Analysing World Hijab Day: Is it a form of Cultural and Religious Appropriation?

The 1st of February 2015 marked the world’s first “World Hijab Day”, with the aims to foster tolerance, interfaith dialogue and understanding to engage the wider society as to the daily trials and tribulations of Muslim women who experience Islamophobia due to observing the Islamic prescribed requirement of hijab. The idea for this day came from an American Muslim woman called Nazma Khan, in which she explained the reason as to why there was a need to create this day and campaign. It is common knowledge that for women who wear hijab, they are amongst the most vulnerable and are more likely to be victims of Islamophobic abuse in comparison to their male counterparts.

In the midst of the social media support that many have given for World Hijab Day, as exemplified in the numerous Facebook posts and hashtag Tweets trending the topic, it can make both the non-Muslim observer and fellow Muslims wonder as whether such day holds tenability in truly creating an understanding as to hardships endured by Muslim women. As much as one can sympathise and support the aims behind World Hijab Day, there are legitimate grounds for one to think that are elements of appropriation. Furthermore, this is an opinion shared by many, but voiced by few. In analysing World Hijab Day, it is in no way undermining the achievements of the campaign, neither is it a form of criticism. It is just simply exploring the other side of the coin: the alternative viewpoint others may have.

The first ground in which it could be argued that World Hijab Day does entail elements of appropriation would be the unrealistic results it may yield. Participating in such an event or practice in itself does not give you an authentic first-hand experience of the daily trials and tribulations that a veiled Muslim woman, (irrespective of race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic status) experiences just for wearing a hijab. Neither does it negate the fact that Islamophobic abuse, especially towards Muslim women, is a disconcerting and growing problem. Rather what would be more constructive would be to talk to a veiled Muslim woman (colloquially referred to a as a “hijabi”) and genuinely listen to her concerns, this would give a more valuable insight and understanding as to the realities of being a Muslim woman living in the West.

Additionally, for those who have been unfortunate in being a victim of Islamophobic abuse with all its emotional and psychological effects, why would such a person invite another to experience what this is like?                                                          In the instance that a non-Muslim participant in World Hijab Day incurs any Islamophobic abuse she could easily advance the excuse that she is just engaging in a social experiment, with the perpetrator backing off and perhaps apologising for ‘catching the wrong one’. Furthermore, the participant may equally appreciate the relief of not really being a Muslim woman and having to endure more abuse. Conversely, while the participant may have experienced what Islamophobia may entail, a Muslim woman may not be able to enjoy the same level of relief as she cannot deny being a Muslim but also because in the more than likely event the perpetrator of the attack would not stop their attack.

The effect that World Hijab Day may have upon the wider society, particularly in those living in Muslim minority countries, is that it diminishes the notion of hijab and the act of wearing it, to being something that can be casually worn by anybody any time they felt like doing so. It strips away the religious reverence it has and the reason as to why it is worn – because it is an act of worship (ibadah). By doing this, it may contribute to the ignorance that some members of society, and within the Muslim community, have about the hijab as a garment – further obscuring the lines of fact and fiction, culture and Islam. Although there is a margin of appreciation exercised for non-Muslim women and those Muslim women who do not wear hijab (and are considering wearing it on a permanent basis), the best way to find out first-hand what it is like is to not confine it just World Hijab day, but any other of the 364 days available in the year. If the intent is sincere and the consideration is one you have made for the sake of your Creator, surely you would not wait for one specific day to do this.

World Hijab Day arguably plays into the hands of Islamophobes and the never-ending media sensationalism of the hijab with its negative connotation to oppression. Have you not noticed how other faiths do not have an “[insert whatever faith related topic/issue or garment] World Day”?  Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic hate crime is also another issue faced by members of the Jewish community (especially Orthodox Jews), yes, even in the 21st century Britain we reside in. But you do not see the men of the wider society dressing up in the Jewish tallit (shawl) or kippah (headcap) or the women in a tischel (headscarf) to gain an experience of those Jews who are recipients of anti-Semitism. The issue with this is that it breeds a culture of seeking validation in order for veiled women to be also seen as “normal” and therefore accepted by Western society. This exemplifies the idea of Muslims as being the “other” category – different by default.  The fact of the matter is that a veiled woman are just like any other woman; the difference is that she does not look to society to validate her choices of clothing; rather she seeks it from a higher power – despite being socially ostracised and receiving abuse for it.

