There are so many ‘layers’ to this dreaded headscarf discussion (and the dreaded word ‘debate’) (and even the dreaded ‘layers’ pun). I am constantly on the edge of flipping off every conversation surrounding it. I cringe in public (real and virtual) settings that mention the word ‘hijab’, seconds from theoretically and literally puking. F*** it all is what my philosophy usually is when it comes to the headscarf debates. I am intrinsically, from deep within myself turned off, and yet desperately plugged in to conversations that directly impact my life.
I could begin by addressing all the problems one may have with my saying the words, ‘I am not a hijabi,’ but I won’t.
The word used to torment me. At age 14, I saw the divide: you could either be a ‘hijabi’ and bare the connotations of being ultra-religious, stuffy, saint-like (meaning not fun) and expected to be saint-like (meaning not fun and constantly living up to the visual standards of what a religious person is perceived to look and behave like), or you could choose the path of social acceptance, reverence, and elevation as an objectified female. Sadly, for me, at that age, I wasn’t able to see, and possibly did not have access to a broader perspective on understanding women’s choices and the various paths they can take, the various goals that can drive their lives. So I made the choice of being a social outcast, because it felt right. Even as I made the decision to wear a headscarf as a regular part of my non-pajama outfits, I internally did not identify with the word ‘hijabi’. It didn’t settle with me. I didn’t like it.
For me, as a first-generation eldest child with no slightly older multi-identity female role models whose everyday lives I could examine and derive my own lessons and conclusions, I saw things as black and white, because it was safer to think in terms of black and white when I could only purport or imagine extremities from my choices. I feared, since they were the only examples I saw, that I would lose myself as a sex object if I walked down a certain path and opened my doors to increasing my interaction with / tried to gain the acceptance of certain people. It’s not that I had ‘virtuous’ examples either. I had no one to look up to – at all. I felt like a lost brown kid most of my life, and I felt a moment of perilousness as I stood on the edge of entering teenage life.
This is not the usual story I have heard when it comes to the idea of wearing a headscarf. People paint very fancy and romantic images of what it’s like / should be like – roses and such. Regardless of whether they paint it rosy or not, there is always the moral push towards it, without a real discussion around its implications.
I also did not have a ‘religious awakening’ or ‘epiphany’ or ‘revival’ of any sort as it would be defined by Institutions – that is not my story, I am not part of that narrative.
One day, in 8th grade (at an Islamic school), I got fed up by the sexually implicit jokes that a couple of boys in my class made to me. Something about it burned me and embarrassed me inside. I would later come to understand that I had felt violated and disrespected that they felt it was okay in any way to make such comments to me.
Late at night, I lay awake in my bed feeling something powerful – the desire to take the emotions I had experienced, to take that moment in which I felt no control and no idea how to respond – to take everything into my own hands. For me, this manifested in a symbolic decision to wear a headscarf. It was nothing more and nothing less than a powerful self-statement that I would not stand to allow my self-identity to be penetrated (let the Freud in you run wild) by any one or any force or any desire outside of my own choices and decisions.
I had no idea how horrible it would be for me to make a personal decision that would have so many social implications that would haunt me for many years to come and take me at least a decade to fully recover / grow from / grow out of and that I am still dealing with.
For me, the ‘rosey’ picture of wearing a headscarf really smelled like poo, meaning shit. On a daily basis, it was grueling for me to make this decision of self-expression that manifested in this particular way. Everybody took it to mean something, and everyone around me openly projected their own issues around my decision and what it represented and what it meant to them and what insecurities it conjured for them and what they they were uncomfortable with or how I was validating or casting doubt in their belief systems and religious practice.
My father, though he didn’t say much more than, ‘Very good!’ at my mini-lifestyle change, took this as a validation of his religious literalism, a source of pride and proof of having raised me to make the ‘right’ decision (not plural, just decision), and a jab at my mother who is not so ‘religious’ as she is spiritual. This was just annoying, but nothing more, and I did appreciate, somewhere in there, the support and pride in his child.
