hat tip to Muslimah Media Watch for their piece about this, and spurring me to write these thoughts down.
While visiting my parents a few weeks back, I caught a bit of the coverage ABC (an American broadcast TV network) is doing on Islam in the US. I was really fine until they got Pamela Geller
on there, and then I started squirming and muttering at the TV, until my wife was generous and took me away to watch the past week's Modern Family on her iPad, thus saving my parents from having to listen to me yell.
Apparently a later bit of the series involved a reporter, Bianna Golodryga, wearing the hijab in a number of cities around the country. (I think you can watch the video here
, but I haven't. Warning for comments that look exactly like you'd expect.) Now, the practice of non-Muslim women wearing hijab and other Muslim coverings to "experience what Muslim women do" is not new; it goes back to Lady Montagu (Wikipedia entry
, her letters on Project Gutenberg
), and it pops up with regularity (see this recent column by Naomi Wolf
). But I first experienced it in the heady post-9/11 days of liberal and progressive communities in the US (particularly university-based ones). I was a sophomore in college, a double major in political science and gender studies in the process of building a specialization in Middle Eastern politics, so I was, shall we say, attentive to these discourses. And when I started to see calls for non-Muslim women to wear hijab in solidarity with Muslim-American women who were being harassed for covering, I got...suspicious.
That suspicion has lasted until today. I profoundly dislike when non-Muslim women wear hijab in an attempt to experience what Muslim women experience when they wear it, or even in an attempt to be in solidarity with Muslim women who wear it. My reasons for this are largely philosophical, and I know that many Muslim women are absolutely fine with it. But I want to try to think through why this practice bothers me so much, and what I think is so problematic about it.Thing One: It's Appropriative
Some muhajjabat (women who cover) believe that the wearing of a headcover is mandated by God; some feel more comfortable covering their hair because of cultural tradition or the environment in which they live or were raised; some wear it because it marks them as (an observant) Muslim in the eyes of others. But no matter what the basic reasons for wearing it, a woman who wears hijab becomes a symbol of the Muslim community, and is consistently visibly identified as a Muslim by other. The hijab is a mark of identity, particularly in the context of religious minority women in North American and Europe.
To wear that mark of identity without holding that identity trivializes what it means. It snaps up the signs of that identity and does not, necessarily, require any shift of perspective in the wearer; it strips them of their meaning (which strikes me as an act of profound symbolic violence), and gives them an empty and moveable content. It's taking what is someone else's.
But here I should pause, and say two things. The first is that none of the muhajjabat who I've talked to about this practice object to it. Most think it's meaningless, but others will say, "Maybe they'll learn something." (And those who think it's an injunction on all women and a proper way to be modest believe it's an unallayed good.) So clearly the appropriative element of it isn't a huge concern to all of the people whose practice is being appropriated.
And, second, frequently these acts of hijab drag are done with content: they're an attempt to learn what Muslim women who cover experience, or to be in solidarity with them. This isn't hipsters wearing headdresses
; this is a political act. So should I give up my squickiness about it? I'm not yet convinced, because of thing two.Thing Two: Drag Does Not Make You Other
The queer student group I helped run as an undergraduate did semesterly 'drag days' during Pride Week and Coming Out Week. They were a ton of fun; I have many fond memories of applying mascara to my scarce lip hair, going shopping for ace bandages, borrowing my best friend's clothes, and filling unlubricated condoms with dollar-store hair gel (much more comfortable than a rolled tube sock, let me tell you). At a post-drag-day conversation one year, someone said that they really hoped that those who had participated had taken their experience and really thought about what it meant to be a trans student on our campus.
My only reaction was, "Oh hell no."
I didn't learn anything
about what it's like being trans on my campus by crossdressing for a day. I wasn't physically threatened when I attempted to enter women's bathrooms; nobody hollered anything offensive at me; when people talked about me as a woman wearing a fake mustache (nobody was looking at my crotch, sadface), it didn't hurt me to be called a woman; I didn't have to contest my housing assignment or the name on my ID, not once. I did get a sense for how my body felt when trying to perform a sort of masculinity, and learned that I liked it--but I performed all sorts
of masculinity in college, from wearing ties at Model UN conferences to making jokes about dating a woman who went to our traditional "sister college." And none of them taught me what it was like to be a trans man, or a trans woman, for that matter.
There are certain sorts of experiences that you cannot have for yourself.
You have observe the edges of them, you can watch other people having them, you can listen to other people's stories about them, you can draw analogies between experiences you've had and ones that others describe. But you cannot just acquire them. I have been a racial minority in my neighborhood, but that does not teach me what it means to be a person of color in a white community. I have passed for a biological parent, but I will never know what it is like to have been pregnant and have given birth, to have that sort of a connection to a child. I have worn hijab, but I will never know what it is like to be a Muslim woman who covers for religious or personal or cultural reasons. That's not accessible to me, not without a series of changes of identity that aren't likely for me, not at this point in my life.
The way I can know what Muslim women who cover experience is by asking them, and then by listening. If the only way you will believe that muhajjabat experience discrimination is by wearing hijab and being discriminated against yourself, then you're calling all muhajjabat liars.
You're refusing to admit that they may have an experience you cannot have. You're assuming that they can't be trusted to report on what has happened to them; you're arguing that their impressions and feelings about their experiences are probably exaggerations or misconceptions or paranoia or lies.
I'm glad of the times I've worn hijab. They have taught me something; that having a piece of cloth wrapped around my head changes the way I hold my neck; that if the scarf isn't secured with pins or tight knots, I'm constantly monitoring it, and it becomes difficult to take interview notes; that other women are compassionate, and will tuck flyaway hairs back under your scarf so as not to embarrass you. But they haven't taught me anything about being a muhajjaba, because I'm not.
This is one of those uncomfortable parts about choosing to make yourself an ally to communities you're not a part of, particularly when there's a clear privilege differential between you and them. You have to accept, and become comfortable, with not knowing some things through direct experience, with knowing that you'll have gaps. So as much as the non-opposition of the muslimahs I've spoken with has nudged me along towards being less dismissive of hijab drag, I still oppose it from my position as an ally activist and academic. I don't want us to forget that we are not in the communities we're working with, no matter how long we're there. We have to get used to being uncomfortable, not to forget that we should be.
So if you feel called to participate in hijab drag as an act of solidarity, and checking in with the muslimahs around you suggests none of them would take offense, do it. But don't be presumptuous about what you'll learn. And maybe you didn't need to wear the scarf to do it.