The bottom line is that in order to gain an insight into the experiences of Muslim women, society is going to have to do more than have a World Hijab Day to understand the hardships and struggles endured. It is through active engagement and giving these women a platform to speak, as opposed to the media and other non-Muslim members of society telling them about the issues that affect them, that the problem really be tackled head on.

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Can I touch it? Erm… : The Hair Conversations and the Politicisation of Black Hair

“Can I touch it?”, “Oh my God, your hair is so nappy!!”, “Wow *awkwardly smiles/fascinated stare* your hair is so different – I want an afro!”…or “Does the drapes….”  (There are other questions one can be asked, but due to Islamic etiquette I refuse to divulge the entirety of those questions).

These are among the many questions received by many black women and girls (including myself) at some point in their lives by a non-black peer, colleague or person generally interested in “the unknown”. Such individuals manifest an often genuine degree of fascination and feelings of shock and awe when analysing afro-textured hair. Of course in some instances, some people (normally those who exhibit a lack of home training in having regard for one’s personal space) may demonstrate the type of courage (rather ignorance/stupidity) you can’t get from a bottle of Jack Daniels and actually go there i.e. proceeding to touch, feel and quite frankly molest the hair of the afro-textured haired person in question. In some cases, albeit not all, this can occur with or without the permission of the recipient. Although, it is understandable that Caucasian and other non-black people of colour may have a well-meaning sense of curiosity with a hair type that is radically different to their own. These instances, in addition to the unintentional/intention comments made are forms of micro-aggressions, which can serve to alienate such groups from black people. As a result, hindering the efforts made to foster understanding and cohesion.

While the latter experience of touching a person’s hair without permission may not be particularly common in the UK, nevertheless it is an issue that is part of a wider conversation pertaining to the Eurocentric notions of beauty, race and the challenges they present to minority groups.

The politics and never-ending phenomena of Black hair (and at large the image of black women) is something that is contentious and often arouses feelings ranging from anger and frustration to joy and confusion – and all shades in between. The topic has been discussed by many cultural critics, black feminists and image activists including Michaela Angela Davis (not to be confused with the Black Panther member Angela Davis) and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. The topic was even the subject of the 2009 documentary by comedian Chris Rock entitled “Good Hair”. Furthermore, black hair has gained mainstream international media attention when in 2013 South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma urged African women to embrace natural hairstyles, and back in 2009 when  US President Obama’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, incurred negative reactions because she wore her hair in natural African twists while accompanying her family on a visit to Italy.

In order to understand how and why this is an issue to be explored and discussed, one cannot talk about the politics of black hair without putting the conceptions and notions of beauty under the microscope.

Why y’all so touchy?

Caucasian and non-black people of colour often wonder as to why hair is such a contentious issue in the black community. It is fathomable when assessing the situation on a superficial level, the subject of hair is something that is ordinarily considered quite trivial in comparison to bigger problems plaguing society as a whole and their respective communities. However, in deciphering the issue, it may be sensible to start with a quote to put things into context:

 “It’s amazing that it’s considered revolutionary to wear my hair the way it grows out of my head!” Tracie Thoms (actress).

