I sit down to write this just after moderating a panel discussion about the policing of Muslim women’s bodies. Our conversation went over the hour as we lamented the different ways in which visibly-Muslim females still fall victim to Orientalist narratives that deem us “oppressed”. There was so much ground to cover that we didn’t even get a chance to talk about the latest injustice in our community.
Last week, at Seth Boyden Elementary School in New Jersey, a teacher allegedly pulled the hijab off one of her Muslim students – a 7-year-old Black Muslim girl, who reportedly resisted, and tried to hold on to her hijab as her teacher ripped it off. American-Muslim Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad raised awareness about the incident through Instagram, in a post that has gone viral among Muslim social media users.
Suffice to say, Muslims across the globe are outraged. Hijabs are already banned in various places across Europe and Canada: earlier this year, the EU Court of Human Rights upheld a law allowing companies to ban their employees from wearing hijabs at work, and a Quebec court upheld most of a law that prevents government workers from wearing hijabs. The French Senate voted in favor of banning hijabs on women under the age of 18, prompting the #handsoffmyhijab campaign on Instagram.
Women who follow traditional guidelines of hijab keep their bodies and hair covered while in the presence of men who aren’t close kin, usually from the age of puberty. Headscarves, for them, are integral to their public attire; forcibly removing them can be seen as a form of stripping them down. “Imagine the humiliation and trauma this experience has caused her,” wrote Muhammad on Instagram. “This is abuse.”
As a Muslim woman who doesn’t cover her hair, I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for young women who have the courage to commit to wearing the hijab. It takes guts and an impressively strong conviction of faith to cover your hair in a society that places so much emphasis on “good hair days” for women, promoting Brazilian blowouts and pressuring us to conform our hairstyles to certain standards and ideals – often to look more “attractive” to men. That’s why covering your body, and by extension, your hair, can be such a powerful “feminist” statement.
But Western feminism has been historically selective and deceptive. Non-religious American women who march topless in protests are applauded for their feminism, while women of faith who cover their hair are deemed intrinsically un-feminist. As we campaign against enforced veiling in Afghanistan in the name of liberty and freedom, violations of Muslim women’s body autonomy are all too frequent on our own soil.
Yes, in some cases, hijabs are enforced or encouraged in patriarchal families – a form of coercion which should in no way be condoned – but many Muslim women cover their hair by choice, be it for religious, cultural or political reasons. And they often do so to proudly assert their Muslim identity in the West.
Proponents of the hijab often say that covering their hair can be liberating, as it takes a stance against societal pressures that measure a woman’s beauty by her tresses. The New Jersey teacher reportedly told her hijabi student that her hair was “beautiful” and that she didn’t need to cover it – but that is precisely why hijabi women cover their hair, as a means to keep their beauty private, rather than public. And it’s their prerogative to do so.
I believe every woman should have the right to dress how she wants to, whether that means baring her skin in a bikini or concealing it underneath a burqa. But while bikinis and burqas might be at two opposite sides of the “modesty” spectrum, only one of them is deemed “extremist” attire.
The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has certainly helped fuel anti-hijab sentiments, not least since the urgent need to save and de-veil Afghan women was one of the core premises for America’s invasion of Afghanistan. But that was 20 years ago. Call me naïve, but I like to think our views on veiling have progressed since then.
In the past half-decade alone we’ve seen hijabi models like Halima Aden walk runways at New York Fashion Week and cover prestigious fashion publications. Haute Hijab, an American headscarves label, was featured in an ad in New York’s Times Square, and in a summer campaign for The Gap – can you get any more American? Hijabi fashion designer Ayana Ife became a finalist on reality television series, Project Runway. We’ve seen hijabi politician Ilhan Omar sworn into office, and cheered on Ibtihaj Muhammad, a hijab-wearing American Muslim fencer, as she earned a medal for the US at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
To my mind, had the teacher in New Jersey wanted to discreetly ask her young student whether she was covering her hair out of choice or compulsion, that would have been completely acceptable. But the sheer audacity of publicly stripping her of her headscarf was a classic display of white savior syndrome. It’s clear that there’s a real need for cultural sensitivity awareness and training among educators in the US, where, despite claims or tolerance and multiculturalism, prejudicial views of Muslims still prevail.
It goes without saying that the school should investigate the matter, take immediate disciplinary action against the teacher, issue a public apology, and adopt more inclusive training procedures to accommodate its diverse students. Failure to do so will make them complicit in Islamophobia, which is toxic, bigoted and threatening to the many Muslim Americans who live in the land of the free but are denied the freedom they deserve.
Yet taking a stand against the fashion policing of Muslim women is not just about Muslims – it’s about all women in America. As Muhammad put it on Instagram: “By protecting Muslim girls who wear hijab, we are protecting the rights of all of us to have a choice in the way we dress.”
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