Video: Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story

July 2, 2011

Hijab and Sexism

May 27, 2011

The institution of hijab is undeniably gender-normative and discriminatory. I find this is true for most things, except maybe toothpaste (unquestionably unisex) and Crocs (universally ugly). The question I’ve been pondering, however, is this:

Is the world sexist because of practices like hijab, or are practices like hijab in place because the world is sexist?

(Either way, it’s unfair, and enough to get one fuming.)


Les Femmes du Maroc photography by Lalla Essaydi

April 26, 2011

My class got a stimulating break from the usual routine today for a field trip to the art museum. We were shown two sketches of Matisse’s odalisques (drawn at the time of France’s colonial empire in North Africa) and a large photograph by Lalla Essaydi, a contemporary Moroccan expat artist.

I don’t think this picture is the exact one we looked at (I couldn’t find a copy online), but it’s very similar. Essaydi uses henna (interesting) to write, in Arabic calligraphy (traditionally a male sport—so also interesting), passages from the Qur’an and her own diary (very interesting!) to cover both the background and the subject of her art, as you can see.

To use a nauseatingly liberal arts phrase, there is a ton to unpack here. We talked about it for a long time and I won’t go into it all, but one point in particular was very thought-provoking:

Someone brought up the significance of words—whether they were verses from the Qur’an or the artist’s own—on the shroud itself, as if saddling the woman with their weight. A great observation, I thought! The veil is imbued with meaning [transcribed with language], whether we intend it to be or not.

My introduction didn’t really do Lalla Essaydi justice, but you can check out more of her fascinating work here.


Some True Statements

April 25, 2011

Four of them, all genuine:

  1. Once in a while—about every day or so—I consider “taking off my hijab.” (Actually, I already do this every day when I get home from work. It’s not very dramatic. I’m referring to the drama, but there’s no elegant way to talk about the more serious decision without sounding silly.)
  2. Currently, the worst thing about wearing hijab is that I feel self-conscious about standing out when I exercise or, worse, when I go swimming. It is virtually crippling. (This is, by the way, the reason I don’t ever exercise or go swimming. My indolent inclinations and complete lack of athletic ability have nothing to do with it.)
  3. I sincerely believe that, despite its inconveniences, the hijab has made me more confident about both my appearance and intellect than most people I know. It’s hard to explain. I try not to be arrogant about it.
  4. I have a dandruff problem, and I delight in ignoring it completely.

WSJ review of A Quiet Revolution

April 24, 2011

Leila Ahmed* is coming out with a new book called A Quiet Revolution about the resurgence of the veil in the last 30 years. Fascinating!

*For the class I’m auditing we’re reading Women and Gender in Islam the same author. I haven’t gotten through the whole thing, but I liked what I read a lot.

From the Wall Street Journal review:

Even if the veil in America is being disentangled from many of its traditional meanings, it remains a theological symbol, tainted by a long history of religious traditions that fall harder on women than on men.

This is true and it’s very scary.

The good news is that American Muslims—unlike their counterparts in France—have the freedom to decide what the veil means and whether they would like to use it or set it aside.

My reality. Makes it hard, though, to imagine something outside that narrative.


Hijab and Race

April 18, 2011

This past weekend I attended a conference in Boston where I got to spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism in the U.S.

Contemplating the topic alongside this blog, I’m back to questions of public perception. What is the hijab’s power to racialize (i.e. to give a racial character or context to) one’s identity?

Note: I’m using the word “race” in this post as what we think of regarding physical characteristics, NOT biological clusters or national/cultural groups (which would fall more closely to “ethnicity”).

There’s zero question that racial and visible religious identifiers intersect, making it really hard to come to any real conclusions. In my own case, my race is decidedly non-European*; my skin tone is medium-brown and I have fairly South Asian features.

*I chose to identify this way (first as what I’m not, then as what I am) only because it’s a relevant detail in the United States. Hijab or no hijab, my experience would be different if I were white.

So, I’m interested in the ways my hijab might interact with my perceived race. Some possible options:

  • Accentuation of race: This is probably most often the result given my particular racial appearance. Though my other clothes betray me not at all (they come mostly from the Gap and its sartorial cousins), the hijab really adds a “foreign” look to my style. (How exotic!) I’m willing to bet that the headscarf, more than the color of my skin, leads people to believe (as many do initially) that I’m an immigrant.
  • De-emphasis of race: It’s also possible that the headscarf is so distracting that it overpowers any racial signifiers I would set off with my skin color/physiognomy. It’s pointless to try and measure, but it’s worth mentioning because the two don’t totally go hand-in-hand, either. For example, when I meet new people of my own race (a situation where race would be less of a glaring indicator of difference/individual identity), the hijab sends off signals of heightened religiosity (sometimes more than I’d like). So, maybe it shifts people’s attention in general from one kind of categorization (racial) to another (religious).
  • Contradiction/counteraction of race: This doesn’t really happen to me, but it might if I looked Irish or Norwegian.

New question: does it matter? Why is this important?

Maybe it’s not, but I think it’s worth calling attention to the fact that so often, hijab is just incorporated into race (e.g. when hijab-related hate is called “racism”). Neither can operate independently, but they don’t exactly equal the same thing.


