Hijab Tourism Redux: World Hijab Day Edition

Sigh. IT’S BACK.

World Hijab Day, started last year, is back this Saturday for round two. The event was started by a Muslim woman (and hijabi) Nazma Khan as a way to foster better understanding by encouraging non-Muslims to “walk a mile in the shoes of a hijabi.” Nazma has spoken about what she went through wearing hijab and why she started World Hijab Day (video). I empathise with her experiences, which were horrific, and I understand the impulse to respond by saying “If you’d only try it for yourself you’d understand!” But with all due respect to Nazma and what she’s accomplished, I strongly and fundamentally disagree with the entire premise of World Hijab Day.

I wrote about hijab tourism last year and pointed out a lot of the colonialist underpinnings to the exercise, but that post was mainly focused on the habit of journalists trying on hijab or niqab so they can write offensive articles about it. World Hijab Day is a bit different. It encourages non-Muslim women to try out hijab purely for the sake of experiencing it. Many of these women will never go on to write about it, but I still find the entire premise problematic and deeply discomforting. Continue reading

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Here’s what’s wrong with hijab tourism and your cutesy “modesty experiments”

Hijab: sometimes, it feels like everyone’s giving it a try. Lauren Shields is just the latest feminist to embark on a ‘modesty experiment’ based on the veiling traditions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Last year, a teenager on Tumblr wore hijab to the mall and ended up with 200,000 reblogs. In 2010, a young journalist went ‘undercover’ in hijab for a month to find out what it was like. Liz Jones wore the burka in 2009; Danielle Crittenden over at HuffPo wore it all the way back in 2007, like some kind of Cultural Appropriation Hipster. Over at Vice, Annette Lamothe-Ramos wandered around New York in a burka and then wrote a really insensitive article about the experience. Apparently if you’re stuck for ideas for content, a reliable fall-back is to dress like a Muslim woman for a day or so and then bang out a few thousand words on the experience. Job done.

These ‘hijab tourists’ venture into the mysterious world of Islamic veiling like the colonialist explorers of old, and like those explorers they return from their travels to report back on what they experienced. The veil is an ~exotic foreign country~, and you can’t trust the locals to tell you what it’s all about. No, better to send one of your own – usually a nice, middle-class White woman – and get her to translate the experience into a narrative that’s palatable to a Western audience. Hijab and niqab are thus shorn of their cultural, religious and social significance and reduced to tourist attractions and teachable moments for privileged outsiders. They swoop in, swan around in a veil for a few days (or weeks) and then write earnest op-eds about how much they ~learned~ from the experience.

Continue reading