This post was written by guest contributor Shireen Ahmed. A version of this post was previously posted on her blog.
Every year there are a group of women who celebrate, support and participate in World Hijab Day. This year February 1, 2013 marked the day where women all over the world would be “invited” to wear a scarf on their head in solidarity with Muslim sisters across the globe.
This phenomenon has garnered much attention. It has exploded through social media and has been embraced by Muslim women and young girls who may see it as an opportunity to clarify, teach and share. Women have written about it and chronicled their feelings, their emotions and how it made them feel. Ironically, this was supposed to have them relate to and think about the Muslim covered woman facing challenges. Instead it has many of them not reflecting on their own feelings and how that should affect the world with regards to hijab.
Although some of these reflections may be respectful and have kind intentions, others are blatantly narcissistic . Some are from Muslim women just having a “go” at it while trying complete their daily routine – all covered up. How unfathomable! They all use clever taglines like “Under the veil”, “From beneath the veil”, and “Undercover”. They pose such groundbreaking questions as “How do people perceive me?” to the very insightful “How do I see myself?” and my personal favourite: “Am I more liberated and less oppressed by this hijab?”
As much as I am interested in sharing, dialogue and debate, as a hijab-clad woman, my concern is not, and will never be how other women “feel” about a hijab that they do not wear regularly. I shall elaborate.
I had a match on the eve of “World Hijab Day.” As usual I was the only woman of colour on the field and only woman in hijab. And much like my friends, my awesome teammates did the best thing EVER: nothing. Except rely on me as an equal, include me in play and try to win the game, of course. Which we did not. Tied 1-1.
My team doesn’t ask to try to wear a hijab. They are smarter and more respectful than that.
But, wearing a scarf while playing may give them COMPLETE INSIGHT into the lives of half a billion Muslim women. Right? RIGHT?!? *hijabdesk*.
My mates are also acutely aware that if they want to wear a head covering, they can get a scarf – yes, any random scarf – and put it on their head. No pixie dust, no blessing from an Ayatollah, no chanting or incense.
This is the part where I get to be thankful that my teammates don’t want to liberate me. They don’t insult and patronize me inquiring as to how my hijab “makes them feel”. It’s not exotic and interesting. It just is.
They respect me enough to know that how they “feel” about MY decision is bloody well irrelevant.
They don’t pelt the universe with ridiculous commentary such as “Shireen is confident in her decision to choose and to honour her tradition even if media thinks it is negative” or “So glad to see a person of your culture out here playing with that. I am OK with it 100%.” Yes, someone has actually said that to me. As if I care or need their percentage of approval.
My teammates, God bless them, pass me the ball. They don’t press, stress or fixate on the issue. They offer me support, encouragement on the pitch and they push me hard and then harder.
They don’t care about my hijab and what it represents to them. They are not that shallow.
Because NEWSFLASH: I am more, way more than my hijab.
They have realized that I am a person whose identity lies, not in a piece of cloth, but in the way I believe, speak, act and play.
This exercise reduces a Muslim woman to one yard of material. It is not an action that one can adequately educate and put another woman in their position. It’s completely disingenuous to think so.
Will having my teammates wear a hijab for a one hour match allow them to understand a lifetime of stares, barriers, “No, sorry you can’t play with that on” decisions, struggles and then my own strength and confidence to embrace it and keep going?
No. No, it won’t.
Just like wearing a hijab for one day will not provide a woman will contextual understanding of challenges and the realities that a woman in hijab may face: misogyny, cultural stresses, financial problems, prejudice, racism and even effects of war.
Does it realistically give people a glimpse of struggles faced by millions? Of a religion that is marred and scarred by stereotypes and assumptions, that is rife with misogynist practices? That has incredibly intrepid people working for the benefit of the world? That has kindness and millions of women who are Muslim who do not wear hijab?
Do we celebrate International Paghra Day with Sikhs? Or International Habit Day with Peruvian Nuns? International “Wear a Wig to Shul” Day with Orthodox Jews? Nope. Because that would be minimizing and politicizing their choice.
This dress-up activity is no more effective than having me wearing a firefighter outfit. I respect First Responders and love red. Does it give me full insight into their plight, intensity, committment, courage and years of training?
No. No, it doesn’t.
I can appreciate the attempt to provide change by support. But for me to think that I am effecting change by wearing their firefighter gear is vain and selfish. It’s more curiosity on my part – not bridgebuilding.
One of the most offensive and vile commentaries I have ever read on a woman trying out a burka was non-informative and reeked heavily of bigotry. Clearly her attempt was not to teach nor empathize. It was to get attention.
Then why exactly, is this type of adventure toted as something that could be beneficial?
Already, there are very little positive images of Muslim women in media, with few exceptions.
By inviting commentary, Muslim women are taking the power away from themselves. If Muslim women want to be empowered, perhaps NOT asking other women their unwarranted, unnecessary opinion may be the place to start.
There have been many non-Muslim women (such as my teammates) who recognize their privilege, and instead of exploiting their power, they use it to support mine. Remember me? The woman who actually wears it full time?
Personally, I prefer solidarity in forms that aren’t reductive.
My squad sees me as a player, as a teammate.
I sincerely appreciate solidarity and respect of my choice. But these odd and creepy “let me try on your burka to see how it feels!” games are not helpful. To me. And they are not Progressive Feminism nor Islamic Feminism.
Last night a white woman tweeted to me “I once tried on a burka but all I could do was feel sorry for them”. I thanked her for her sympathy. I assured her women would surely appreciate her feeling badly for them. She promptly deleted her tweet.
Maybe these women could try something else: support, conversations, reaching out, opening minds and JUST ACCEPTING and not judging.
That works fine too.
Now, only when the rest of the privileged, white female “I-know-best” society will stop insisting that they can “sympathize” and “understand” (note: I DON’T NEED YOUR SYMPATHY OR UNDERSTANDING) with me after trying out a fashionable scarf, we will all be better off.
Just leave me and my hijab alone. Let me win my game.
As a white-privileged Muslim who converted and chose my religion; I dislike that you targeted my racial and economic group. I do understand that this event has many issues. I like the round table aspect of the event but I never participated in it, included the year prior to my conversion.
Interest article. Thank you for sharing your perspective.
Loved your opinion on this matter. I never thought of it that way before and I feel like my eyes have been opened a bit more. I see it from your perspective now and have changed my opinion on the whole event.
I think the same could be said the non-Muslim men should wear the hijab, but I agree with Shireen. It would be just one more outlet for men to discuss women’s clothing.