I’m writing the following while waiting for my flight, so expect typos, incoherence, etc. I’m happy to clarify things later on if necessary.
In what follows, I want to discuss some of the problems with Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa’s recent article as well as some problematic reactions and responses to it. Most basically, both Nomani/Arafa and their detractors are displaying and perpetuating a whole bunch of patriarchy in their attitudes towards Muslim women’s bodies and choices. One side says the hijab isn’t required so why wear it, being totally dismissive of the nuance in some women’s choice to wear it; another side says, “you don’t cover your head, you ‘so-called Muslim,’ and so you don’t get to have an opinion on the hijab! We wear it because this is our choice, because we want to respect our bodies, because we want to obey God’s command that we cover.” I think this response to Nomani/Arafa is deeply flawed (arrogant and patriarchal and righteous), as is this other response, coming mostly from men: “Uh… actually, the hijab is mandatory, and it is so per the consensus of the ulama for over 1400 years.” What happens here is that, while some hijabi women have told Nomani that she doesn’t get to opine on the hijab since she doesn’t cover her head herself, they totally ignore the fact that men are constantly talking about the hijab, in support of it, and those men do not wear a head-covering. Why do men get an opinion, then? (I know, I know – a lot of women have spoken critically of this, but I’m speaking of the men who have been talking about it in response to Nomani’s article and not a flinch from the hijabi women who don’t want non-hijabi women to speak.) Or is it that you can have an opinion so long as you say women are required to wear the hijab, because apparently, that’s the only legitimate face of solidarity?
So, I fully support problematizing popular claims–in general but especially when they pertain to women or have some sort of an impact on women’s lives, including the claim that the hijab is required or that its purpose is modesty and all (because early Muslim scholars’ opinions actually don’t see it this way – and remember that the hijab was not allowed to slave women while required of free women. That should make us pause for a second and wonder about modesty and piety, unless we decide that slave women don’t get to have access to the same level of piety and modesty that free women do); I also think that the claim that “we” wear the hijab to resist patriarchy, Islamophobia, capitalism, etc. is totally fair (so long as it’s not “we” but “I” or “some of us”), but then I’m tempted to ask … how do Muslim men show resistance to those same things? Note, then, the gendering of resistance. My point isn’t that resistance can look only certain ways; my point, instead, is that we need space to critique the different displays of resistance, of piety, of any and all things, really, when they carry serious implications—and one person’s telling us that “we wear the hijab to be modest” does have implications, as does the argument that “we wear the hijab to oppose imperialism.” But at the same time, I think that there’s an appropriate time and place for raising these discussions or probelmatizing popular ideas and practices.
What happens in both Nomani’s piece and the responses (with one exception) to it is that they do the same annoying and unacceptable thing in completely different ways: they speak for Muslim women, they deprive individual Muslim women of their right to speak for themselves; they both either infantalize Muslim women of differing ideologies, deny them the right to have an opinion that is not similar to theirs, and/or offer overly simplistic ideas of “Islam” and “hijab” that are devoid of history and context and nuance.
listen, folks. it sucks being a Muslim woman in a time of Islamophobia and patriarchy.
Like perhaps most other Muslim women, I *hate* talking about the hijab (here’s one of the reasons why). I also hate reading about it. Many reasons why, but among them are that virtually everything I read on the hijab tends to oversimplify it–e.g., many who wear it say, “But this is our choice! It liberates us!” And I cringe at the “us” and the “our” because, well, it ignores the fact that for many other women, it’s not that liberating and it’s not a choice. But I also don’t like it and don’t support it when someone says, “The hijab is oppression! It is the epitome of oppression, y’all! Let’s ban it” And I also hate the whole “it’s not required by the Qur’an, so why would anyone wear it?” ALL of these claims are completed devoid of nuance, and they annoy me.
