Hijab and Submission vs. Subversion, part 2

February 19, 2011

The word “Islam,” translated from Arabic, literally means submission or surrender (to the will of God). Accordingly, the name for the submitter/surrenderer is a variation of the same word: “Muslim.”

Both words come from the same root as “salam,” which means peace, so that’s pretty cool (haha) and something to be proud of. It makes sense, too, for a religion to emphasize the importance of yielding [one’s individual self] to a greater good/deity/community.

Despite all that, and as was hinted at in the last post, I’m infinitely more interested in subversion, what we might consider to be a directly opposing idea. Not necessarily subversion of God, but more broadly of structures and society (conceivably, the ones God allows to exist).

It’s because I’m still young, probably.

The act of hijab itself can fall easily under both categories. The ritual veiling that’s been passed along for ages is certainly a form of submission—to cultural tradition, to religious convention, and (arguably) to a global legacy of patriarchy.

At the same time, hijab subverts another entire set of norms, especially where and when I am. Rarely in the United States is a hijab-wearer not in the minority, so if we take for granted that [at least in the U.S.] hijab is a choice (as opposed to skin color, for example, which isn’t), doesn’t that imply subversion?

In this context, the subversion would be directed at a specific set of assumptions in Western culture (dominant ideology, master narrative, whatever). It works against normal American expectations for a few different reasons, including:

  1. Islam isn’t the dominant religion. (Let’s pretend the link between hijab and Islam is obvious.)
  2. Religious expression is also rare, and faith is considered largely a private matter. (Hijab is a visible, near-blinding example of religious expression.)
  3. There is a standard of what basic items make up women’s attire, and hijab isn’t among them. (As far as head-covering is concerned, anyway.)
  4. There is some level of consensus about which female body parts are appropriate when bare in public, and which aren’t. (Hijab overshoots the mark here in designating hair, among other things, as inappropriate.)
    …and the list can go on.

The real point is trickier to articulate. If you believe that the dominant ideology objectifies women’s bodies—not exclusively, and not always, but in general—then you can see how one MIGHT imagine hijab to be an act of subversion (/rejection) of that culture. (By “dominant ideology” here I mostly mean pop culture media, past and present. For examples, refer to: anything. ever.)

Is the subversion effective? I think so, but it’s not enough to just say that. I’ll keep thinking about how to express the ways that it works.

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3 Responses to “Hijab and Submission vs. Subversion, part 2”


  1. this isnt really the point of your post, but just a comment on religious expression.. that never really made my list of motives to wear hijab. someone made a poorly worded comment to me last week like “when jews wear yamakas.. so you’re telling me you’re jewish..alright..” he sounded underwhelmed with the whole thing. and i was thinking, i dont think a jew is trying express identity by wearing a yamaka, at least that’s not my goal in wearing hijab. since the necessity of hijab is dependent on the presence of other people, a better example is prayer: i would still pray in vacant public places just the same as swarming ones when athan calls.


    • Heyyy Mariam. I’m a little surprised at your comment, but that’s only because hijab as a form of religious expression has so thoroughly ingrained itself into my personal definition of the practice. Don’t you think that your hijab sets—for yourself and, importantly, for others—a different standard for your social exchanges with people? I know the main reason to wear hijab and yarmulke is to constantly remember God, but I think we benefit (or, in your Jewish friend’s case, suffer) too much from the side effects to ignore their purpose as nonverbal communication to others.

      Another unrelated side note: your prayer comment made me remember a silly musing I had once. Why do we still wear hijab to pray even when we’re all alone?


  2. ive had the same thought! i think its a thought worth exploring, i’ll ask my mom about that (if i remember to)

    and on second thought, i agree – we benefit too much from the side effects to ignore them. i guess my chief motive is to remember god, but in a society filled with people of other faiths, it serves a unique purpose of a reminder to me to represent my faith well. and a reminder that i live by a different set of rules. i think i was thinking along the lines of, if i were to live in a muslim country where most women cover, i wouldnt be proving any points by wearing it, but i would most definitely still wear it.

    keep posting!


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