Despite its negative connotation, the hijab is still seen by many Muslim women as a mark of pride—the crown of what it means to be American.
The topic of women’s status in Islam has been a hot one for decades, and has experienced a special revival since the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Concern about Islam and Islamic societies facilitating the oppression of women permeate popular discourse. Indeed, the liberation of Muslim women from their “tyrannical,” male-dominated societies has been commonly cited as justification for the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Central to the image of the Muslim woman’s plight woman is the veil in all its forms: a head-wrapping hijab, a face-covering burqa, a niqaab revealing only her eyes. The color black is also associated with this image: women shrouded in darkness and rendered invisible.
The hijab (headscarf worn by Muslim women) remains a topic of interest in America today. For instance, anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller has interpreted the headscarf as a way in which Muslims “impose Islam in the public square,” and a part of an “Islamic supremacist agenda.” While Geller’s opinions about Islam have been widely criticized, there is no shortage of everyday people who suspiciously view hijab use as a sign of Muslim unwillingness to assimilate into American culture, or as telling of some inherent “Islamist” need to oppress women, and therefore wish the practice a speedy demise.
In reality, hijab use is as diverse as the Muslim population itself—both in how the cloth is worn, and in its interpretation as a matter or choice, versus a mandatory command from God, versus “patriarchy” in action, and more. In the current post-9/11 setting, with many Arab Americans and Muslims facing backlash, some hijabi women offer an emerging interpretation of the headscarf: It is a marker of Islamic and American ideals, of modesty and religious freedom (though it is important to note that the often simplified notions of “modesty” and “religious freedom” are in fact ideals shared by both, needlessly polarized, cultures).
For many post-9/11 Muslims, there has been an increasing sense of fear and discomfort due to their communities experiencing varieties of intolerance and/or violent hate crimes, and also from living under a near constant gaze of suspicion, frequently anticipating further backlash and hurt. Putting on a hijab in this context (especially for those who began wearing it after 9/11) has been some Muslim women’s empowering response to fear.
To elaborate: While many American Muslim women certainly wear the hijab to practice the standards of modesty in Islam, some also see it as an opportunity to identify themselves as part of a larger Muslim group, one that cuts across ethnic boundaries to create a more cohesive Muslim-American community. For these women, the hijab serves as a marker of their unabashed membership in the American Muslim community, providing strength and solidarity during a time of political tension. This is nicely illustrated by something a friend of mine said when she began wearing the hijab a couple of years ago. She explained:
“The wearing of hijab allows me to stand fast upon my principles, to weather the storms of popular disapproval and the intense—oh my god—the intense pressure to lose your background, your values…wearing a hijab is tantamount to holding a microphone and announcing to the world you are a Muslim and you are not afraid to exhibit it. That you will not change your name to “Mo” from Mohammad to escape the backlash. It has made me more zealous in presenting to the world, with myself as a model, a member of humanity, and a follower of Islam.”
Putting on a hijab—particularly one with a noticeably bold pattern or color—is, as the friend above said, “tantamount to holding a microphone and announcing to everyone that you are a Muslim.” In this context, far from being a symbol of stifling Islamic supremacy, the scarf stands instead as a banner of autonomy. It demands the freedom of Muslim women in America to practice their faith openly; the freedom to reject restrictions placed on them and their bodies by reductionists who compartmentalize the hijab (and other forms of veiling) as a tidy issue of female oppression or Islamic tyranny. American Muslim women, by challenging these popular misconceptions of the hijab, are claiming public spaces as the religiously diverse and multicultural places they are intended to be.
Rather than situating East as opposed to West, or Islam as incompatible with America, it would serve us well to consider that there are many overlaps between these too often dichotomized ways of life, and a lot that lies along the polarized spectrum. Hijab use in America is one such instance. I’d like to end with a quote by another hijabi woman I spoke to, who likened her scarf to a crown, one standing for a territory of well known American ideals, which prescribe that every person, of every culture, creed and gender, should have space to live and worship freely, and to thrive. “The hijab is the crown, if I can use that term, of what it means to be American. Free to choose, free to practice whatever a woman wants.”
Huma Mohibullah is a doctoral student in anthropology, currently researching post-9/11 Muslims in America, with interests in nationalism, citizenship, social movements and gender. Apart from her work, she really likes grilled cheese sandwiches, surfing, Woody Guthrie, and Mos Def. Follow her on Twitter @humafish.