Distilling Muslim identity into the headscarf

I said I was done with the subject, but then I realized I wasn’t. So here goes:

First: Culturally, non-Muslim Western discourse has a problem with distilling Muslim identity and difference into the one symbol of the headscarf.

This is why you’ll find a black person, a white woman with a nose stud, a brown person, and a hijabi laughing together in brochures for liberal arts colleges. Bam. Diversity: covered.

Sometimes Muslims buy into this distillation. We get excited when we see a hijabi stuck in a TV show. Yay, Muslim representation! But really, this thrusts the entire burden of Muslim identity, symbolism, and representation onto women’s head-covers. This is not fair. It is also – as we have seen in recent hate incidents – not safe for women who cover their heads.

A woman who decides she prefers not to be a walking banner of Islam – the day after the San Bernardino shooting for example – is treated as if she is selling out, a non-warrior, trying to be White, etc. The burden is too much.

Many Muslims, men and women, who do not visibly appear to be Muslim via clothing, beards, etc. are also rendered invisible by this discursive use of imagery.

Second: Whether Islamist over-emphasis on head-covers – that deprives women of agency – or Asra Nomani’s “jihad” against head-covers -that also deprives women of agency – both are problematic.

Asra Nomani’s attack on hijab-wearing and hijab solidarity is incredibly poorly-timed. When Muslim girls wearing head-covers are getting bullied at school and Muslim women attacked on the street, this is not a time to start a campaign against hijab-solidarity. This is actually a way to render the headscarf a target even more than it already is.

Third: The internal Muslim dialogue on clothing and women’s bodies is an ongoing one. A call for non-Muslims to abandon solidarity in order to protect Muslim women from body-surveillance is bad strategy, and is unnecessary. If anything, it is likely to increase political pressure on uncertain Muslim women to maintain a besieged practice. Internal dialogue and diversity of practice evolve on their own time and at their own pace, if and when practitioners desire. At present, such discursive strategies turn surveillance to Muslim women’s heads and bodies all over again.

Fourth: The divisive shift that focuses on the distinction between Muslim women who cover their heads and who don’t is unhelpful and unnecessary. We live in a pluralistic community where Muslims practice Islam in a variety of ways, in a variety of sectarian and denominational settings, a variety of flavors and types. We are okay with this. Coexisting within a diverse community of practice is a useful method to learn how to co-exist in a diverse world and society.

Fifth: I am responding to the vigorous rhetoric of Muslim males railing against Asra Nomani’s article. Some of these Muslim male responses use the occasion to ridicule even any justified critiques of over-emphasis on Muslim women’s clothing. Back off, please. The control of women’s bodies is still a problem.

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