Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Your Locks and Your Ladies Exposed

Story One: There was this kid in our neighbourhood who ran around topless every summer. For years my mom would proudly retell the story of how she “taught” the neighbour kid that girls should wear shirts and how from that day onward the kid always did.

Story Two: From patches of overheard conversations between my parents and their dinner guests, I very quickly learned that one effect of the spread of Islam in the African continent was that indigenous women who might have previously gone “bare-chested” drew a cloth across their breasts. How’s that for a confused history of colonization and conversion? I’m inclined to believe that the “cover yr knockers” mandate is one that cuts across religious lines, nationhood, race, and most certainly this elusive thing we call “culture.”

The version of Islam I grew up with is one that I have grappled with my entire life. Within my immediate family the hijab was always a contested issue. The same debates you hear in pop media would dominate dinner table conversation. Was it oppressive? Necessary? Primitive? Progressive? I felt a tension among the women in my family who claimed it was an archaic practice (outside the Mosque and during daily prayers, of course) but there was also, inevitably, a permeating defensiveness and judgment about their “choice” not to cover up.

Item of clothing. As a feminist, I’ve felt compelled to critique those who critique the hijab as an oppressive practice. I’ve often taken the stance “as long as it’s a personal choice it’s none of my business,” but I’ve felt a private smugness and righteous pride in being so “over” my own Muslim identity that I don’t even have to worry about this tired old debate. It wasn’t until I read Homa Hoodfar’s article, “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads” where she suggests that her readers might see “difficulty [in] reducing [the veil] to simply an article of clothing” that I started really thinking about this again (270). I hate being challenged on my blind-sightedness. But once my bruised ego recovers I remember that learning new stuff is good for me.

What is the hijab if not “simply an article of clothing?” Of course it’s also deeply political and politicized and I don’t have any intention of diminishing that. And yes, it’s a gendered practice alright but so is “having” to wear a shirt. Our government (at least where I live in the US, this is not a nude beach and def not Ontario) legislates shirt-wearing practices for “women.” Legislates! It’s a law! At its root, how is this shirt issue any different, any “less” “oppressive” IF in fact we’re still stuck in the pathetic discourse of quantifying oppression (more, less, equal…vomit. it’s not a fucking contest.). It’s easy to attack and exoticize the hijab as a way to play out underlying racism, Islamophobia, chauvinism, and all kinds of colonizing missions. Wouldn’t it serve everyone to be just a little self-reflective? Oh that sounds hard.

Gendered practices… Ok, yes the hijab tends denote “womanness” and this may very problematically also be equated with “femaleness” and perhaps even “heteronormativity,” but aren’t there imaginable scenarios where people use the hijab toward subversive acts? What about self-identified women who are not female? Or people performing a spectrum of femininities and masculinities, some folks wearing it to “pass” as women. It might be strategically adorned by sex workers, or in order to obscure non-hetero networking, especially in instances where sex work and non-hetero stuff is illegal, punished, discouraged and/or shamed…

Sometimes runway models do not have a cloth “drawn across their breasts.” And this seems to be acceptable in the fashion world. I’m not advocating that we run out immediately and take off our tops in protest. It is way too fucking cold, baby. And I’m not saying people should cavalierly adorn the hijab to drive home that it’s “simply an article of clothing.” No, doing that could be so troubling, it could turn into yet another form of appropriation and disregard. I’m just asking this: Can we please stop writing the same fucking books over and over and over again about the hijab and all of it’s debates? Doesn’t anyone have anything new to say?


Megan Helwin said...


Have you been to the exhibit currently at the Union Art Gallery?

Well, here it is for anyone who hasn't:

The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces

November 13 - December 12
Opening reception: November 4, 5-8pm
Gallery talk with Curator Jennifer Heath: November 14, 4pm followed by a panel discussion

The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces is an exhibition of the work of twenty-nine artists including videographers, filmmakers and new media artists, as well as painters, sculptors, performance and installation artists. Each considers and re-visions the veil in its many manifestations and interpretations and puts veils and veiling into context. The exhibit intends to engage received wisdom - particularly current clich├ęs and stereotypes about Islamic practices - and to reflect on the great ubiquity, importance and profundity of the veil throughout human history and imagination. Curated by Jennifer Heath, this exhibition is a visual companion to Heath's edited volume The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics ( University of California Press ).

amy_d said...

I also want to reiterate what the lady said in Bitch (but i can't remember her name and am too lazy to go downstairs to get it): the debate about the hijab is also a great distraction from real issues that actually face women, queers, etc. If we only focus on her clothing, we don't have to talk about rape, violence, colonization...