But as much as I hate paying attention to anything that is some or another form of policing of women’s bodies and women’s piety and all, there occasionally rises some lame controversy regarding exactly this — the policing of women’s bodies, whether it is to say the hijab should be worn or to say the opposite. And then what happens is that so many people’s lives become so centered on that issue and the discussion around it that we forget about real problems around us. Like, oh, I don’t know, Islamophobia in the West right now that’s literally killing Muslim and “Muslim-looking” lives?
There are other reasons why I find it difficult to talk about the hijab or Muslim women’s rights and all (in Islam or otherwise). It is that, like other traditions and communities, the Muslim community takes criticism very, very personally and the critic is putting her/himself out there for mockery and attacks from those who feel like any criticism of Muslim communities is an attack on Islam. Islamic Studies students like me who work on gender/sexuality and Islam matters face struggle with this on personal, spiritual, and intellectual levels because, on the one hand, we want to acknowledge that there is indeed virtually all the laws and guidelines about gender that continue to shape our lives today are rooted in patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality from centuries ago that may or may not still hold. In an email a good friend sent me the other day–specifically in response to the Asra Nomani article that prompts this blog post from me–she said something that I find heartbreaking and that a lot of my other female friends struggle with too: there is no space that we can turn to talk about so many gender issues, both practical and theoretical ones (i.e., as practiced in our communities as well as dictated by what we call the Islamic tradition), without being dismissed as inviting Islamophobia, without having our faith and piety challenged, without being deprived of the honor to identify as Muslim, without being shamed. This is heartbreaking because this is a real concern. We need spaces that welcome these kinds of discussions and debates.
Some months ago, in a discussion on my Facebook about Muslim women’s right to marry non-Muslim (traditionally prohibited, for very, very patriarchal reasons—and not by the Qur’an but by the same folks who also decided that the head-covering is mandatory for women), someone said, “Well, the reason a Muslim woman can’t marry a non-Muslim man is that non-Muslim men won’t respect a Muslim woman’s rights.” And I asked if Muslim men necessarily respect Muslim women’s rights. This was, of course, by no means to suggest that Muslim men are more patriarchal than non-Muslim men. I think such an argument so empty and silly and ignorant. And bigoted. But immediately, Linda Sarsour, whose work centers on fighting Islamophobia and other bigotry, accused me of being Islamophobic. This accusation made me lose almost all respect for her. The discussion was heated, and my comment had a context, but she comes there and attempts to silence the very obvious forms of patriarchy in the ways we practice and understand Islam. This dismissive attitudes of internal criticism is stifling. We need to be open to criticizing our community. Patriarchy *is* real, and Muslims and non-Muslims are always participating in patriarchal practices and habits. But, nooo – apparently just because Muslims are suffering from Islamophobia in the West, we cannot point out our own faults because we’ve been victimized enough. Note here how, according to the way Sarsour sees it, men (and some women) totally get away with being patriarchal just because they are already being attacked by non-Muslim forces. So, what, let Muslim women continue suffering in patriarchy and misogyny because a huge percentage of those responsible for so much gender injustice in our communities are already victims of something else? And to criticize them and demand that they take accountability for their misogyny is—WHAT—victimizing them further? This is insane and absolutely unfair. It also suggests that the problems that mostly women face (because of patriarchy) aren’t big and important enough for us to be talking about. Because they’re obviously not men’s problems, and any problem that isn’t shared by a man isn’t worth discussing because it’s not a real problem. And, also, never mind that I myself am absolutely against Islamophobia, that Linda Sarsour is not the only one vocally against bigotry. Yeah, not cool, Linda Jaan.
And this is why it absolutely sucks being a Muslim woman living in a time of Islamophobia and patriarchy and demanding that both problems get equal attention.
We’ve currently got two major (and extreme) currents. On the one hand, we’ve got the really mean camp that polices our bodies by telling us not to cover our head when we might want to, while on the other hand, we’ve got the equally mean camp that equally polices our bodies by either telling us to cover our head or then by implying that we have no self-respect or that we don’t care about God if we do not cover.
