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.

The consequences for these privileged, non-Muslim women who try hijab or niqab for a day (or week, or months) are usually attention, column space and – in most cases – monetary reward. Liz Jones and Danielle Crittenden are both professional journalists who were presumably paid to dress up in niqabs and then write scathing, offensive articles about it. In the latest iteration of these articles, Lauren Shields announced recently on her blog that she now has an agent and a book deal based on her experience.

There’s good money to be made in cultural appropriation, apparently. Shields denies that her experiment is cultural appropriation because she “made [her] own modesty rules” {x}, which is a pretty disingenuous assertion given that she states in her Salon article that the whole experiment was inspired by a lecture about Muslim women and the hijab. Even her blog banner states:

“In America, we see Islamic women all covered up and think, “That poor woman, made to be ashamed of her body!” But is it any less oppressive to convince a woman that her uncovered body is never beautiful enough? Is covering enslavement… or freedom? I want to find out.” {x}

This is a fairly unequivocal indication that her experiment is inspired by and relates to the experience of Muslim women, and denying that seems to be a way to deflect some heat from something that’s blatantly appropriative.

This byline is in itself an extremely problematic approach to writing about and discussing the veil. Shields begins from the premise that Muslim women are oppressed: ‘ashamed’ of their bodies, ‘enslaved’ by the veil. In this way her article and anything else she writes about the veil is not substantially different from the offensive, insulting Islamophobia spewed by Jones and Crittenden. Muslim women’s supposed ‘oppression’, focused on and centred around the veil, becomes the intellectual starting point for all these articles. Whilst Jones and Crittenden write on the premise ‘Muslim women are oppressed, and I’ll prove it by dressing up as one’, Shields writes on the liberal-flavoured premise of ‘Muslim women are oppressed… or are they? I’ll challenge your assumptions by dressing up as one!’ It’s inherently the same thing: patronising, Othering and reductive.

Both these approaches reduce Muslim women to veiled, enigmatic symbols of Oppression; and whether you’re upholding the veil as symbolic of oppression or purporting to “challenge assumptions” about it, this is still a reductive, one-dimensional and over-simplistic view of how Muslim women experience their faith, their identity and their bodies. 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.

In the eyes of Western feminist discourse, the freedom and liberty of Muslim women lives or dies on the veil. If the veil is declared liberating, Muslim women are free. If the veil is declared oppressive, Muslim women are oppressed. This sole aspect of our lives has become the metric by which our autonomy, freedom, agency and volition is decided. Whether or not we work, have money, can vote, take part in public life or have access to education and opportunities – none of this is relevant. The hijab – and only the hijab – is worth focusing on.

That it is deemed necessary to have a non-Muslim woman experience the veil and make a judgement on it is also problematic. It’s not just that this approach silences Muslim women and relegates our narratives about our own experience to a back seat. The entire premise of having a non-Muslim woman go on a ‘tour’ of the veil relies on a fundamental difference in the way Muslim women are perceived compared to their non-Muslim counterparts. Muslim women are viewed as inherently passive, submissive and obedient – nameless, faceless, voiceless ciphers to be endlessly discussed, dissected and judged but never actually listened to.

Thus Muslim women are perceived to experience hijab or niqab in a passive way. We are not viewed as people and individuals actively participating in the practice of veiling – rather the veil is seen as having been forced upon us by oppressive men-folk, patriarchal religious norms, a backwards and sexually-repressive culture or by terrifying Mullahs threatening hellfire to any woman who doesn’t cover herself up. This is the underlying assumption behind feminists who want to ‘save’ Muslim women from the veil – the narrative of saving oppressed brown women from evil, misogynistic brown men. But this assumption also serves to delegitimize Muslim women’s narratives about their own experience of veiling. Our voices are not to be trusted because we are ‘brainwashed’ and ‘naive’ and don’t know any better – therefore it becomes necessary to send a (free, liberated) non-Muslim woman into the murky world of Islam to find out the truth about how hijab and niqab feel.

