Posts Tagged ‘clothing’

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.

Hijab and Trying to Define Modesty

February 2, 2011

Late last spring—two days before graduation, in fact—my four beloved roommates and I went to brunch to celebrate the end of our era.

This far north, there’s an abundance of charming little breakfast diners, and that day we hit a particularly endearing one. The food tasted great, the atmosphere was pleasant, etc.

As we were leaving, the cheerful older woman settling our checks complimented me on my headscarf, as sometimes happens. I thanked her and took my change as she whammed me unassumingly with The Question.

“Uh,” I distinctly remember saying, being caught off guard; unprepared, I mumbled off something about modesty.

“Modesty?” she said, surprisingly sassily. “Hon, that’s great and all, but believe me, you don’t have ANYTHING to be modest about.”

I grinned—she’d clearly meant for it to be a compliment—and thanked her again. She didn’t quite phrase it right, but I think she was trying to say I shouldn’t be hiding my looks (though the harder I think about even that, the funnier a remark it seems). She was very nice. We all walked out snickering.

Clearly, I’m having trouble finding an adequate answer to the question, even beyond the repertoire of stock responses to keep ready for more casual exchanges.

“Modesty” is such an interesting concept. In this case, the idea is that a woman’s hair contributes directly to her beauty, and so veiling it represents a deliberate concealment of that allure. There are several problematic implications of the fact that, though hijab as a concept still exists for Muslim men, it is carried out differently and (obviously) less conspicuously for the other gender. But those subjects (the blatant, heteronormative distinction between men and women; and the respective value placements in that system) are a discussion for another day.

What’s so funny about modesty is that by choosing to cover something up—to not be extravagant about your income, or to be humble about your achievements—you are at the same time admitting that you’re kind of awesome. I mean, the hijab can be straight-up presumptuous, in a sense, because wearing it for reasons of modesty implies the idea that the world can’t handle your stunning loveliness unfiltered.

It’s hardly the main reason, of course, that I or anybody else truly takes up hijab—nobody is that narcissistic. So I think it’s worth exploring other ways to define modesty that don’t assume that a woman’s beauty is simply a treasure so worth guarding.

The definition of modesty that I like better has more to do with discreetness. Most women don’t sail around topless, for example, not because their chests are so innately gorgeous, but because we’ve all decided that the female breast is more sexual than the male one. So, gem sweaters and other tops for women exist in part to avoid indecency and distraction. (The notion that sexual = indecent and distracting is also maybe for another day.)

Following that logic: woven into the practice of hijab is the assumption that female hair is inherently sexual. While the headscarf itself may be distracting for people forming first impressions—it definitely is sometimes—the point is that the distraction isn’t sexual by nature.

Up for debate: whether body parts, male or female, can be “inherently” sexual, or if it’s all a process of cultural socialization.