In the first camp, I am going to go ahead and put Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa, who co-wrote that article “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity.” Let me talk briefly about the article here, though.
the problems with Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa’s article.
I didn’t like the article for a lot of reasons, some of which have been expressed by others, but I also thought the article had some good points. I noticed that many of the people who were angered by the article were angry less that the article had those things to say and more because of who wrote it. Many Muslims are no fans of Asra Nomani’s because of some problematic things she’s said before that I, too, am troubled by. For instance, in this article, she fully endorses and even calls for racially profiling Muslims. I think it’ fair to hold that against her. But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss everything she says just because she said that and other similarly problematic things in the past or done things we don’t like. (For the record, needless to say, I don’t take issues with the fact that she was one of the co-organizers of the woman-led prayer in 2005–but I do take issues with her having made the whole thing about herself, having sensationalized it to the point where even the person leading the prayer, Dr. Amina Wadud, was not supportive of that sensationalism. For more on this, I highly recommend Amina Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam and Juliane Hammer’s American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer.)
When I first saw the title of the article, I got excited because I thought it may be one of those articles that asks non-Muslim women to please stop seeing the hijab as a “one-time experiment” because 1) it’s much more than that, and 2) you are not going to learn what it’s like to be a Muslim woman just by wearing the hijab for a day or a few hours, or, really, even a month. (P.S. I have a feeling inside me that had this article been written by someone else, it probably wouldn’t have generated so much controversy and antagonism and ridicule.) But the article wasn’t about that and instead had a different point.
I like that the article highlighted the fact that the Qur’an does not require the head-covering (yes, yes, this is a new interpretation of the “hijab” verses in the Qur’an, but just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s not a valid opinion or that we should just ignore it just because it goes outside of what is considered “mainstream”). Women’s body coverings in general are rooted in patriarchal understandings of gender and sexuality. For a more complicated discussion on the hijab and veiling and all, with historical analysis and commentaries, I recommend Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate and Fatima Mernissi’s The Veil And The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights In Islam. Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America is also an informative read because it analyzes the apparent resurgence of the headcovering and its links to questions of identity and resistance to oppressive forces like imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, etc. And, most important for those who think the hijab is just something women do because they have to or because God says so, it forces us to stop seeing women as passive recipients of the guidelines issued by men about their religion and instead engage actively with those same traditions.
But whether the way that Nomani and Arafa made that point (that the Qur’an doesn’t require the head-covering) was constructive or not is a different story. I don’t think it’s constructive, and I certainly don’t think that the forum for that is a mainstream western media site and I *most certainly* do not think that joining that argument with one on how solidarity should talk place was the right thing to do.
The article has some other good points, too, but they are buried within the arrogance and self-righteousness that inform the whole piece. I like, for example, that the authors pointed out that there’s even such a word as “HOjabi” that seeks to mock and attack Muslim women who do not wear the hijab according to a specific set of standards of modesty. This is true, and it is wrong; but we need to talk about that for what it is—patriarchy, arrogance, etc.
Nomani and Arafa’s article’s bad points include the following:
- It oversimplifies the meaning of the hijab (which, admittedly, is a common case among all who ever talk about the hijab). It fails to acknowledge that the meanings of words/concepts and their practices evolve with time because, well, that’s what happens. I don’t at all think that it is necessary or useful to demand that the “media” stop equating the hijab with the headscarf. So what that the word “hijab” in the Qur’an means a curtain, a barrier? We’re now talking over 1400 years later where the word carries a different meaning.
- It assumes that there should be or is only one reason a Muslim woman might wear the hijab–and that that reason is or should be theological or something grounded in the Qur’an. Let’s be real here: Humans don’t just do the things that are required of them by their religions or religious traditions, and they avoid doing things just because their religions forbid them so. We are active agents of our traditions, we agree with and disagree with past messages that have been conveyed to us, we negotiate with our religions to get what we want from them. There is no reason that a Muslim woman should wear the hijab only because the Qur’an requires it, just as there is no reason that she should not wear it just because more recent interpretations of the Qur’an have shown that the Qur’an does not require it.
