The personal is theological

Two years ago, I shared a great cartoon commentary on hijab in  "The infinite varieties of hijab," and wrote:

Doing a web search, I came across an entertaining cartoon drawn by Syrian cartoonist Puppeteer cataloging the many styles of hijab out there. Its focus is on Syria, but aside from the Kubeisya it seems pretty universal to me. And every community has its well-meaning but unnerving glarers who more or less share the aesthetic (if not the trademark coat…or the cartoon's unibrow). [HT:  My Adventures in Syria]

Brilliant and wonderfully playful.  I especially like the "ninja", who's ready to pounce.  And that Indonesian maid bit is biting but painfully familiar social commentary.

Responding to a new comment the other day, I realized that an eloquent previous contribution from a reader in either Denmark or Norway* deserved to be considered in its own right, so here it is without any further ado along with the still-entertaining cartoon.

…some Muslims do carry themselves in public with a stern, intimidating demeanor that can make the community a cold place (and which I do not think is anyway encouraged, much less required by, the Sunnah). I think that's a legitimate concern to raise in a constructive manner.
[From my original post. --SW]

In the cyber world I can pick and choose which sisters to befriend…and I would only be able to befriend the friendly ones. In RL (real life) I have been scared out of my boots by the stern, intimidating demeanors of some sisters I see on the street…I also get it from the scandinavians for being in hijab at all (and probably because I am an 'obvious' convert) and from the ummah for probably tying my hijab scarf 'all wrong' and looking like a 'wannabe'. Talk about between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Many's the time I've espied a muslim sister in the street and thrown a big smile getting ready to utter my practised 'assalamu alaikum søster!' only to be looked at like I have done something really really wrong and am about to snatch someones handbag. Just where do I fit in? Oh. With Allah. That's right. So long as I don't lie to myself. Am I any less a muslim if my hijab is not acceptable to all? I have given up now and am tired of looking like a wannabe Arab…(we have that here)…I am in hijab of my own style..and which muslim sister is not? I have yet to see two muslim sisters interpreting hijab in exactly the same way…there is always individuality even if is subtle.

I was curious about this 'cartoon' because for a long time now I have wanted to see something that presents all the different styles of hijab (and being a muslim woman in public) on one page. I am very curious since the argument rages on in all muslim circles about the 'right' way to hijab (and hijab is more than clothes right??). Isn't mastering the other (non cloth related) aspects of hijab (demeanor and vibes put out) the greater jihad?

I resent the fact that I am judged for the fact that sometimes a square centimetre of my neck is sometimes showing…when in fact I am swathed in so many layers of voluminous fabric, including a head scarf, that I cannot be in anything other than hijab, appearance wise. But not..due to the square inch of neck? I need to breathe for personal reasons. (LOL). Not a laughing matter though (can feel stern intimidating glares). It is worth exploring ad infinitum our attitudes to how we carry ourselves…even if this does destroy the humor.

As I noted when I  replied, I find the woman's testimony very powerful, and I see it as worth a heap of footnoted scholarly articles.

Feminists have long argued that "the personal is political", which I think means different things to different people. The reading of the phrase I find most stimulating is that it privileges the reliance on the proof of individual experience over the dictates of abstract, totalizing ("male"?) systems that are unlikely to address all people's needs.

In that sense, the personal is eminently theological, as well. In fact, I have profound concerns about theologians no matter how erudite who don't feel it necessary to test their theories and rulings against the personal experiences and struggles of real people today, especially those whose backgrounds, challenges and dilemmas are unfamiliar to a still overwhelmingly male-dominated scholarly class.

And, no, this isn't a complaint against a straw man. In a world where one-size-fits-all approaches are rightly out of favor, a lot of people pay lip service to the ongoing evolution and adaptation of Islamic law based on circumstance while ironically fighting tooth and nail at every turn to deny the possibility of rulings crafted centuries ago in far-off lands being in need of reevaluation. Especially in the area of gender.

But this is an old hobby horse of mine.


* The giveaway is the choice of the word søster [sister]. Were she Swedish or Finnish, it would be syster or sisar, respectively.

Not that I could even order a cup of coffee in Finnish. It is not an Indo-European language with more in common grammatically with Turkish than its the neighboring tongues. And they don't have Thor, which I find very disorienting. But I digress.

  • Vinod

    Well…I find the fact that orthodoxy can prescribe whether prayers need to be made up in repentence for missing them to be something that can also be described as ‘personal is theological’.

  • Manas Shaikh

    The stern-faced Muslims.
    The inconsiderate Muslims.
    The sectarian Muslims.
    I dislike their attitude.

  • TheLadyOfTheHouse

    Hmm, I find this picture to be a bit inaccurate.
    Actually the one labeled “qubeisya” is not a Qubeisiyyat dress. What is shown is the style of the conservative Muslims who live in the Midaan district of Damascus as well as other conservative places like the city of Hama. The “costume” is the navy blue jilbab (they call it a “manto” or sometimes a “banto”) with a black scarf (“mandeel”), often done as an under- or over- the nose niqab, or with sunglasses and gloves, or with a complete over-the-face black scarf draped over a white scarf (in increasing levels of conservativeness). There is no “glare” because most of the women who dress that way are from lower socio-economic groups and don’t have any religious chips on their shoulders. Many of them don’t even pray!
    The one labeled Syrian-style wahabe is also not really accurate IME. I have not seen a brown jilbab trend in Syria at all in the 10 years I have been going there. The most conservatively dressed people from Midaan(at least nominally) follow the Shaafi’i madhhab.
    The lower-level Qubeisiyyat ladies tend to wear the navy blue jilbab with a WHITE scarf tied as the “mini-qubeisiyya” with a poof at the neck. They do not “glare” either! For heaven’s sake, these are the ladies who run children’s programs!
    To date, most of those wearing the “Saudi-style” outfit I have seen in Syria are foreign students, not native Syrians.
    They also forgot that most of the Iranian tourists wear a chador that is usually printed in small florals that look like bed sheets :)

  • svend

    Salaams, Lady. Can’t claim your sartorial insights, but I certainly have noticed comparably cold stares (sometimes accompanied by a quickness boss around people they don’t even know) at masajid in my time, often from people who seem posterchildren for traditionalism. Who or what that reflects on (perhaps it’s just human nature), I don’t know, but it’s still ugly and off-putting. Also, having done a short tour of duty in a Catholic school as a kid I don’t find it hard to imagine people with such frosty demeanors working with children. Of course, I also have seen many wonderfully warm and generous people in super-traditional garb, but sadly they rarely seem to set the tone in our organizations and community events (though this is slowly changing, I think). Bottom line, in my view, is that you need more warmth and community when you’re in a diaspora. That’s my favorite mosques tend to be reminiscent of African-American Baptist churches, which long served as oases of support in an often hostile, racialized world.