Historically speaking, black people and their hair has long been an issue dating back as far as the days of slavery in which a slave who had physical features that resembled that of their Caucasian master was in some cases favoured in terms of receiving an education and spared from doing backbreaking menial work under the sun, compared to the slave that most resembled black African ancestry. Since then, the phrase “good hair” which has its roots in being used as a survival term, is commonly used today to denote the preference, along with the constantly promulgated notion of long, straight, silky hair being made a socially acceptable norm (at the expense of kinky, afro-textured hair being socially rejected). In turn, many black women and girls opt for the use of a relaxer made of chemicals that straighten the hair to fulfil the ideal of having “good hair” with children as young as six being subjected to regular treatments. For those that choose to wear their natural hair in styles such as an afro, twists or dreadlocks, they may have to endure negative stereotypes attributed to such styles, e.g. the notion of those who wear dreadlocks being synonymous with recreational marijuana usage or the afro being tantamount to “setting off the revolution” – with reference to the civil rights activists such as Angela Davis from the Black Panthers.

Of course these stereotypes are wrong and correspondingly, this has a profoundly negative effect upon black women and young girls growing up in a Western, Eurocentric society in which tells them, whether overtly or covertly, that their form of beauty is not highly valued. This culminates in many having an inferiority complex as to their race, heritage and place in the world. Many Children’s books, television shows and toys such as Barbie perpetuate the narrative of Eurocentric superiority in beauty, and even when Barbie did have a black doll called Christie – she had long straight jet black hair that resembled that of an Oriental or Indo-Pakistani woman as opposed to a sub-Saharan African girl! Where was her afro? Or twists or locks?! At least give a variation.

To add insult to injury, when I recall my days as a child I also struggled to find a doll that resembled myself – the fact that I was (and still am) overweight and black made the search all the more difficult in my quest to find that elusive “fat black doll”. However, in the end I did find my doll and to this day I still keep it as a reminder of the various types of beauty that exist – but also the refusal for the society I live in to accept natural African hairstyles and fuller figured women as also encompassing the many notions of beauty.

It is easy to look at the issue simplistically and point fingers at certain people, corporations and/or society as whole etc., but doing so would just be that: simple. The problem is much deeper, and by pointing fingers and not postulating ideas to solve the problem, one just engrossed in this sad and confidence-waning cycle.

My black is beautiful, so when did I cease to become black?

Questions relating to black hair are not helped when dividing opinions permeate within the black community, namely between two groups: those who are “pro natural” (those that advocate and opt to wear their hair in its natural state, also known as the “natural hair movement”) and those who choose not to wear their hair in the natural state (i.e. the way in which their hair grows out of their hair, for example weaves, wigs, chemically straightening). It is argued by some in the former category (and by some conservative non-black social commentators) that wearing hair in its natural state shows pride and acceptance in one’s racial and ethnic identity, with claims also asserted by some who are pro-natural that the altering of hair from its natural state may constitute the denial of one’s racial or ethnic identity. Such arguments presented can often be regarded as reductive as there are a range of reasons why an individual opts to present themselves in the way that they do, and in turn should not feel obliged to justify this to the rest of society.

The issue is not how one chooses to wear their hair (or whether one’s hair is store bought or naturally grown) but rather the idea that black racial and ethnic identities are only limited to one type of way or look. This is completely wrong as black hair is not one monolithic type; rather it represents a range of fashion styles, lengths, levels of versatility and textures – and yes, this includes extensions. One doesn’t stop being black because they have a weave or lace-front wig nor does one become “more black” because you wear sport an Afro or dreadlocks with a dashiki shirt, rather this contributes to disunity within the black community at large and does help in the quest for unity.

Where beauty and blackness are concerned, black women constantly find themselves in a position where they have to fight and defend to the rest of society why their features should be legitimised and accepted. For me as a black woman, I find it disconcerting that something as trivial as the way my hair grows out of my head is considered defiant or “revolutionary”. What makes this situation more disheartening is that anti-blackness, shadeism, colourism, sectarianism and nationalism are all forms of mental colonialism that continue to permeate within the Muslim Community.

It is until Black women and other non-black women of colour emancipate themselves from the shackles of mental colonialism by starting to accept, embrace and promote their natural beauty by abstaining from using terms that normalise inferiority and self-hatred emanating from their past, that the struggle for promotion and acknowledgement within Western society will get easier.