The heart-wrenching aspect came from my mother, who took my mini-choice as a Betrayal – a perceived betrayal of her as the Spiritual and a perceived siding with my father the Conservative, and a shattering of the images and visions and understandings she had for her future child. All of a sudden, the dreams didn’t look the same, because in those dreams, I hadn’t made this decision. What I also didn’t realize, but would quickly come to realize, is that I made my mother the target of the socially acceptable insidious quips/insults that are okay to be spoken frankly, fluently, and frequently regarding religiosity and implying a lack-thereof on her part and a more-thereof on my part. And then, there were the very real maternal fears of raising an already minority child in a daunting world, the child whom has now made a decision that literally flags her as suspect and target for potentially greater danger and ridicule. Let the party begin.
I tire to even begin to talk about what any of this translated to among my friends, among my circle of family friends, and at my public high school, and in my many workplaces. I have mentioned the above examples to at least give some insight into the framework of my experience and thinking, but this is only one very small part of the picture.
(Do not be an asshole and judge/infer anything about my amazing parents or any of the people I know just because they had real human layered reactions to my life decisions. Our decisions as individuals are often equally journeys for others as they are for ourselves.)
The thing I hate is when someone uses me as a form of validation for anything they’ve experienced or believe. I am not your fodder for validation. I am a human being with unique experiences that are not to be appropriated for the validation and furthering of your crusades of any kind:
- When, with a feeling of pity for me, you say, ‘Alhamdulillah, I’m so glad I was surrounded by people who supported and encouraged my decision to wear hijab.’ Good for you. You may have wanted that, but I didn’t ask for that. What I experienced was a profound intersection of post-colonized, post-Indo/Pak partition, immigrant community members raising first-generation Muslim-Americans and their struggle to understand how culture, religion, class, dominant culture, colonizer-influenced beliefs and standards, a fear of loss of Culture and a fear of White Lack of Culture, will all intersect – what will be lost, will anything be gained, will they fail as parents, and can they set aside their pride and parental desire to protect aside, to see what happens. If I didn’t experience this, I might never have seen the many intricacies of the culture that surrounded me / begin to understand the many layers of my existence.
- If, with a spectacular waving of ones hand, you motion to me and other headscarf wearers and say, ‘Look at how beautiful these women look, so modest’ / any statement equating beauty and modesty with the headscarf. To that, I say, please, open your eyes, open your mind to begin to explore the many ways in which women are defined by various voices and narratives and often by those speaking from male privilege rather than by themselves. You don’t understand how loaded it is when you make a statement like that. I understand how loaded my decision was. Your statement washes over and glorifies and objectifies my decision and reduces it to Crusade for your particular interpretation of how a ‘modest’ woman physically ‘covers’ herself. Whether you are a man or a woman or identify yourself in any way, you. will. never. have. any. idea what it’s like for another person to live their life. You and I will never understand what it’s like to live their life on a daily basis. You and I can make a sweeping simple grand elevation of a particular decision, with nary an idea of what that might translate into for all the billions of minutes we will not be spending with them. Not only that, but can we please get into the very problematic ways in which women are defined and prized for in the first place: Beauty and Modesty, both relegated to PHYSICAL conversations about women? Why are we running in circles talking about Women’s Bodies? Instead, we could talk about very real, fierce, and cut-throat gender politics in the workplace, where physical beauty/dress/presentation play a huge role in which women will succeed or be held back, on top of an already-present systematic privileging of males. We could talk about how women are policed and blamed in various levels of society for domestic violence occurring to them, rape and molestation occurring to them, rather than talking about and addressing the roots of the issues. We could talk about the culture of encouraging women to think in terms of the Ticking Clock that is their uterus and ability to reproduce rather than considering the real life and career or non-career choices they may want to make and addressing the real societal problems of workplace standards being biased against raising a family. We could talk about how women and people and minorities are taught to bring each other down and be in competition with one another rather than to work together to elevate one another regardless of ones choices. We could talk about how the headscarf is appropriated by various political powers to demonize or glorify certain political power. We could discuss what Saudi Arabian culture was like before it struck oil and became a hegemonic power that dictated and influenced the understanding of religious practice around the world, in order to unravel the implications of what this particularly meant / means for women. We could talk about how some men and women get to speak for all women and how we can begin to unpack and deconstruct the need for simple narratives in order to have any pride in our identity. We could talk about the things we don’t have to talk about due to our privilege: ICE raids & Stop & Frisk, immigration reform, birth control policies further regulating underprivileged women’s bodies, the system of poverty, why aren’t there any black people living anywhere within a 30 mile radius of our mosque in Orange County and why all the Mexicans we see are ‘illegal’, and so much more. We could talk / discuss / build around so many things that actually affect people and women on a daily basis.
