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.
Who is this really about?
Despite the good intentions behind it, World Hijab Day (WHD) is ultimately a reductive and superficial exercise. The idea is that non-Muslim women will wear hijab for the day and will somehow glean profound insights into the lives of Muslim women by doing so. My issue with this is simple: even though the day is ostensibly about Muslim women and their experiences, it doesn’t actually focus on Muslim women. The spotlight is firmly on the experiences of non-Muslim women who are merely tourists in the world of hijab. As such it privileges the experience of non-Muslim women over and above the stories and narratives of actual Muslim women who wear hijab every day.
Why can’t we have a “world hijab day” that’s all about hijabi Muslims talking about their experiences? Why do we need to bring non-Muslims into this at all? I’d love to see World Hijab Day used as an opportunity to showcase the lives of Muslim women, highlight our struggles, and document what we go through simply for being who we are. Instead it becomes about non-Muslims and how they feel about our lives. When you have BBC radio stations asking for non-Muslim input and ignoring women who wear hijab or niqab on a daily basis, then we have a problem.
I don’t believe that WHD can foster any real understanding of what it feels like to be a hijab-wearing Muslim woman because the event focuses on the external aspects of veiling at the expense of the more complex hidden aspects of hijab. The spiritual or religious meanings of hijab and Islamic modesty are largely ignored. WHD – indeed, any kind of hijab tourism – reduces hijab to a fancy-dress costume and then encourages non-Muslim women to play dress-up. Through doing so they will apparently “understand” what hijab is “like” and gain some insight into the lives of hijabi Muslims.
Again, I have to take issue with this. Hijab is not simply an item of clothing or a costume. It has deep spiritual, religious and cultural meanings. Hijab can take on huge political and social significance for the women who wear it every day, because of what it means and what it represents. When you take all that away, what you are left with is not hijab. It is a superficial shadow of hijab. It is a mere costume. You can wrap a pashmina around your head for a few hours and then naval-gaze about it to your heart’s content, but you’ll never understand what it feels like to be a Muslim woman wearing hijab. You’ll just understand what it feels like to be a non-Muslim woman playing dress-up in hijab, and that isn’t even remotely the same thing.
It is in fact not possible for a non-Muslim to wear hijab. Really. Hijab is about much more than the externality of dressing in long sleeves and pinning your scarf on just right. There is a whole code of behaviour that is also part of hijab (my teacher used to call it ‘inner hijab’) – that applies to both men and women. There are spiritual and cultural meanings to the hijab, both the dress code and the code of conduct. Hijab can be a part of how Muslim women express and exert an identity, or part of how we push back against the dominant culture.
“Wearing hijab” does not simply mean wrapping a scarf around your head. To wear hijab is to engage constantly with the spiritual and cultural meaning of that mode of dress. Wearing hijab means consciously adopting an outfit that has a deep, rich history within Islamic culture. As a non-Muslim, you can never really “wear hijab,” because it will never be about publically declaring yourself to be Muslim or consciously connecting to the traditions of our pious predecessors or striving for deeper spiritual connection with the divine. You are just playing dress-up. That’s all you’re doing. It’s empty.
Look don’t touch
We live in a superficial culture that focuses on externalities, so it’s perhaps not surprising that so many people believe that you can “understand” Muslim women by adopting external markers of our identity. WHD makes the mistake of buying into this idea and encouraging it, rather than critiquing this flawed logic. It encourages the view that hijab is purely a superficial, external garment that you can slip on and off as it pleases you. It strips away all the multiple, complex reasons that exist beneath the surface of hijab and instead lends weight to the idea that hijab is just a costume that anyone can experience. It also implicitly accepts the flawed premise that all Muslim women wear hijab, when there are many Muslim women who don’t. Their experience is just as valid – but in the rush to hold up hijab as the symbol of Muslim women’s experiences, women who don’t veil at all are casually erased.
Whenever people ask me if it would be okay to try out hijab, I always ask them why they want to do it. It puzzles me that anyone would think it’s a good idea, because if you want to know what hijab is “like” why not just… I don’t know… ask a hijabi about it? There are all sorts of reasons people give for wanting to do a bit of hijab tourism, and all of them ultimately boil down to something problematic.
Sometimes it’s people who just think it looks cool or that it will ward off street harassment. To which I have to say a) you’re damn right it looks cool, it looks frikkin awesome, thanks for noticing and b) you still can’t have it. This is just straight-up cultural appropriation, and like all sorts of cultural appropriation it’s exploitative. The repercussions for non-Muslims dressing up in hijab are never as serious as they are for Muslims, because ultimately you are not exerting a marginalised identity by wearing it.
Sometimes people want to wear it to “see what it’s like” – which, again, I have to ask why? You’ll never really know ‘what it’s like’ unless you’re Muslim, so you might as well just defer to the experiences of actual Muslim women. Likewise I find it problematic that people want to try out hijab to check if Islamophobia is real. PSA: it’s real, thanks for asking, and it doesn’t need to be independently verified by non-Muslims. We need to start trusting Muslim women when they talk about what they’ve been through. Discrimination does not become more ‘legitimate’ once it’s been verified by a white person and it doesn’t become more serious or worthy of attention when a more privileged person experiences it.