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For those who are unfamiliar with the terms used in this piece. Here’s a brief glossary:

Good hair = A popular term in the black community (most especially African-American community), used to describe an black person’s hair that closely resembles the hair of a typical white person (i.e. soft, manageable, long, as opposed to “nappy” or “bad” hair). The closer your hair is to a white person’s, the “better” your hair is.

Nappy = tightly coiled / curled unaltered hair. Coiled hair in its natural state

Non-black people of Colour (NBoPoC) = people who belong to racial/ethnic groups that are neither Black nor Caucasian i.e. people who are Latino, Middle Eastern/Arab, Indo-Pakistani Asian, Oriental Asian, mixed race (be this mixed black and white or otherwise) or any group in the “other” category.

People of colour (PoC) = normally and mainly used to mean black people (African or Afro-Carribean), although one could count non-black and non-Caucasian racial/ethnic groups as being also people of colour.

Relaxer/Perm = a creamy substance made from hydrochloric acid and other alkhalis. For the most part it is applied mainly on Afro-textured hair in order to chemically straighten the hair. Another name for the relaxer is called a perm. Thus permed or relaxed hair is hair that is chemically straightened.

Challenging Fallacies: The Concept of Beauty and the Muslim Woman

Before I continue any further, as the writer, I would like to stress that the entirety of this article is in no way meant to be used as a barometer to judge other women upon. Rather, it should be a piece that ignites a sense of reflection about the type of world that we live in and how we as Muslim women should look beyond the false illusions of beauty that are propagated to us by society. The opinions and thoughts expressed are indeed my own, of which I wish not to impose upon the reader.

The topic concerning the worth of women in Islam is one that is very much discussed, contested and debated upon by many Western media outlets and among religious and secular intellectuals alike. As Muslim women, within our own religion, we tend to forget how Islam has elevated us in a plethora of ways. In today’s current commercial climate of “sex sells” and “if you’ve got it flaunt it”, we as women find ourselves engrossed by the ideas of what constitutes beauty. Consequently, this serves to opiate us from the realities of what Islam has to offer.

As the title suggests (and as many of you are aware), there are many notions and concepts regarding the issue of beauty of which in turn may affect the confidence and self-worth of women in our society. This is very much epitomised in the countless stories we hear and see in the news of women and young girls going to extreme lengths to attain a societally set standard of beauty, sometimes with dire consequences.

Having said this, it has now become a familiar occurrence that many Muslim women and girls experience conflict between the ideals endorsed by the Western media such as hedonism and superficial beauty, and the inner tranquillity and freedom that Islam provides without stress or hassle over one’s physique.

I know which one I would opt for, and as a convert to Islam it was through my journey that I realised this.

 

“She makes up one half of the Ummah and gives birth to the other half.”

Contrary to the ever-constant media driven rhetoric that Islam debases the woman, as a female revert in my early 20’s, I can honestly say that Islam gave the women her rights before any bra burning feminist in the 60’s. Subjected to being marketed as a sexual commodity in magazines, music videos and films and at times being addressed by demeaning names, one can hardly say that freedom and respect in relation to the women in our society is being given in its entirety. Perhaps one of the biggest fallacies presented to us is that through being exploited i.e. being used as sex symbols and being bombarded with constant commercialisation, we are in fact being liberated and free. That’s like saying that although illegal narcotics are trafficked and sold on the streets by dealers, because the drug addict had an autonomous mind and exercised an option to purchase the narcotic substance that somehow he is demonstrating his freedom!? I guarantee that society would not use this same epistemology of thinking to say that the drug addict was liberated (ahhh…the epitome of double standards!).

