By Nurul Huda Rashid
Of late, the term ‘hijab’ has been used pervasively across different contexts of discussion, from that of religion, ‘Islamization’, the symbolic, in movements and representation, and especially in relation to the discussion of women, ‘Muslim women’. The latter is a most contested term as it is often relegated a single identity of a highly visualesque nature: that the ‘Muslim woman’ is a body seen donning a hijab, shawls of black or colors draped over the head and chest. The ‘hijab-ed’ body becomes a visual and ideological representation of the ‘Muslim woman’ – one largely shaped by an outsider perspective as opposed to stemming from self-definition – and inevitably so, used as discourse on issues concerning women and Islam. This sparks an imagination of ‘Muslim women’ as communities of the ‘hijabi’, defined solely by the visibility of the hijab, and in antithesis to it, the ‘non-hijabi’ or other. The dichotomous existence of these two imagined communities map them as visual opposites, and assumes a largely single narrative for each, one that focuses solely on the issue of hijab as symbolic identifier and definer, disregarding and nullifying all other possible narrative threads that make up ‘Muslim women’.
The Hijab as Visualesque
I believe that one of the reasons why it is so convenient to map the hijab onto the body of the Muslim woman is because of its highly visual nature. Google ‘hijab’ under ‘Images’ and you will be greeted with shawls of varying colors and styles, and the smiling faces of the women who don them. These are images from fashion blogs and vlogs posted by the users, alongside images posted by everyday Muslim women doing everyday activities. These women are often identified as the ‘Liberal Muslims’ or the ‘Moderate Muslims’ who integrate well with (secular) society. They have also evolved to become icons of ‘modest fashion’, a growing market in the fashion industry.
Now, Google ‘Muslim woman’ and the images gathered will portray a distinctly different visual spread. Aside from some burst of colors and faces, the images mostly show women clad in black, donning a face veil or purdah – with their exoticized eyes – seen more as black silhouettes rather than selves. It is often these visuals that spark outcries of ‘Muslim women as oppressed’, living within a rigid system that forces them to cover up. I do recognize that this is sadly a reality in several contexts, but it is also important to note that these contexts are born out of highly patriarchal mindsets that sow the roots of discrimination into institutionalized Islam. It is thus unfortunate that the black hijab is visually equated to symbolize oppression when there are Muslim women who wear it willingly in other societies.
Looking through these images of ‘Muslim woman’, you will also see the ‘random’ ‘non-hijabi’ woman, a stark reminder that the category of ‘Muslim woman’ cannot be visually pigeonholed, as it often is. But what is made evident is that the Muslim woman is a highly visible body and its visualesque nature is identified primarily by the hijab. The effect of this is twofold: that we, as a society, begin to identify the hijab as equated to a certain definition of Islam and what it means to be a ‘Muslim woman’, and secondly, that the hijab becomes a (symbolic) marker of how society (at large) views and expects a ‘Muslim woman’ to look like, and what they experience. This means that we begin to govern the Muslim women’s body into fitting a certain visual expectation, which inevitably transforms into symbolic and ideological constructs. In doing so, we visually create archetypes of the ‘hijabi’ and her other – she who doesn’t wear the hijab – as binary identities within the Muslim women community, each defining and at the same time, isolating the other. What is also unfortunate is that the other is sometimes left out in this imagination of the ‘Muslim woman’ or ‘hijabi community’ for her visual lack of a hijab, rendering not only her experiences excluded, but her identity, invisible.
The Hijabi and her Other
As someone who dons the hijab, perhaps I can firstly speak from the vantage point of a ‘hijabi’, a term I have never attributed to myself for I find it redundant, categorical, and frankly, rather hipster. But for the sake of this discussion, I temporarily will. I personally believe that there is no such thing as a ‘hijabi community’. As above-mentioned, it is an imagined construct rooted in the visibility of the Muslim woman’s body and the visualesque nature of the hijab. She is ascribed certain qualities or characteristics, which are built on assumptions and stereotypes of her identity as ‘Muslim woman’. And somehow, she is often lumped together with her other ‘hijabi’ sisters, imagined to belong and identifying only with those like her, and in the process, othering those who aren’t.
The women I meet in my Islamic Studies class all don the hijab but our conversations do not revolve around this juxtaposition of hijabi and other. Our conversations cover a large spectrum of topics, from that of Islamic studies to politics, social issues, everyday life and yes, the hijab. However, our conversations on the latter would usually be along the lines of, “Oh your hijab is nice! Where did you get it from?” or “How did you manage to pin it up this way?” or “What? It took you less than a minute to put this one! Oh, it’s stitched up and ready to wear! Where can I get one?” Our conversations have never revolved around ‘non-hijabis’ as the ideological or visual other for there never was a need for such a conversation, which in itself speaks volumes. This is because, it is a discussion that is only provoked when we are pit against our supposed other, and this provocation is one that comes from the ‘outside’ via questions such as, “Why do you wear hijab, but she doesn’t?”