- Following up on the above point: the article assumes that just because many Muslim women wear the hijab with the conviction that it is mandatory, the non-Muslim women who express solidarity through the hijab must also then think that the hijab is obligatory for Muslim women or that only good Muslim women wear it.
- It usurps hijabi Muslim women’s voices and pretends to be informative about the practice of the hijab. It expects all Muslim women to have been raised in the same environments with the same mindsets as the authors did. For instance, they write: “… we grew up without an edict that we had to cover our hair.” Yeah, well, I didn’t. But so what?
- It is too patriarchal! It infantalizes hijabi Muslim women by telling them “you don’t know what you’re doing! You don’t know your own religion!” The irony. This is a very common mistake that many feminists make. Muslim women who wear the hijab don’t have to justify their choice. It is not up to you and me or anyone else to decide if that’s okay or not, if it should matter so much whether it’s a Qur’anic guideline or not; we don’t get to be dismissive of their reasons, when they do offer their reasons even though they should never have to, and tell them, “but you’re not required to wear it! WHY DO YOU DO IT!” Let’s stop perpetuating the myth about how all Muslim women are ignorant and stupid and submissive and don’t know anything about their rights, the same myth that we’re tired of hearing as Muslims because it deprives us of our agency to engage with our faith the way we want to, the way it feels right, the way we feel we should.
- It demonizes “conservative” Muslims–whoever they are, however the term is defined. And the co-authors identify themselves as “mainstream Muslim women.” Honestly speaking, most of the positions that Nomani espouses on Islam and gender are not mainstream. That doesn’t make her positions wrong or right–and that’s not my point here–but it’s to say that the word “mainstream” is just as loaded as any other label is. I am a Muslim feminist, and my views on many gendered topics are easily deemed non-traditional, and it’s true. Some of Nomani’s positions are mainstream only within Islamophobic circles, as mentioned above.
- The article reduces a political-religious ideology (Islamism) to one that says the hijab is mandatory. This is inaccurate and unfair. While one of Islamism’s missions is certainly to police women’s bodies (though this happens to be the mission of a lot of ideologies), Islamism happens to be much, much bigger than just the hijab/women’s bodies. Given some of Islamism’s dangerous tendencies, I’d also think it careless to make this link between women’s choice to wear the hijab *in the west* (esp when some of them do it to resist Islamism!) and Islamism.
- Finally, though perhaps most importantly, the article derails from the real issue at hand: Islamophobia. Muslim women who are very visibly Muslim are easy targets of bigotry in the West, and it is not upon us to change something within us just so Islamophobes will stop hurting us. Bigotry doesn’t work that way because the problem is not Muslim women or Muslims or Islam; the problem is bigotry and bigots and the ideology upon which bigotry thrive. Nomani and Arafa’s article doesn’t seem to acknowledge that and instead misdirects the media’s and non-Muslims’ attention from Islamophobia and instead targets hijab-wearing Muslim women by telling them that they don’t know their own religion, that they don’t know what they’re doing, that why on earth would they wear the hijab when it’s not even required–because apparently, that’s how humans work.
the problem with some of the responses to Nomani and Arafa’s article.
Above, I talked about two extreme camps of Muslims (one may include non-Muslims, too) in this discussion of the hijab. The first was the one infantalizing women in the name of freedom. Now for the second one.
