Friday, December 09, 2005

De-contextualizing the hijab

Feministe has a great post today in its late addition to blogging against racism. Lauren tells the story of a Muslim student who goes to school without her hijab for a day, to the surprise of her fellow students. The curiosity and positive reaction were heartening, but Lauren then goes on to make some misplaced statements about this particular occurrence and the meaning of wearing a hijab.

I swiveled around in my chair and my jaw hit the floor. Muizza stood in the doorway, in the middle of asking a question about the day’s assignment, and we charged her. Her hair hung all the way down her back, a deep cocoa brown with blond highlights and a swoop of bangs, the kind of hair girls her age would kill for.

It never occurred to me how sensual hair can be, and in my sudden mania I fired a line of questions at her: “Your parents! What did they say? Has anyone said anything to you yet? What have your other teachers said? How do you feel? Are you scared?”

She felt weird, she said. Exposed and yet empowered. No one in the school recognized her. Her mother thought it was a cool idea, but her father was a little upset. I could see why. Muizza is in general a pretty girl, but her hair was so glamorous and luxurious she surpassed beautiful and hit the mark on rock star and don’t you forget it. Her demeanor had something else to it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was so astounded at her courage that I couldn’t think straight.


She answered the other students’ questions patiently. Most of all, she emphasized one thing: Yes, she would don the hijab on Monday. Underlining this statement was that demeanor I couldn’t place before. I could look just like you, she seemed to say, but I don’t want to.


Although I am aware that many feminists question hijab and women’s choice to don the Muslim head scarf, and that I myself have been skeptical of the choice to adhere to religious law associated with the Taliban, consider that in America being “hijabed” may be a radical act, an assertion of identity, willful acceptance of life on the margins in a time of a seeming holy war. Consider wearing the hijab as a feminist act, a performative act of aggression against the hypersexualization of young women in America.

I'm having a hard time putting these sentences together to get a coherent picture. The student's hair is undeniably sensual, but she's being unfairly hypersexualized? The correct way to oppose being objectified and ogled is to hide your body instead of demanding accountability on the part of the oglers? This is rubbing my feminist sensibilities the wrong way. I think an important point that is being skipped over is that the student was free to choose whether or not she wore her hijab to school. It was opposed by her father, but she still was able to go to school uncovered and not really fear repercussions.

The reason I can't get behind the wearing of the hijab is not because I find the idea of a woman covering herself innately offensive. Modesty as deference to a higher power is a common thing, and seems pretty harmless to me. What I do object to is the line we've all heard about how the hijab is worn as protection against lusty, violent men. That cultural aspect of the hijab makes it not just a symbol, but a tool for the oppression of women.

In a US school, that particular meaning behind the hijab is not well-understood or accepted. No one that was mentioned asked "Muizza" if she was afraid of being sexually assaulted without her hijab. Without that particular current of fear in American culture, the hijab becomes almost solely an expression of faith.

The lesson here, when looking from the feminist angle, is not that the hijab is a feminist statement. Rather, we see that the solid feminist forces in this country have stripped the hijab of its misogynist meaning.
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