The above is a question that has spurred many discussions, especially alongside different interpretations of the Quran. Whilst it is necessary as part of larger Islamic discourse, it becoming a repeated point of argument is highly redundant, especially when it is predicated on the need to justify one person’s choices, by criticizing or judging the choices and experiences of the other. It entrenches the visual and ideological presence of the hijab as being a single identifier of the Muslim woman, and assumes that her narrative and lived experience revolves solely around it, whilst disregarding or underplaying the experiences of the Muslim women without hijab, as well as other aspects of their lives as Muslims and well, human beings. Therefore, this convenient dichotomy of the hijabi and her other brings about a rather skewed discourse in relation to women in Islam as it automatically robs agency from the Muslim woman, relegating her to the realms of visual objectification and the overly-symbolized.
Hijab as Visual Symbol
Symbols are a marvelous thing. But it is important to remember that they are constructed and are embedded meaning and power by those who can afford to do so: those with access to words to describe, explain, elaborate, and sometimes, exaggerate and exploit. Symbols also exist as highly visual and at times, do not really care for an ‘authentic’ representation of reality, which can be both beautiful and dangerous. And this is perhaps why the hijab has become a most symbolic entity, encompassing all the traits above. Its visual nature alongside a strong dichotomized other allows for it to be crafted as a perceived symbol and narrative of what makes a ‘Muslim woman’ or what is ‘Islam’, a view that both outsiders and Muslim women themselves adopt, a view that can be beautiful, but mostly dangerous.
To some Muslim women, donning the hijab is perceived as symbolic of Islam, in that, it is not just a piece of cloth for it reflects their belief and desire to be seen as practicing their religion as Muslim women. This is why there are women who don their hijab despite circumstances. But this is also perhaps why it is possible to find some hijabis enforcing judgment on the others without hijab, as being non-practicing. On the other hand, to some Muslim women, there is no need to don the hijab because of its symbolic nature – it is just a piece of cloth – as what becomes more important are the core beliefs underlying it, rooted in spirituality. Some of them also perhaps use this as a means of judging those in hijab as being ‘extreme’ or non-inclusive. I address this not as a judgment of Muslim women, but because I do recognize that the dichotomies are created and disseminated not just by the ‘outside’ world, but also within the Muslim women community itself. We have bought into this visualized dichotomy of the hijab as identity and sometimes repeatedly use it as a symbol of labeling the ‘Muslim woman’. And this is perhaps the most dangerous, as this notion of the hijab as symbolic of Islam is deeply entrenched in societies where women are forced to bodily and symbolically perform their Islam-ness, by being forced to cover up. In this case, donning the hijab is not just seen as symbolic of being Muslim, but in more drastic terms, to not cover up is symbolic of being un-Islamic, and can incur a huge penalty, from punishments, to death. This is also evident in societies where Islamophobia persists, subjecting hijabis to constant fear or real threats and danger by those who see them as symbolic of ‘Islamophobic Islam’. The hijab as symbolic can thus be very dangerous.
On the flipside, if these different interpretations of the hijab as symbolic churn varied narratives, intentions, and lived experiences within the Muslim women community, what does it then mean for the ‘outsider’? How do the rest of society begin to relate to and interact with the hijab as a symbol? This is possibly what movements like World Hijab Day and donning the hijab as acts of solidarity with Muslim woman is grounded on: the imagining of a ‘Muslim woman’ as solely being hijabi and thus, the rush to don the hijab as the only symbolic method of standing in solidarity with them. On one hand, such movements and acts can be perceived as having no real connection to what it actually means to be a Muslim woman because of its symbolic nature; also highly visualized and only representing a specific visible group. This is perhaps a most direct and convenient reading of such movements. It is however done to the point that we begin to undermine or undervalue the symbolic act of the non-Muslim women who perhaps are attempting to understand not just what it means to be a Muslim woman, but more so, what it means to be a highly visible Muslim woman, especially in societies when it is becoming harder to do so. I personally do not see it as a problem. In fact, I feel that it comes from a place of love as, although problematic, it recognizes what the symbol means for some, and attempts to stand alongside it. In that instance, it is about reaching out to be a part of the Muslim women community, as an act of inclusivity, a symbol most beautiful.
On a final note, I believe that in order to fully understand the ‘Muslim woman’ entails a need to firstly recognize that she is beyond the symbolic, the dichotomies, and the visualized form she is made to embody. This is a most arduous task, even for the Muslim woman herself. The need to rethink this category of ‘Muslim women’ and their lived experiences requires a decentralization of the hijab as sole definer, departing from the visual and symbolic as yardsticks of measure to orchestrate and ostracize who, what, and how we experience and understand Muslim women in the context of today. Whose narratives and representations are we subscribing to? Whose authorship and agency defines the self? How can we begin to narrate and understand their lived experiences beyond the hijab? How do we begin to move away from the hijab as visual and symbol? Would that perhaps change the way we begin seeing and understanding the hijab? Is it possible to understand and perceive of Muslim woman beyond the presence or absence on her body? Women are constantly tied in a tango: between putting on and taking off, absence and presence. Perhaps if all these are critically re-evaluated, we might be released from our restricted notions of who and what make up ‘Muslim women’.
image credit: Hijab/Her (2013). nuruL H.