Posts Tagged ‘questions’

Exploring the Hijab as a Limit

September 7, 2011

I’m very interested in the concept of limits, and the idea of leaning into them rather than working against them.

Most of us don’t realize how much we’re the products of our limits. For example: eating only what’s in your pantry (and cooking only from your personal repertoire of recipes), paying visits only where you’re invited, consuming only media that’s readily available to you, becoming friends with and marrying only people you physically encounter. We resign a lot of ourselves to fate and coincidence.

I can’t decide, however, whether that’s a bad thing. For sure, sticking only to what you know is bad—exploring possibilities into the tenth dimension is crucial! At the same time, merely knowing about the existence of those possibilities can be insidious, because it always leaves you wondering.

Anyway, right now I’m more interested in the potential of embracing limits than expanding them. I tried to explain this to a friend while shopping over the weekend: sure, it’s a little harder to buy clothes while working with the constraints of hijab, but sometimes the limits feel liberating.

“Artists don’t think outside the box, because outside the box there’s a vacuum. Outside of the box there are no rules, there is no reality. You have nothing to interact with, nothing to work against. If you set out to do something way outside the box (designing a time machine, or using liquid nitrogen to freeze Niagara Falls), then you’ll never be able to do the real work of art. […] Artists think along the edges of the box, because that’s where things get done.”     Seth Godin

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.)

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 Submission vs. Subversion, part 1

February 17, 2011

When I was in New York a few months ago—not that New York had anything to do with it—I flirted with the idea of getting an eyebrow piercing. The impulse sprang from a conversation about first impressions and expectations based on appearance, and what impressions/expectations people have of me.

Disillusioned by the stereotypes associated with hijab (meek, quiet, submissive), I felt the urge to rebel, to appropriate a form (piercings/tattoos) that’s often used for that reason.

My nose is already pierced, but that’s different. My perceived (and real) ethnicity makes it NOT weird and not rebellious that I have a nose piercing; it would be different if I were white. I don’t remember where I heard this, but clothes and accessories are not worn on a blank canvas!

My already pigmented “canvas” is complicated further, of course, by the head covering. And so, I need (or I feel like I need) to offset or negate some of the messages it involuntarily sends.

While I didn’t end up getting pierced—too chicken—the idea of nonconformity still appeals. (Should I pin this on the American individualist values I was instilled with? Maybe.) The appeal is dangerous, though. It has everything to do with context and conditions, and is that not the slipperiest slope you’ve ever seen?

Is it worth it to try subverting blanket stereotypes, or does making the effort to do that let them win?

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.