Friday, February 1 was World Hijab Day.
Some people love the idea.
Some people find it offensive.
Some people are offensive. Like the St. Paul, Minnesota policeman this article discusses.
This critical article on Patheos: World Hijab Day: Everyone’s Favorite Dress-up Day makes some really good points. In general the western world is highly ignorant, biased, belittling, and stereotyping when it comes to writing about and presenting the hijab.
One of her main points is that wearing the hijab for a day in an attempt to ‘understand’ or empathize or experience the same day-to-day realities for Muslim women is condescending. A lot of the commentary is negative and she links to some in the article. Much of the conversation about hijab patronizes.
An example of the subtle yet pervasive nature of the negative conversation about hijab in western writing popped up last night. I am reading the massively popular A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans and even found mention of the hijab in this. (worth reading, by the way!) In her chapter on modest clothing, she lists some of the ways she has viewed the clothes of others and judged them. “When I saw saw women at the airport wearing the hijab, the first word that came to my mind was oppressed.”
Okay, so she is honest, and later she addresses, sort of, these judgments. But then her husband writes in his journal, “…when I see people wearing conservative clothing. I automatically suspect abuse and control…There are reasons we associate certain clothing (or lack thereof) with certain behaviors and lifestyles. Isn’t clothing a form of nonverbal communication? If so, we should be allowed to judge others by what they “say”.”
In a way, then, he is saying that he is right to make judgments of abuse and control, or that Rachel is right to make judgments of oppression, when they see women in hijab because that is the nonverbal communication these women are presenting to the world.
They start with the assumption of oppression and then the clothing confirms it. And the wearer is at fault because, hey, the clothes speak for themselves.
**note: I am not saying RHE or her husband believe all women in hijab are oppressed. This is simply an example of how words are loaded and dangerous things and must be wielded with caution. Of how easily conversation including the veil becomes convoluted.
This all leads to a few questions I have. I asked a fellow blogger at A Sober Second Look and now I want to ask my blog readers. She wrote a post called White Non-Muslim Women and Hijab in which she also criticizes some of these ‘experiments.’ I asked her about the difference between donning the hijab as an experiment and donning it, also as a white, non-muslim woman, when living in a Muslim country. She had a thoughtful response:
Rachel—Thank you for your comment. I agree that it can be quite complicated, depending on where you are and what your role(s) in the communities in question are. But showing respect when you are in someone else’s country is different from carrying out a “burqa experiment” in America. Asking people what is appropriate is a good idea (it sounds like you are doing that).
So, now I’m asking you:
- How can Muslim and non-Muslim women engage in edifying conversation about hijab (or bikinis)? Can they?
- Do you have positive or negative examples/experiences?
- What is the difference between wearing hijab on a day of solidarity and wearing it when visiting a friend, for example, in a conservative Djiboutian slum? Is there a difference?
- Muslim women, what would you like from non-muslim women? What questions do you have for them?
- Non-muslim women, what would you like from Muslim women? What questions do you have for them?
I would love to hear from you. I would also love to host a guest post series on this. Please contact me if would be interested in contributing.