Rediscovering “Undercover”: Cassidy Herrington and Hijab Tourism

Kentucky Kernel writer Cassidy Herrington wore the hijab for the entire month of October. She wrote about her experience in a column published on October 31, 2010. Many of us have seen the column make it rounds in our Facebook feeds, and so the ladies of MMW sat down to share their thoughts.

Azra: Hijabi tourism—it’s the easy, low-cost getaway to appear Muslim and “learn more about your place in the world.”  The problem here, though, is that Herrington fails to realize that the “gauze scarf” she needs “to identify with Muslims” fails to capture the entirety of an individual’s life experience with their faith.  Not all Muslim women wear it, and Muslim men certainly don’t wear it (here’s a handy guide to they myriad of ways Muslims dress).

Cassidy Herrington with a headscarf. Image via Kentucky Kernel; uncredited.

Krista: I do still find that there’s a significant difference between Cassidy Herrington and, say, Liz Jones or Danielle Crittenden.  The former made an effort to connect to a local Muslim community and to have their input, recognizing their help in the article she writes.  Jones and Crittenden, on the other hand, undertook their experiments largely for the purpose of confirming everything they already “knew” about Muslim women being oppressed, and it shows.  Herrington’s article was, at least, thoughtful and reflective, and added to the conversation in good faith (if arguably misguided.)

Saffiyah: I have been following these “I tried out hijab for a day/month/year” stories with much interest. Initially, my curiosity was piqued by the initiative: women of other faiths trying to understand what it feels like to be a Muslim woman. Recently, though, these stories are popping up by the week, and it begs to be asked – can wearing a headscarf really give one a perspective of how a Muslim woman feels? Is the total sum of a Muslim woman the piece of cloth on her head?

Wearing a headscarf for one day, one year or a lifetime will not give you perspective on what it “feels like to be a Muslim woman.” Being a Muslim woman is intrinsically linked to a woman’s relationship with God, not the piece of cloth on her head, and the idea that the more clothing one wears, the closer one is to God perpetuates the misconception that women who wear less are less Muslim. It is also interesting to note how none of these experimenters chose to wear a niqab.

Azra: Is “the best way to identify with Muslims” really to don a hijab for a month?  Would she go “undercover” as an African-American, gay, or Jewish person by dressing a certain way in order to identify with those groups?

Sara: What annoys me about stories like this is that they give hijab this Eat, Pray, Love element. It highlights a singular experience as a Muslim woman. On one hand, I applaud the interest; on the other, why do you have to take this visible and mainstream route to understand the lived realities of Muslim women? Why don’t these newspapers actually speak to Muslim women?

Nicole: I don’t understand why people think dressing up in a hijab, or in a burqa, can recreate the experience of a woman who wears hijab. Yes, in a day, or a month, in hijab, you might get the blank stares, the cutting remarks—but you don’t get the whole experience.

I also find it curious that these Muslim Garb experiments in Europe usually fall into the realm of “performance art” or “activism” (see my MMW post on one such experiment) but in the U.S., it is usually about misguided “Golly gee, let’s be multicultural and aware and sensitive to ‘the Other’” sentiments. You see it in hijab experiments and in articles like “I like your hijab, I hope that’s ok.”

I find it particularly American and smacking of white privilege, speaking as a white American, the way we feel the need to “explain” and or speak with authority on issues which really don’t concern us as individuals.

Krista: In the context of media stories about journalists who wear hijab for a short period and then write about it, this practice ends up eclipsing the experiences of actual Muslim women who do wear hijab, as the journalist’s own experience is what gets written about.  This kind of practice, even when done by journalists with good intentions, reinforces a common image that Muslim women cannot speak for themselves, and need someone else to speak for them.  If people really want to write about what it’s like to wear hijab, there are many hijab-wearing women out there they could ask.

Azra: If you want to learn more about Muslim women, seek them out and spend time with them—those that wear hijab and those that don’t.  Then, instead of speaking on behalf of Muslim women’s “unheard voice” by talking about your own hijab experiment (“my hijab silenced, but simultaneously, my hijab brought unforgettable words”), ask them to share their own experience as a Muslim woman.  As you can see, there are quite a few of us out here—both hijab-wearing and non-hijab-wearing Muslim women alike—who do have a voice.

Nicole: My biggest question in these “Muslim Garb” (copyright Juan Williams) experiments is why can’t Muslim women speak for themselves? Why do we need non-Muslim women test-driving hijab to tell the world what hijab is like? And in whose right do these women think it is ok to do so?

Safiyyah: What many of these projects end up being is just another case of having other people speak for Muslim women. I appreciate women of other faiths wanting to commiserate with Muslim women, and I am sure it’s even quite exhilarating to wear a hijab. But what they can do to really help is to foster more dialogue with Muslim women and have open, frank discussions with a diverse range of Muslim women.

Nicole: As blogger Matthew Smith, who blogs on Muslim and disability issues, has mentioned, there is a parallel between girls who test drive hijab to recreate the “Muslim  experience” and people who test drive wheelchairs to try to recreate the “disabled experience.” In one post, he makes the point that people who aren’t disabled just aren’t going to have the same equipment.  Someone who test-drives niqab, for example, may not have shopped around enough and have ready access to
the best type of niqab for her lifestyle the way someone who has chosen and wants to wear niqab would.  Likewise, the person who test drives a wheelchair would likely have a bulky, uncomfortable push chair, whereas most people who use wheelchairs daily have specially-made chairs.  So obviously someone with some cheap nylon niqab picked up in the market is going to think it is hotter and more uncomfortable than the woman who has carefully picked out her niqab and wears it daily after a series of trial and error with the different models available.

Most importantly, I wholeheartedly second Smith’s post when he says, “There are many women around who do and many of them are more than willing to tell their stories, which will be so much more representative and meaningful than anything you would learn from a one-day experiment.”

Safiyyah: Hijab as a social experiment tries to normalize and make acceptable the concept of hair-covering and modest dressing, fine. Almost all the women who decided to “go undercover,” “take the veil,” or “get inside the hijab” go down the same route and are left feeling “free,” “liberated,” and “appreciated for their mind.”  While this may say something about modesty itself, it does not speak for all Muslim women, who may or may not feel that way, and who may or may not adopt the hijab for various different reasons. My own hijab is one of identity and activism.

Sara: The relationship with hijab is very complex, because it depends on your family, not just what you believe in. These complexities are never reflected in such stories, and they never push them far enough.

Azra: Herrington mistakenly identifies the hijab as “just a symbol.”  Those who wear hijab do not see it as “just a symbol”—their faith often underlies their decision to wear hijab, something that is clearly lacking from the author’s rendezvous with the scarf. 

The author racializes the wearing of the scarf—she uses her “affiliation with ‘white,’ non-Muslims to build rapport with the Islamic community…and show non-Muslims the truth from an unheard voice.”  Muslims, fortunately, come in a wide variety of colors (including “white”—why does she surround it with quotes?) and dressing habits.

Her oversimplification of categorizing whites as non-Muslims who don’t wear hijab and people of color as Muslims who do wear hijab is not quite up to snuff.  And don’t get me started on her oversimplification of how Muslims are seen as the “other” (indeed, it seemed to me that she sees in herself her own “otherness” with the Als quote at the beginning of the article…).

Readers, what are your thoughts about Herrington’s article?

Friday Links
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