I was inspired to write this series of posts–part 1 is here–after reading The Hijabinist’s post, “Here’s what’s wrong with hijab tourism and your cutesy ‘modesty experiments.’” The post takes note of and criticizes a pattern that the author traces back to 2007 of “nice, middle-class White wom[e]n” wearing–and usually getting paid as journalists to wear–some form of Mulsim women’s dress and then “translat[ing] the experience into a narrative that’s palatable to a Western audience.” As a result, she argues, “hijab and niqab are…shorn of their cultural, religious and social significance and reduced to tourist attractions and teachable moments for privileged outsiders.” Non-Muslims who read these narratives, she argues, end up with “a reductive, one-dimensional and over-simplistic view of how Muslim women experience their faith, their identity and their bodies.” She goes on:
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. For a start, we don’t wear it all the time – when we go home and take it off, are we not Muslim women anymore? I’m still a Muslim even when I’m lying in bed in my pyjamas writing blog posts on my laptop, but if you perceive of Muslim womanhood as inherently tied to the practice of veiling then that aspect of my life and my experience becomes invisible.
Liz Jones’ 2009 piece in the MailOnline provides a perfect example of what The Hijabinist is talking about right in the title, “My week wearing a burka: Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison.” The first four paragraphs continue in the same tone:
Squatting next to me is my burka. It looks so innocuous: just a few yards of black fabric. But, my goodness, how oppressive it is, how suffocating, how transforming.
Moved by the plight of Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese woman who faces 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public, I decided to spend a week enveloped in what she should have been wearing.
Out shopping one day, I caught sight of myself in a Knightsbridge store window. Instead of me staring back, I saw a dark, depressed alien. A smudge.
As I argued in Part 1 of this series, a government–even a local, tribal government–that imposes a religious dress code on women and then (not only but especially violently) punishes women for violating that code is oppressing women, and I think it would be wrong for people to remain silent about that oppression, even people who are not Muslim. However, it is one thing for a white, non-Muslim woman like Liz Jones to protest the actions of such a government; it is quite something else for her to decide that her experience of wearing a burka in the UK–that it transforms her into “a dark, depressed alien,” “a nothing”–can somehow stand in for the experience of a Muslim woman who, whether by force or by choice, puts one on in a country where women are, both legally and culturally, expected to cover themselves.
Danielle Crittenden, in her piece for the Huffington Post, is no less arrogant or presumptuous, placing what she calls the “disturbingly familiar” sight of fully veiled women “in shopping malls, airport lounges and Muslim neighbourhoods across North America” in the context of misogynist cultural practices that are oppressive without question: “In the free and equal societies of North America and Europe, we are hearing of more and more cases of forced marriage, confinement of women in their homes, honour killings and female genital mutilation,” she writes, and it’s as if she thinks that each of those fully veiled women dons her veil always and only because she fears becoming a victim of such practices. Not once does it seem to occur to Crittenden that a Muslim woman might choose to veil, fully or not, for reasons that are a good deal more deep than that it is the required “uniform” of her religion.
I am not Muslim and so I will not presume to speak as if I have anything but the most cursory knowledge of that tradition, but I do know that in orthodox Judaism, a tradition that I can speak about with some small authority, the modesty that is enjoined on both men and women–as it is in Islam–is not simply a matter of culture, of uniform, of proper manners; it is part of spirituality, about what it means to be human–physical, sexual, desiring, objectifying, and objectifiable–in relation not only, and not even primarily, to other humans, but first and foremost to God. My guess is that whatever else may be true about the veil in Islam, the practice of veiling has its origin in a very similar idea. What makes “hejab tourism” like Crittenden’s so offensive is that she doesn’t even consider that idea and how it might shape Muslim women’s interior experience of veiling, whether it is forced on them or not:
When I see a woman entirely masked in black cloth, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be her — and what it would be like to be fully cloaked in my own life. The garment is at once so alien and so personal, so mundane and yet so fraught with meaning. (Emphasis mine.)
