Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
April 2014



Breaking a Promise

I promised I would never write a piece about the hijab.

I’m inspired to break that promise in light of an intelligent reflection by Yassmin Abdel-Magied articulating her reservations about World Hijab Day which as she explains is an initiative celebrated by a reported 116 countries around the world on 1 February this year.

The initiative as Ms Abdel-Magied explains was started by New Yorker Nazma Khan and seeks to promote understanding and harmony by celebrating the hijab and encouraging non-Muslims to try it on and see what it 'feels like to be a Muslim'.

In many ways 'try a hijab' events are a fun way to break barriers, giving others permission to understand what it is to feel and experience being in another person’s shoes outside of politics. I know sometimes I'm curious about other people but have no way of accessing them except through novels.

However as Abdel-Magied explains: “It is fantastic that the world came together to celebrate the hijab. If, however, the aim is to foster true connection and understanding of Muslim women, the focus has to be on more than simply focus on what they wear.”

Indeed the somewhat prurient western focus on what Muslim women wear instead of who they are can get tiresome and frustrating. It sets them up as exotic in a way that is often countered by a kind of ‘same-ness’ politics that ameliorates fear by denying difference.

The understandable reaction to all this is for Muslim women to shut down from this incessant questioning entirely and self-censor from the political heat any discussion invariably provokes both from within and outside Muslim communities.

However I wonder if there could be an alternative. A space where the conversation can progress to a more sophisticated level that is not reacting to statements that set a defensive parameter 'You are oppressed' which leads to the “No, I’m liberated” rejoinder. 

This repetitive, dull oppressive/liberating binary precludes complexity. I wonder if Muslim women themselves could start a discussion about what it means to them in relationship to themselves in a nuanced way.

Ideally this would mean not being policed by outsiders talking for them - either Muslim men or non-Muslims and permission to be complex and not sing from the same song-sheet. Young Muslim women have already been doing this in the niche space of blogs for years, which admittedly allows for a more expansive internal discussion among like-minded people.

I think however the mainstream community could benefit from this.

In blogging spaces and with each other, Muslim women of different backgrounds talk about hijab as a powerful expression of spirituality, politics or identity (or all of the above). They admit struggling with it or sometimes it being too emotionally exhausting or too hot to cover, but persevering anyway. 

They talk about the difficulties putting it on or taking it off which can mean both conformity or non-conformity to their families’ secular or religious sensibilities. They feel empowered by their choice, disempowered by discrimination, and angry by both its ban or imposition in societies where women are not afforded choice. 

They talk about the pressure to be on their best behaviour in every public space and encounter as they bear the brunt of representing not just themselves as individuals, but the weight of a whole tradition.

These conversations can only occur in the mainstream when Muslim women feel safe and are not screamed down or patronised by white feminists, Islamophobes and even those in their communities, as well as censored by fears they are exposing their communities to Islamophobia.

These are the honest personal stories that can help us understand each other and go beyond the oppressive/liberatory binary that are just reactions to each other.

Sarah Malik

Sarah Malik is a journalist and writer.