- If you take it as a sign that my wearing a headscarf actually means anything – that I probably do or don’t want to do something, that I probably think or don’t think in a certain way, that I probably know or don’t know certain things, that I probably hold a certain set of views, that you have any idea why I am wearing this, or that you know absolutely anything about me. You know nothing about what goes on in my head or how I express myself as a person by seeing a headscarf on my head (or by judging anyone based on their appearance in general). You don’t know what I laugh at, you don’t know what my vote is, you don’t know if I have the same world view or the same view of God, you don’t know if I am going to run you over with my car while texting and driving because I don’t understand or properly gauge the ramifications of my actions, you don’t know know if someone fell down whether I would have the compassion to help them up or not, you don’t know who I’ve hurt or who I’ve impacted in a horrible way. You also don’t know how much we could relate on or what we might have in common, and you won’t find out if you infer anything about me because of what I decided to wear on my head the day on which we chance to meet.
- If you think that the absence of a headscarf means anything either, I beg of you to examine what and why we elevate certain outward ‘expressions’ of ‘faith’ (often very particular to a very narrow understanding of what religious expression looks like), why we feel the need to have Positive and Negative images rather than exploring reality/realities of various peoples, why we have the need to have the Headscarf represent or not represent any group of people rather than look at the merits of the individual, why we perceive certain people to ‘look’ ‘Muslim’ and other people to look ‘less’ ‘Muslim’ when the State and Power define us all to be a nuisance, all to be a rung in the ladder of racism keeping certain people in power and certain wealth in tact and certain human life to be protected over and at the expense of other human life, why when Power sees us all as a problem and we all feed into supporting Power, why we can’t see ourselves as one? Why can’t we see that anyone who is Perceived by Power to be Muslim (i.e. another non-white identity) will face the backhand of White Privilege regardless of whether WE see them as Muslim? If a woman is not wearing a headscarf do you think she no longer faces the problems you or I face? So what makes her less of anything than you or I? I have the hardest time even beginning to ask why we would ever think a decision to place a piece of cloth on ones head could have any indication of religiosity or spirituality or worth of a person, and anyones decision not to would be any indication of a lack-thereof. Any why are we even looking at this as a binary decision – to ‘be modest’ or to ‘not be modest’, to ‘express faith’ or to ‘not express faith’? Who decided that these are the only two definitions by which we must operate? Women exercise a plethora of decisions and under a plethora of oppressions, regardless of whether we frame the conversation in a binary way. That is to say, women operate outside of this definition in reality, in the real-world, even though the conversations around women keep happening in these parameters. Women live in the real world. We deal with real problems. Even if the Conversation doesn’t address our real problems, and keeps addressing the Figment of Your Imagination Problems, we still exist and are existing and are living and doing and being done to, even if the dominant culture won’t talk about what we are really experiencing, and what we really think. Also, just because we are taught to see the world in a certain way and see certain Physical things as markers for other things, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t challenge this way of seeing and thinking. I also beg of you to examine what cultural hegemony is, and what peoples are left out of the understandings and narratives of Muslims (any and all non-South Asian & Arabs, black Muslims, converts), and how we not only dismiss other cultural forms of religious expression, but completely remove this from the dialogue so that it simply does not exist in our understanding. What you don’t see or keep yourself from seeing just doesn’t exist.
- If you are still making juvenile immature comments that take jabs at women who wear a headscarf by saying, ‘She’s not really / truly modest’ and ‘I / other people who don’t wear the headscarf are more modest than her’, then congratulations on being stuck in the 8th grade and assuming that because someone wears something, they have to be Mother Theresa or a nun and fit into your definition of what a perfect, appropriate, religious person should be like (people that think like this have haunted me for years). I don’t hang out with those kinds of 8th graders (only the non-catty nerdy ones) so A-B-C your way out of this conversation.
- Then there are others that say it’s just a piece of cloth. It’s true. It is a piece of cloth. For some people, it can be just that and nothing more. But again, why are we speaking for everyone? Why are we projecting our thoughts and beliefs and understandings (and bitterness) onto other people?
- Sometimes, we empower ourselves, but we empower ourselves within a narrow framework that disempowers other human beings.