Note, again, the word alien. Of course the veil is alien to Crittenden. Of course her experience of wearing it, like Jones’, is almost certainly going to be alienating. There is no way Crittenden, or Jones, or any of the other women whose articles The Hijabinist cites can know “what it [is] like to be” the “woman entirely masked in black cloth” because they are not Muslim, and to pretend otherwise is to engage in the worst kind of cultural appropriation, silencing Muslim women’s own voices and rendering invisible both the image Muslim women have of themselves and the image through which they want us to know them. Lubna Hussein, for example, the woman whose arrest so inspired Liz Jones, wears a head scarf. Whatever else may be true about the burka and how it is used in her culture, in other words, it is not alien to her. She prays. She is a practicing Muslim, but nowhere does Jones acknowledge that fact. To Jones, Lubna is simply a woman being punished for not dressing the way the men of her culture expect her to dress. As a result, the only meaning Jones can conceive of for veiling is the meaning she (Jones) believes was imposed on her (Hussein) by the Sudanese government; and it is that meaning that Jones finds when she puts on her own burka. Whatever meaning Hussein might find in veiling appears to be, if not entirely irrelevant, then certainly not worth Jones’ trouble to understand given that she does not mention it once while telling us about her own experience as a temporarily veiled woman.
Of all the articles or blog posts that The Hijabinist cites, only one, Ela’s post about wearing a hejab to the mall has a kind of naive integrity to it. Not because the story it tells does not reflect “hejab tourism”–it does–but because Ela did not pretend that putting on her hejab would gain her access to the interior experience of a veiled Muslim woman–which is what Crittenden and Jones pretty explicitly said they were trying to do. Rather, Ela’s goal was to experience for herself the way people in her community treat veiled women. Her focus, in other words, was not the meaning of the veil as a sign of women’s oppression within Islam, but the meaning of the veil as the symbol of a hated Other in the United States. More to the point, her purpose in writing was to expose that hatred and to issue a call for its end, not to call the practice of veiling itself into question. Obviously, Ela did not have to wear a hejab in order to issue that call–which is why what she did qualifies as hejab tourism–but her decision to wear the hejab makes sense to me as a seventeen-year-old’s sincere and naive act of empathy and solidarity.
To be fair, none of the women whom The Hijabinist critiques start out with the goal of denigrating Islam or its followers. Rather, these women see themselves as speaking up for other women, as giving voice to women who are, in the writers’ estimation, mostly voiceless. That estimation is a large part of the problem. Muslim women are not voiceless. Not only are individual Muslim women, like The Hijabinist, like Lubna Hussein, perfectly capable of speaking for themselves about their experience of veiling, whether they have chosen it freely or not, but there is actually a rather lively discussion going on among Muslim women and between Muslim women and Muslim men not just about the purpose, meaning, justification for, and necessity of veiling, but also about the place of women in Islam as a whole. It would seem to me that any non-Muslim woman who wants to write responsibly about veiling, especially if she is going to cover herself in an attempt to experience firsthand what it feels like to be a veiled Muslim woman (assuming for the moment that such a thing could be done responsibly)–such a woman, it seems to me, owes it to herself and her readers to inform herself about this discussion. Neither of the women I have quoted did that. A quick search reveals the titles I have listed below. They are not, in other words, hard to find:
- The Veil and the Male Elite, by Fatima Mernissi
- Beyond the Veil, Fatima Mernissi
- Qur’an and Woman, by Amina Wadud
- Woman’s Identity and the Qur’an, by Nimat Hafez Barazangi
- Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, by Leila Ahmed
- Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, by Kecia Ali
I am very aware that nothing I have written here changes the fact that the veil, in all its forms, is used by men in many places throughout the world to oppress women–whether that oppression takes place in individual families, in local communities, or in entire nations; and I remain committed to the notion that speaking out against that oppression is not exclusively the purview of Muslim women (or men). However, if you are not Muslim and you are going to speak out against it, even if you are a woman identifying as a woman with Muslim women’s oppression, you should be doing so as an ally, which means having the humility to know that you and your experience are not what is at stake; that you and your experience do not belong at the center of the discussion. This–putting their experience smack at the center of the discussion–is the mistake the women I have talked about here have made. The way that mistake erases the experience of Muslim women is what I mean by the casual hatred that is cultural appropriation. (This paragraph has been slightly edited to improve clarity.)