Through my experiences and observations, I find it rather impossible to criticize the niqab, hijab or any elements of the Islamically prescribed dress code (according to Qur’an and Sunnah) without a thorough exploration into Western clothing and the false notion of beauty that our society foist upon women. Indeed it is a travesty to say that a woman dressed in hijab or even niqab, is oppressed when we as a society (conveniently) never stop to critically think about the oppressive practices that are operative within the Western Society we live in. This is exemplified in the magazines, music videos, commercials all propagating a notion of beauty that (with all due respect) most women will struggle to achieve.

As women we are the nurturers of our children, the backbone of the home, the care provider etc…basically without us the household will fall apart (let’s face it you wouldn’t trust your brother to handle your laundry delicates now would you?). We are responsible for how our children grow, and if we spend all our time immersed in worldly things and not raising them in the way of Islam, then we are doing a great disservice to our daughters and sons.

The acquisition of knowledge is also something that is overlooked by us as Muslim women, the confidence of many Muslim women is waning as we are unaware of the great successes that have been achieved by us in the past…but more centrally, what we could achieve presently and in the future. For example, Sumayyah bint Khayyat the first female martyr who was killed for her conversion to Islam. Her death exemplifies a sense of pride we should have in our religion and how we should have strength in the midst of the pressure to conform to society’s ideals of what constitutes a “modern” woman and the tarring of our image as oppressed, weak and submissive. Strength in conviction and character, despite what the rest of society has to say on the matter, is surely a character that is invaluable and a true sign of courage.

Another example would be that of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). A true exemplar of today’s so called ‘career woman’, but most especially an honourable wife and mother. Successful in all her trade she never once sacrificed her integrity and was never fooled by the illusions of her time. Instead she made significant contributions both in commerce but also, as a Muslim woman, to that of her marriage and family life. She was a strong woman who stood by the Prophet through persecution in his quest to convey the valuable message of Islam.

Let us be a backbone for breeding the next generation of Scholars, Doctors, Imams, and other people of knowledge to which we reflect upon these teachings and implement them in order to become a people of depth, courage and seriousness.

 

“Cry Liberation? Who wrote the book?”

As I am writing, one of the interesting things that strike me in regards to the standards of freedom is this: who set the standards of what amounts to the liberation of women? Similarly, where is the demarcation between freedom and oppression? Often we find ourselves subjected to being judged and intensely scrutinised by the standards of Western liberal and secular concepts of what a woman should encompass to the point that anybody who believes outside of this criteria would fail and thus are relegated to being undesirably labelled as “extremist”, “radical” “fundamentalist” etc.

As a consequence of taking the Western ideal of freedom as the bench mark, many Muslim women both those living in the West and those residing in Muslim countries have started to develop a sentiment of inferiority complex – of which one has to adapt or “integrate” an Islamic way of living to fit in with false notions that at times go against our Islamic principles.

In turn, this leads us as Muslims to compromise the status of the Muslim woman and in many cases re-affirm the preconceived ideas and rhetoric that Western media already have tried to engrain in our minds. I hardly think that the likes of Tommy Robinson or Pamela Geller are the right authority to inform or dictate to us, about the status of the Muslim woman (yes, I still await their certificates from the Islamic University of al-Madinah authenticating their degrees in Shariah, Hadith or Dawah…NOT!). As Muslim women we do not have to conform to these ideals, rather we should realise that through the light of Islam and trusting in Allah’s omniscience, we should conduct ourselves in a way which we do not debase ourselves. But instead maintain our honour and dignity according to what had been prescribed and ordained by Allah azza wa jal.

 

Final thoughts

The thing that breaks my heart the most is when a muslimah doesn’t realise and embrace her own worth and her inner beauty, because some magazine columnist or celebrity tells her that being she just isn’t good enough.

However, my dear sister I leave you with this: we shine bright like diamonds, we are protected like pearls…and like a kite in the sky we are elevated through the clouds of this world (and in sha Allah the next). So maybe it is not as hard being yourself in an appearance obsessed world after all. All you have to do is to believe in yourself, hold steadfast to the rope of Allah and you can overcome the shackles of a materialistic and beauty obsessed world and realise your real worth.