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Nigerian Muslim Women protest after Shutting out Muslim girls from school for wearing headscarves. FILE PHOTO: Anadolu Agency.
Sun 02 February 2020:
The start of February marked World Hijab Day, (WHD) but it was met with an array of mixed feelings from many. Founded by American Muslim woman Nazma Khan in 2013, WHD aims to “foster religious tolerance and understanding by inviting women, including non-hijabi Muslims as well as non-Muslims, to experience wearing the hijab for one day.” For some, it gives them the chance to experience what it’s like to be a Muslim woman for one single day.  

“I’m excited that there’s a day for women to wear a hijab with pure pride because I am wearing mine for my first time,” one Twitter user, who recently started wearing the hijab, said. 

Thought out, well-intentioned and with a deep focus on attempting to dismantle prejudice around the Muslim female identity, the simplicity and easiness with which WHD bends to treat the hijab – as only a prop worn by Muslim women – encourages a sense of uneasiness among many.

WHD advocates the idea that someone should have to step into an identity, as if it’s a costume, for just a single day to understand racism, Islamophobia, prejudice, and the micro-aggressions Muslim women face.    

This process leads us to believe that Muslim women are too much of ‘the other’ and can’t be believed, empathised with or acknowledged without non-Muslims playing dress up for a day with their clothes.

The day acts as a feel-good exercise for all those who participate as if their singular day of allyship somehow now gives them immunity or an excuse to be blind to the daily struggles of Muslim women. 

WHD intended to visibly showcase Muslim sisters around the world by centring the non-Muslim and non-hijabi voices. Bur Muslim women’s identity and choices are yet again being vetted and approved by those who don’t necessarily understand their hijab or faith. 

“I think the day, while obviously well-intentioned, might cause more harm than good to Muslim women… The idea of understanding the experiences of a Muslim woman through wearing the headscarf erases the identity of Muslim women,” says Fatima, who wears the hijab.

“Wearing the headscarf for the day would not allow any person to experience the complexity of being a Muslim person, rather it reinforces harmful ideas of Muslim women [only being viewed through] what they wear.”  

The World Hijab Day website says: “World Hijab Day [is] in recognition of millions of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and live a life of modesty.” Growing up, the definition of what it meant to be a Muslim woman for many was limited to women who only wear the hijab – but this understanding has since evolved. 

The words hijab and headscarf are conflated. Hijab in Arabic means barrier, it can be practiced in many ways outside of wearing a headscarf and is part of the wider context of modesty in Islam. Hijab in Islam considers the wider concept of the way you walk, talk, think and conduct yourself with integrity and dignity in this world. 

The words hijab and headscarf have become intertwined in the West in the modern-day commercial and monolithic understanding of who Muslim women are because by defining Muslim women in a set way, they can be controlled and stereotyped.

These hollow narratives have become so prominent and impressed upon society that they have arguably affected the way Muslim women talk about their identity.  

“There’s so much that the hijab represents in our communities that isn’t necessarily properly explored,” one passionate Muslim female tells The New Arab. 

“The binary of forced hijab vs chosen hijab is so reductive. The discussion we should be having (certainly ones driven and led by Muslim women) are so much more complex than this.”

Those who don’t wear a hijab often feel rejected by the Muslim female identity, because this identity has been created in the reflection and dominated mostly by women who wear a headscarf, and this is important to acknowledge on such a day.    

Hijab for many is an important aspect of faith, but it is not the sixth pillar of Islam even if the patriarchy would like to believe it is.

Many visibly Muslim women in the West face gendered Islamophobia because of their choice to wear the hijab. The WHD website mentions examples of discrimination against hijabi women including; the hijabi pregnant woman attacked in Australia, the Muslim teenager disqualified from a race in Ohio, USA and a woman who had her ribs broken in an attack in the UK. But this all brings us back to the purpose of World Hijab Day. 

How can someone know the plight of being a visibly Muslim woman by adopting an identity for a day and then walking away from it? Why can’t empathy and understanding be built without co-opting an identity or by simply listening to Muslim women who have faced this abuse? Where were all the women who wore headscarves in support of World Hijab Day when the pregnant woman was being attacked or the teenage Muslim girl was being removed from her race? Did they speak up then, because their allyship would have meant more in those moments than on a day like WHD?

In the fight against racism, Islamophobia and abuse against Muslim women, instead of demanding we be accepted as we are, we are yet again asking for approval and acceptance through non-Muslims and non-hijabis, making this entire notion flawed.  

Within the celebration of the hijab, we should not overlook the women who are told they have no choice in wearing the hijab, like those women in Iran who fight for their rights and protest for the choice to dress how they want to. Or the women around the world in countries like France, Belgium, the UK and others who face discrimination for the choice they make to cover up.

Both wearing the hijab and not wearing the hijab should be the singular choice of women, and understanding this without being reductive of the Muslim female identity or centring those outside of this identity to seek acceptance is degrading. 

The intention of the WHD movement, in it’s generosity towards non-Muslims and non-hijabs, has oversimplified the Muslim female identity and reduced it to a gimmick and a garment – something the mainstream media constantly already does.World Hijab Day is a wonderful concept but it needs to adopt more nuanced intentions and goals for WHD 2021. 

Mariam Khan is a British writer and activist. She is the editor of It’s Not About the Burqa, an anthology of essays by Muslim women.

Follow her on Twitter @helloiammariam

The New Arab

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