Likewise I find it problematic that people want to try on hijab as a way to “understand Muslim women.” You’d get a much better understanding by actually talking to us – but again, we are not trusted to talk intelligently about our own lived experience so it becomes necessary to send in an amateur anthropologist to decipher the complexities of our lives. This kind of hijab tourism is reductive in the extreme: it makes “wearing hijab” the keystone of this mythical ‘Muslim Woman Experience’, so that the only thing people feel they need to understand about us is the veil. This is ludicrous. Besides, there are plenty of Muslim women who don’t wear hijab on a regular basis, so even if this method magically worked you’d still only gain ‘insight’ into a small sample of Muslim women’s lives.
Even if you think wearing hijab is a way of expressing solidarity, it’s still solidarity that relies on cultural and religious appropriation. There are far better ways to support Muslim women than dressing up as one for a day. Solidarity through cultural appropriation is extremely problematic, because the consequences for non-Muslims wearing hijab are never as severe as they are for Muslims.
It is not possible to “respectfully” try out hijab for the day/week/month/year and there is no such thing as “good” hijab tourism. Whichever way you look at it, you will eventually run into something problematic. There’s no insight you can gain from dressing up in hijab that you couldn’t get much better from actually talking to Muslim women about their lives and their experiences, so however you slice it hijab tourism ends up looking reductive, exploitative and appropriative. This is because hijab tourism is inherently problematic. It is based on the false premise that you can lift hijab out of its religious and cultural context, turn it into a fancy-dress costume, and then invite non-Muslims to take a tour of the experience. Hijab simply isn’t the same without its religious context, and trying to “experience” it without that is a futile exercise.
There are plenty of cultures with their own traditions of veiling or head-covering that aren’t hijab but may be similar in style or appearance. Covering the head or concealing the hair is not a uniquely Islamic practice. If you want to experience modest dress or head covering, you can look into your own traditions and find something from your own culture that you can adopt or revive. If it’s really just about trying out ‘modest dress’ there’s lots of ways you can do that without appropriating the hijab. The fact that it’s always hijab that gets appropriated and “tried on” tells me this tourism isn’t really about the outfits or the modest attire but rather about deciphering the lives of Muslim women, usually in a way that pathologizes our experiences.
Fake Beards and Water Pistols
When we discussed WHD on twitter, I made a joke about it: “I wore a fake beard for the day. I now understand The Male Experience.” Playing dress-up in hijab is just like playing dress-up in any other kind of cultural outfit or costume: it provides zero insight into the actual lives and struggle of the people for whom that outfit is NOT a costume. You cannot understand Muslim women – or hijab – by trying it on for the day, any more than you can understand what it’s “like” to be a fire-fighter by dressing up in a cheeky fireman Halloween costume and squirting people with a water pistol. To suggest otherwise is naive.
What I want to see from World Hijab Day is a day where Muslim women can take the stage and talk about their daily lives and experiences. What I’m actually seeing is a superficial and reductive exercise that yet again makes non-Muslims the centre of discussion. We have once again fallen for the mistake of letting non-Muslims describe and judge our experiences on our behalf. I don’t see something that will build bridges or increase understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. World Hijab Day is encouraging non-Muslims to treat our religious dress like a cheap costume and is cheering people on as they engage in cultural appropriation. Whatever its original (noble) intentions, it has ceased to be about dialogue or respect and has become yet another scenario in which we defer to the judgement of non-Muslims. Muslim women’s lives do not need to be submitted to non-Muslims for approval.
If you really want to respect Islam and you really want to understand Muslim women, it’s time to stop talking over us and start listening to what we have to say for ourselves. You do not need to dress up in a headscarf in order to feel empathy, compassion, and respect for us and what we go through.
And as Muslims, we need to have a serious, in-depth discussion about why we continue to encourage this kind of hijab tourism and why we constantly look to non-Muslims for approval and validation of our experiences. I know that hijab is frequently the target of attacks. I understand the impulse to reach out to non-Muslims and say “If you’d just try it for yourself!” It can be tempting to think that the road to understanding and respect lies through inviting critical, unfriendly non-Muslims into our experiences in the hope that it will cause some kind of attitude change. But this ignores the long and problematic history of Western appropriation from other cultures and the ways that hijab tourism fit into that. It ignores the ways that these “try for yourself” experiences implicitly privilege non-Muslims over Muslims.
We need to stop being an ummah that constantly looks to the West for their seal of approval, and instead start celebrating and uplifting our own experiences. We have many Muslim sisters who wear hijab, niqab, or do not veil at all – all of them deserve to be heard. All of them are worthy of taking the spotlight. All of them can offer a more insightful and interesting account of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman than a non-Muslim woman ever can. Our empowerment must come through uplifting the voices of Muslim women – not passing the microphone to those who only wish to play dress-up with our religion and then discard it once their day is done.