Being a Hijabi Feminist

April 13, 2011

…means understanding the fact that 100% of people will assume otherwise. And sucking it up.


Addendum to My Hijab Story

April 4, 2011

Part of the reason I’m uncomfortable posting my “hijab story” narrative from Friday is because of what it implies about my submission [i.e. to forces other than spirituality]. Certain lines (e.g. “I certainly would not have ended up at that particular destination all on my own”), while still being true, can be read as “I was brainwashed by my upbringing” or “I didn’t actually think for myself about the decision.”

I concede the validity of that reading; given my actual story, it isn’t hard to see how someone coming at it from a different perspective would reach those conclusions. I don’t agree with them, however, and what’s frustrating is that it’s not exactly a right/wrong scenario. That is, I can’t prove the other person wrong—I can speak only for my perspective.

Touching on larger philosophical questions, I guess. How are we ever to argue with a claim that we’ve been brainwashed?


My Hijab Story, AKA Game Changer #1

April 1, 2011

I resolved not to be flaky with this blog, so my lengthening absence has been maddening. I was preoccupied (travel and illness) and since I’m traveling next week too, I’m going to lazily seize the opportunity to plagiarize my former self.

This is a slightly redacted excerpt from a personal statement I wrote for an application last fall. I might not put the same words to it now, but the story remains.

People always ask me whether, back when I began wearing my hijab, my parents or some other authority forced me to do it. No, I say; I’ve always been proud of having made the decision myself, and am eager to prove that I didn’t come from that type of culture, from that type of family.

The truth is, though, that while I wasn’t coerced into doing anything, I certainly would not have ended up at that particular destination all on my own. I came from a family and a culture that were, in fact, enormous influences in my upbringing, and to remove them from my continuous process of decision-making would be inconceivable.

[some extraneous details about my upbringing and where my parents came from…]

Most importantly, my parents were – are – both Muslim, and they did their best to raise me accordingly. I learned short surahs (chapters of the Qur’an) at the same time as nursery rhymes; I was trained to thank Allah after I finished consuming the food I’d seen the kids on Barney eat the day before. From the age of three to 13, I attended an Islamic day school, learning all the normal subjects – math, reading, science, social studies – plus taking classes for Arabic, Qur’an memorization, and Islamic Religion. We broke from classes at 1 o’clock every day for mid-day prayer, and fasted, when we were old enough, for the month of Ramadan.

The other kids who attended my school were like me: children of immigrants, the first generation born in the U.S. and all avid subscribers to Sesame Street, then Full House, then Friends. We were children of the ‘90s, which is to say that we were children subjected specifically to the bombardment of American ‘90s-era media, from television shows to fashion magazines to neoliberal foreign policies to presidential extramarital affairs. All along, however, we felt that they were a little on the outside, distant from our real world: we were the Muslims, and they were “the Americans.” We liked to act like them when we were mad at our parents, and gasp in horror at the things we sometimes saw they did. (Muslims absolutely never smoked cigarettes, I believed for a very long time.)

It was important to my parents for me to receive a religious education, and so, through my time at that school, it became important for me to fulfill my responsibilities as a Muslim girl. When I was in the seventh grade, one evening in November, I casually mentioned to my parents that I was going to start wearing a hijab, “for real.” Doing this would entail covering my head, and all parts of my body except my face, hands and feet, in front of men outside my close family. It was something I had been thinking about for a while, undoubtedly because other girls in my class had already begun. Needless to say, my parents and teachers were all pleasantly surprised to hear it.

Wearing a headscarf was already a part of the uniform for middle school; it already felt normal, comfortable on my head and regimented in my morning routine. So, when I started wearing it like a full-time job, nothing felt all too different: I’d go grocery shopping with my mother and get a few more stares than usual, maybe, but it was only in addition to the ones she got for hers.

Admittedly: I feel somewhat detached from this piece now because it doesn’t really say anything about why I continue to wear hijab, and it misrepresents some of my general notions of identity today. It lays out the honest chronicled details, though—stuff I’m now bored of thinking about—and that’s why I posted it here.


What Were My Game Changers?

March 16, 2011

(This is an idea I’m thinking about turning into a category of blog post.)

What do I mean by “game changer”?

You should know: in addition to wearing hijab, I spend quite a bit of my time being unnecessarily nerdy. Reading useless information, endless list-making, googling how-tos on things that don’t need how-tos (purely to compare notes). Moleskine notebooks and everything. I can probably out-journal you in a blindfold.

Anyway, one of my guiltiest pleasures is reading business/marketing/entrepreneurial blogs; I suspect it’s the hobby that introduced this particular term to my subconscious.

So, by “game changers,” I mean specific events, people, decisions, or new situations in my life that changed the way I think about wearing hijab. They’re the things that redefined the game itself (or, at least, the way I play it).

The first and biggest game changer, of course, was my decision to start wearing the hijab, sometime in late 2000. (It still surprises me sometimes to think of how very young I was—but no regrets.) Anyway, my choice forever transformed a) the way I think about myself and b) the way others think about me—and since those are like two mirrors placed opposite each other, the impact is infinitely reflexive. It set a precedent for the game, established rules, lay the groundwork for scorekeeping.

G.C. #2 came less than a year later: September 11, 2001. I have more to say about the subject than I’d thought, so more on that to follow.