more than this

I had the pleasure of reading the article “Here’s whats wrong with your hijab tourism and your cutesy modesty experiments” a few days ago, and this passage in particular resonated with me:

These approaches reduce Muslim women to veiled, enigmatic symbols of Oppression; and whether you’re upholding the veil as symbolic of oppression or purporting to “challenge assumptions” about it, this is still a reductive, one-dimensional and over-simplistic view of how Muslim women experience their faith, their identity and their bodies. Hijab and niqab are positioned as central to our experience, such that the only thing one has to do to understand how Muslim women feel is put on the ‘costume’ of one. In a society obsessed with externalities it’s not terribly surprising that Muslim women’s lives are constantly reduced to the most salient external symbol of our identity; but it is frustrating and depressing. We are more than just a veil.

So true, and yet, I sometimes wonder if we Muslim women have somehow subconsciously equated ourselves to the veil. We bristle when what we perceive to be “outsiders” engage in this kind of reductionism, but are slow to see our own tendencies to do the same.

So much of our own discussions on what it means to be a Muslim woman centre on the question of the hijab – from our debates on what can properly be considered a hijab, to whether there is a need to wear one at all, and how it shapes our identities. Every time we meet a new person, we size them up based on what they’re wearing, measuring faith in square centimetres of covered skin. We raise our girls to strive to wear the hijab, believing it is somehow the gold standard of piety. And then we expect the women who have donned the hijab to suddenly be paragons of virtue, free from all temptation, as if the hijab is some kind of miracle cure, a panacea to all the world’s ills. We are, quite frankly, obsessed.

What is truly ironic is that we should expend so much time and energy defending the practice, and educating others about the purpose of the hijab – to guard our modesty, so people value us for the people we are and not for our appearances – only to run the same risk of valuing the appearance over all else. We want people to look at who we are behind the veil, but in our collective fixation, we have somehow lost sight of the need to cultivate the values that we want to be defined by: the constant pursuit of knowledge, a healthy work ethic, the intolerance of injustice, charity, and respect for others.

Unless and until we start believing that our religion is more than the cloth that covers us (or lack thereof), how can we possibly expect everyone else to do the same?