The second camp includes folks who say things like “‘Islam’ [whatever “Islam” here means, whatever its sources are] gave us all the rights we could possible want as women 1400 years ago that the decadent west gave its women only a few decades or so ago!” My friend S. S. always refers to this claim as the empty rhetoric of women’s honor when in practice, the same folks telling us this are the ones also perpetuating further patriarchy and often misogyny in the community. It’s usually imaams and other men in the Muslim community who say this really just to shut women up when they want to talk about the patriarchy that dominates their lives that is often supported by those same folks and by the same tradition that they draw their ideas of “Islam and gender” from. With respect to the hijab talks, we’ve got, in this camp, folks who say, “We wear the hijab because we want to obey God’s order to cover, to be modest, to respect our bodies. We understand that some women don’t want to cover, and that’s their choice, but the hijab liberates us.” I don’t take issues with women’s choices to do whatever they want with their bodies, to dress however they want. I trust all women to be capable of making their own choices for themselves without being told by others, especially men, how to respect their bodies. But what I don’t like are the insinuations that women who don’t cover their head don’t “cover,” don’t “obey God,” don’t “respect their bodies” and so on. I wish we were more careful about how we explained our choices. I also don’t think we need to be explaining our choices to anyone at all, but I understand that with something like the hijab, and especially because it’s something a woman does, we have to constantly tell people why we wear it or why we don’t.
But more importantly, in this second camp lies a group of women (and men) whose responses to Asra Nomani have been terribly disappointing and even troubling. A hijabi female wrote on FB, for instance, that women who don’t wear the hijab should either keep quiet or then stand in solidarity with women who do wear the hijab. This is not okay because just because a woman doesn’t wear the hijab does NOT mean she doesn’t get to have an opinion on the hijab. In fact, many women who don’t wear the hijab made an informed decision not to do so, and many continue to struggle with that choice. Because our community largely disrespects women who do not cover their head, equating that with “covering” overall, equating that with immodesty, equating that with disobeying God’s “command to cover.”
But we’ve got some double standards going on here because men are always talking about the hijab–and, in fact, it was basically an entirely male consensus that decided for us what women’s piety looks like–but somehow, men get away with this. A male on FB pointed out, in an indirect response to Nomani’s article, that the head-covering is required per scholarly consensus and agreed upon by mainstream Muslims. This is true – but 1) why does this male get to speak on the hijab if a woman who doesn’t cover our head doesn’t have that same right? and 2) this “consensus” we speak of, yeah, it was basically an entirely male panel that decided that over a matter of time (multiple male panels), just like a male-panel in different centuries and decades over time made a lot of other laws regarding women’s bodies and women’s lives and declared it all divine. Why do male leaders get to speak on the hijab, even if they are telling us what the “right” way to practice the hijab “Islamically” but a non-hijab wearing woman who is deeply affected by these rules whether she follows them or not doesn’t have the right to speak? What, because those men were pious according to mainstream notions of piety, or, most probably, according to our imaginations? And, what, women who don’t wear the hijab aren’t pious? Yeah, that’s not cool, people.
Also, we have to acknowledge the fact that our ideas of piety and modesty and religiosity–and even resistance (e.g., to Islamophobia/bigotry/xenophobia)—are so gendered that they paradoxically become fixated on women’s bodies while simultaneously challenging that same habit when other systems of oppression (e.g., patriarchy, Islamophobia, capitalism) do it. And they end up not applying to men. I’m not suggesting that we not wear the hijab when we want to resist these things. I’m saying that there’s a legitimate reason to discuss that choice critically and/or to critique that choice–without attacking the choices of those who make it and for whom it works perfectly, and we need to welcome that sort of discourse.
Our community seems to thrive on grilling women it doesn’t like, who don’t appear to embody the ideals of the “ideal Muslimah.” Most communities thrive on such misogyny. (Like take a brief look at the way western media and people on the internet treat female celebrities.) Men are always somehow pardoned, though, of course. In fact some of the hate Nomani is receiving is from men the community hates occasionally.
I don’t support misogyny no matter who it comes from, and there’s misogyny going on on both sides here. I refuse to either completely agree with Nomani/Arafa or completely agree with the irresponsible reactions to the article.