- We are suffocating all kinds of women with our dialogue. All kinds of women. Not to mention leaving all kinds of women out of the dialogue. Not to mention the impact this has and the role it plays in supporting patriarchal structures in our society.
There is so much more I can say, but a person gets tired, knowhatimsayin. I get tired of the Conversation. It tires me, so I just exist outside of it, beyond it, in a world of my own creation, yet never able to escape the World as its being Created by others.
I don’t mind if you see me as a human. That’s where I’d like all your judgement-without-conversation to stop. But I also understand you have every right to and will perceive me in any manner in which you like. Cool. Whatever.
I am not a hijabi. Hijabi is whatever it means to you. To me, its a slang term that refers to and objectifies a woman based on her appearance and decision to regularly and ‘appropriately’ wear the headscarf in her daily life in the manner in which it is perceived to be religiously ‘correct’. I am not a hijabi. You can choose to define me however you’d like. You can choose to define me based on my appearance. You can choose to single out certain aspects of my identity – to glorify or vilify these aspects. You have the right to shape the world in whatever you want, to influence the world with your thoughts that translate into actions that affect us all. But I don’t define myself as a a hijabi. I am a person, a woman, a human being, an ever-evolving creature that is trying to understand the many, many dimensions of human life on earth, and hoping to make it a place where we can all breathe a little easier, be a little warmer, be a little more loved, be a bit safer. That also is trying to reconcile that her living and breathing, her decisions and non-decisions, affect every person around her. That her breathing in the manner in which she does is dependent on the systematic oppression and systematic emPowering of others.
I am not a hijabi. I will never be a hijabi. I have never been a hijabi. I have the privileges within certain Muslim communities of a hijabi. I have the very real lack of privileges in the real-world and in other Muslim communities as a hijabi. But I am not a hijabi. And I will tell my own story. And I will speak for myself. And you can speak for me, but I will speak louder for myself. To hell if I won’t go out speaking for myself. This is only a part of what I can manage to bring myself to say or speak. And this only ‘represents’ me and my own experience, whether there are people who can relate to it or do not relate to it or choose to dismiss it or choose to appropriate it for the benefit of their own purposes.
(To you, the term hijabi may mean nothing at all, or the definition may mean something to you. I am not dismissing that or spitting on it. I am only saying that I don’t identify myself by this slang term. You are welcome and encouraged to define yourself in whatever way you feel comfortable and empowered by – I only ask of myself and yourself to examine how our definitions of ourselves are consequently defining and affecting others.)
I have often thought about removing my headscarf / discontinuing my daily wearing of the headscarf. These thoughts are more often than not triggered by other people dictating the Conversation around the headscarf and around women’s bodies. For now, my reality has been that I choose not to make a decision in spite of others, because then I would live a life in spite of others rather than living true to myself. And for now, for a while, my decision/choice to wear a headscarf has been one that is true to myself – its sometimes a defiance, sometimes as simple as wearing socks, sometimes as annoying as a bad hair day, sometimes true and untrue to me at the same time. And so many other things, and really nothing at all, and kind of everything sometimes, and all of those things in the shortest span of time.
‘So what, you don’t want me to call you a hijabi?’ I’m saying I don’t identify as one because I don’t define myself as such, but that doesn’t mean I’m not perceived as one by you or any Powers that be. Maybe I sound like Dave Chapelle in the skit where he plays a black white-supremacist – I don’t see myself as what others clearly see me as. We call all kinds of people all kinds of things in order to quickly identify (and/or marginalize) them. We live in a pretty shallow world and our definitions of people are pretty limited: woman, man, female, male, black, white, asian, christian, catholic, jew, hindu, muslim, sunni, shia, fair, light-skinned, dark, fat, short, ugly, beautiful, gorgeous, pretty, handsome, brown, mexican, etc. Does that mean that we shouldn’t try to think beyond these definitions? Or examine those definitions and ask how they came to be the dominant ways in which we define people? Does it mean that we shouldn’t try and see things a different way? A way in which hasn’t been defined for us, a way in which we decide to see and act on things ourselves? We can define our own worlds. We do have that power. We have the power to shape the dialogue that will shape the actions we will make and take as people. Let’s have some conversations that reflect our realities and lets try to explore the realities of those that go unheard.