Support or not? Australians donning the Hijab

Article by Robyn Dunphy /
Team Oyeniyi /
October 04, 2014 /
Click here to view original /

Given the terrible actions against innocent Muslims in our community of late, I joined a social media group of everyday Australians supporting our Muslim brothers and sisters. Through my participation in this group I became aware of the #WISH campaign, Women in Solidarity with Hijabis.

I thought this sounded like a great idea and decided to get a headband and scarf on the weekend and participate. I wasn’t limiting myself to taking a selfie and posting it, my plan was to actually wear it out and about and see what reactions I got. Maybe even wear it to work. While yes, I admit to having reservations about the burka and the niqab I am also well aware I am not a Muslim and therefore don’t feel the spiritual connection the wearers feel to those garments. I also was seeing plenty of posts from Muslim women clearly indicating they wear the various styles of covering through CHOICE, not at the direction of the men in their lives, as Westerners often assume. If I chose to wear a hijab, it would be a gesture of solidarity, not in any way trying to assume the role of a Muslim woman.

I was left with the question of would this be welcomed by the Muslim women? The group I am participating in certainly seemed to be in favour of the idea. I discovered the campaign had been initiated by Mariam Veiszadeh. Mariam is a lawyer and a Muslim who wears a hijab and I have followed her on Twitter for quite some time. Mariam is no shrinking violet – so I knew if she had initiated it, she believed in it and that was good enough for me.

Then my attention was drawn to an article by Zeynab Gamieldien criticising an article by another reporter who had written about her experience spending some time dressed in a naqib. The heading is “Non-Muslim women wearing ‘solidarity head coverings’ is not helping anyone”.

Zeynab says:

It plays into a long tradition of those in possession of this privilege speaking for those without, rather than allowing them to speak in their own voices and inhabit their own experiences. It also completely desacralises and makes a mockery of the complex and rich spiritual beliefs informing upwards of a billion people all over the world, particularly those whose spiritual compass and/or cultural context directs them towards wearing niqab.

This pricked my conscious. I thought of all the times white people seem to think it OK to speak for people rather that allow them to speak for themselves. Our own First Australians being the closest-to-home example. The fact I am an atheist also gave me cause for concern. Would this be insulting to people who clearly hold very deep beliefs that I don’t hold at all and never will? At that point I had not read the article Zeynab was concerned about. I changed my mind about wearing a hijab and decided perhaps I’d be better giving Muslim women an opportunity to speak here if they wanted to.

I had read several other articles. One about a Muslim woman in Canberra who had removed her scarf out of fear of being attacked. Another about medical students in the Hunter being verbally abused for wearing the hijab. It had seemed to me Mariam’s idea wasn’t so bad: a little solidarity might not go astray!

In the meantime, the Muslim women in the group I was participating in all seemed to support the idea of the #WISH campaign as well. So I bought my headbands and scarves. When I posted a selfie in the group it was warmly received.

I then tracked down the article “Life under the Muslim veil: Our reporter’s day shrouded and afraid on familiar streets“. The problem I have with the article is while it certainly highlighted the “racist and abusive taunts cast my way from a steady stream of Sydneysiders”, it dealt with how the author, Tanya Smart, felt in an unfamiliar style of dress and this was, to my way of thinking, irrelevant. Neither Tanya nor I are going to feel normal in a naqib, but the Muslim women who wear it do. The emphasis needed to be on the reactions to the garment, not how Tanya felt. How Tanya felt is NOT how a Muslim woman feels. Even so, I think the article raised awareness of the treatment our society is dishing out to the Muslim women choosing to wear their covering. I could see Zeynab’s concerns as well.

The debate is everywhere. Western feminists fail to see freedom in burka debate addresses how Western feminists fail to understand the Muslim woman’s perspective.

Chair of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Sydney, Sahar Amer, who last month published a book on Islamic veiling, What is Veiling?, says Western feminism has fundamentally failed to understand that women may choose to wear a niqab or burka.

“I think that there are probably some women who are forced to wear them. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture; I’m sure that that happens,” Amer says.

“There are women who are oppressed in all societies and of all backgrounds.

“But this is a first-wave feminist idea, that the more clothing you have the less you’re liberated; that if you can just wear a tank top and shorts you’re super liberated.

“There is a lack of understanding of feminism in the context of Muslim societies.”

Then Lauren Rosewarne on The Drum came into the battle with an accusation of slacktivism.

There’s a reason why involvement in social media campaigns such as #WISH are so frequently downplayed as slacktivism. Invariably they are examples of the laziest form of political… <cough>… participation imaginable. Incorporating a headscarf into our daily social media lifestyles isn’t consciousness raising; rather, it is attention seeking and it is about a privileged delusion that non-Muslims can dress-up, partake of and then somehow protest discrimination. All using the mystical power of the selfie.

By this stage I was catching up with Mariam again on Twitter and could see she was calling for support, highlighting that the campaign had done more to raise awareness about Islamophobia than anything else.

How do I feel after reading all of these articles and seeing the reactions? I’m an atheist. I don’t understand the deep commitment the Muslim women have to their naqibs, burkas, hijabs and the other variations. What I do know is I am prepared to accept they are not being forced by patriarchy to wear them (I have trouble believing anyone could force Mariam to do anything) and I believe our government should not be telling Muslim women what to wear. If Mariam and other Muslim women are happy to accept my support, I am very pleased to be able to do what little I can to raise awareness and show support.

We don’t all have the same idea of feminism, yet we need to remain inclusive to remain meaningful.

It seems the women of the Muslim community attract more negativity than the men in the current climate because the dress is so distinctive. Yes, there has been property damage, I know, but the women are easy targets for many. Every day Australians visibly showing support, provided it is done with respect and all concerned understand the focus and the intent, is one way we can tell our government we don’t like discrimination. Which brings me to an article in The Age by Waleed Aly, Burqa ban a political excuse for persecution.

In short, they become the symbolic target for our rage; the avatar we choose to represent a generalised enemy, and the threat it poses. In this, we obey what seems a diabolically universal principle: that whatever the outrage, whatever the fear, and whatever the cause, it is women that must suffer first and most.

Yes, social media is also alive with those decrying the #WISH campaign.

This is where those of us who are both feminist and atheist struggle. I want to support the Muslim women PROVIDED I am not supporting oppression. So I will support them if they choose to wear the Islamic coverings and I will equally support them NOT to wear, should they so choose. I will not support them being forced either way, by religion, men or our government.

Richard Glover reminds us all that we need to be careful who we blame. It shouldn’t be the women.

This is the real battleground of terrorism: a million tiny interactions on the streets of our cities. Will that glance be a hostile one or a kindly one? Will the angry Facebook post be shared or criticised? Do we together push the vulnerable towards the extremists, or do we tempt them back to the middle?

And how do we collectively cope when things go wrong? Will the Muslim community, seeing a mosque daubed with graffiti, understand the crime is the act of a deranged, hate-filled minority? Will non-Muslims, aghast when a preacher refuses to criticise a terrorist, understand that he speaks for the few and not the many?