#WISH: Non-Muslim women have donned hijabs in solidarity with the Muslim community. Photo: Facebook
Muslim women are a hot topic. They are spoken for and about constantly in mainstream media but are rarely permitted to speak for themselves, despite this being the very accusation levelled against Islam and Muslim societies. If and when Muslim women are given a platform to speak for themselves, their choices are often labelled as the product of brainwashing or patriarchal oppression, even when explicitly and repeatedly told otherwise. Muslim women seem to inspire competing impulses amongst Islamophobes: to rescue and liberate from their shackles, or to become the focal point for all fear and disgust towards Islam and Muslims more generally? These competing impulses apply to all Muslim women to some degree, but none more so than those who wear the niqab.
Despite the sheer volume of articles and TV news reports dedicated to ‘unveiling’ the niqab, it seems to be beyond most people’s grasp that it is not in fact the same as a burqa. This was evident at the very beginning of Tanya Smart’s recent article in the Daily Telegraph titled ‘Life under the Muslim veil: Our reporter’s day shrouded and afraid on familiar streets’, which opened with a photo of Smart’s crystal-blue eyes peering out of a so-called ‘burqa’, disregarding the fact that those eyes would only have been visible from a niqab and not a burqa.
But Smart runs into far bigger problems than semantics. The very premise of the article, a white Australian woman donning a niqab for two days and then proposing to offer insights into what it’s like to wear it, should raise alarm bells.
Smart ‘posing as a Muslim’ insults on a number of levels. It ignores the inherent privilege Smart possesses, one not as easily assumed and removed as her niqab. 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.
It’s hard to give reporters like Smart the benefit of the doubt. They claim to want to understand the experiences of those who wear niqab, yet they do the very opposite by projecting their perceptions and feelings about it based on the flimsiest of encounters.
Smart claimed that the hardest part about wearing the niqab was “having my emotions hidden from the world”, but by claiming the experience of these women Smart in fact only further obscures their experiences and emotions. Inevitably, the reader is positioned to assume that the way Smart felt about the niqab is universal. If she felt “hurt” by wearing it, so too must those who wear it. If she felt she couldn’t “interact with people” while wearing it, it is then assumed that all women who wear niqab must feel this sense of isolation.
TV host Jessica Rowe: contributed this image to the WISH - Women In Solidarity with Hijabis Facebook page.
Given the increasingly frenzied climate of Islamophobia following the series of “anti-terror” arrests in the wake of recent changes to national security legislation, there are those who are fighting back. Knowing that women in hijab and niqab are easy targets for abuse, campaigns such as ‘WISH-Women in Solidarity with Hijabis’ have sprung up. The Facebook group encourages women to 'stand in solidarity with Australian Muslim women by posting photos donning a hijab.'
It’s very sweet and well-intentioned and reading many of the stories on there make me grin. But I’m all too aware of some of the problems underlying these kinds of campaigns. They set up a dichotomy between hijab and niqab, one reflective of a wider dichotomy present even in overtly ‘positive’ stories about Muslims: that there are ‘acceptable’ kinds of Muslims, and there are those who fall outside of the confines of it.
The hijab becomes the acceptable face of Islam for those ‘liberal’ enough to tolerate or even celebrate it, but it’s highly unlikely that any such solidarity campaign for those women who wear niqab. Even amongst Muslims the niqab has become a highly divisive issue and many crack under the strain of constant external disgust, ‘outing’ those who wear niqab as doing something distasteful and contrary to the spirit of Islam.
Campaigns like this hover in the vicinity of Tanya Smart’s experiment in The Daily Telegraph. Side-lining the voices of those who actually wear hijab and in the process potentially reducing it to an act of dress-up rather than a deeply personal and spiritually significant decision. In the same way wearing an Indigenous American headdress to demonstrate support for their rights might cause people to scratch their heads, these types of initiatives provoke similar reactions.
It’s a well-meaning campaign but let’s keep going from here towards more nuanced discussions, ones in which people aren’t eliminated from the telling of their own narratives, or better yet, aren’t constantly made to tell them as fodder for someone else’s narrative of pity and fear. Now that’s liberation.