There is a reason why I compare the practice of hijab tourism to the colonialist practices of old, and it’s because it’s essentially the same thing and relies on the same problematic, Western supremacist mindset. Every stereotype I have described here – the Passive Muslim Woman, the Oppressive, Nasty Brown Man, the Barbaric Heathen Religion, the Backwards, Uncivilised Culture – all these things form part of a Western, White supremacist framework that views Islam as inherently backwards and flawed for the sole reason that it is not a Western religion. It is characterised as a religion of ‘the East’ – and according to the mindset of Western supremacy, nothing but barbarism can come from the East. Only if you view Islam as a religion devoid of intellect, understanding and civility does it become necessary to have a non-Muslim woman ‘translate’ the experience of veiling. The entire premise of hijab tourism relies on the assumption that Muslim women cannot be trusted to talk intelligently and articulately about their own experiences.

That Lauren Shields is now able to cash in on this reductive tourism is simply another layer of annoyance and insult to an already deeply offensive experiment and article. Why are editors so interested in her outsider narrative of what it’s like to adopt modest dress? There are plenty of Muslim women you could ask to describe their experience of veiling in a Western culture. If you want a book about a White woman taking up the veil and learning from it, how about this for an idea – get an actual White Muslim convert to write it. We exist too! We have opinions! Many of us like writing and will happily write you a whole book about hijab!

The Lauren Shields “modesty experiment” debacle is simply the latest example of the ways Western society privileges outsider narratives about Muslim women and ignores what we have to say about our own lives and experiences. It perpetuates the harmful idea that Muslim women can’t think and act for ourselves. If you think that’s true, by all means buy this woman’s book. But if you are as deeply disturbed by this trend as I am, then I have a question for you – where’s my book deal?

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

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  3. Pingback: Reading The Veil and The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, by Fatima Mernissi – Richard Jeffrey Newman

  4. Its funny how the more clothed men are and the more unclothed women are the more “free” they are. If a woman wants to wear clothing that will give her respect and dignity, its a crime!

  5. Pingback: Writing Outside Your Demographic: Cultural Appropriation | Anne Bean

  6. I liked your post. Its interesting as I have many friends who have done so a gesture of respect to my religious/ethnic culture, the closest they will get to feeling what it is like to ‘be me’, amidst the increasing barrage of underhand Islamophobia casually leaking into mainstream media sources. However, I stand by your point. Bravo!

  7. I get it now I really do. I first read this post almost three years ago before I was even thinking about reverting to Islam. Back then I was just looking for a way to stop the sexual harassment I received in public by wearing hijab.I did not get the significance of hijab and how Islam influences a hijabis outlook on life. I won’t go into my revert story because it’s pretty long (which you can read on my blog) but I will say once I found Islam I saw hijab in an entirely new light. I did not really get to feel the sting of cultural/religious appropriation until I read Jeremy Greenberg’s article on his supposed ‘conversion’ to Islam. Now as a niqabi I understand how reductive society is concerning my appearance because now I don’t get to take it off if I feel like trying something new.

  8. Oh dear! I was contemplating whether to don a hijab tomorrow in solidarity with my Muslim sisters for world hijab day. Normally I’d be very reluctant to even entertain such an idea: not interested in cultural appropriation, creepy pseudo liberal orientalist colonialism, religious disrespect etc. etc. But given what’s going on in the world right now: Trump’s politics of hate and Islamophobia and this terrifying “Muslim ban” just going into effect a few days ago, I was seriously thinking about it. The hijab has become symbolic of so many hateful and ignorant western fears. Since trumps election hijabi have not only been harassed, but even attacked and killed in America. I was thinking that maybe this might be another small way to show some solidarity. (Yes, I’m calling my congress people, yes I’m going to every protest I can.) But I’m SOOOO glad I found your article before it was too late! I’ll stay far away from my scarf drawer on Wednesday, I promise!

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