-wearing woman for the first time. [Independent, 9-26-15] Or the new line from Italian fashion label Dolce & Gabbana featuring not just headscarves, but the full length abaya. Some Muslim women were quick to point out that these are not efforts at inclusion as much as they are attempts to make a profit. [The Guardian, 1-11-16] Others point out that the Dolce & Gabbana ads use only white-European models that do not actually represent the inclusion of the diverse range of Muslim women around the globe – and that there are many Muslim businesses already producing fashionable wear. [Post-Gazette, 2-7-16]
These critiques beg further questions: is this really “inclusion” or another form of (capitalist) exploitation? With President Obama reassuring young Muslims in this country that “You fit in here — right here,” what does real inclusion look like? And what about solidarity? How do we understand the use of female-coded symbols (hijab, abaya) in this particular cultural, political, and historical moment? And what are the larger gendered consequences of efforts to demonstrate solidarity with Muslims that use only feminine signifiers and not, for instance, men’s prayer caps or beards?