I am a Muslim woman (short straw). I am brown (sounds about right). I wear a hijab (poor thing). I’m a mother (aren’t they all?) I’m a feminist (wait, what?!) This is, in a nutshell, what people tend to think of my life choices as a Muslim woman of colour. You see there are inherent assumptions and expectations of who I am and what I’m allowed to think. And well, being an avid supporter of women’s rights doesn’t quite fit into that imposed narrative of oppression (erm, does your husband/dad know you’re writing this?) In the west, there is a constant need to tell Muslim women that they are ‘forced’, ‘oppressed’ or ‘indoctrinated’ into wearing hijab that feels at odds with liberal feminism, infantalising and patronising the very women it wishes to liberate. In a free and democratic society where many women have chosen to don the hijab, why can’t we respect her freedoms and take her decision at face value? Of course the experiences of women vary greatly around the world and unfortunately there are places where women are oppressed and forced to do things against their will. But that is not my experience. That is symptomatic of ingrained patriarchy and malevolent misogynistic cultures many of which flourish under the guise of Islam, but are resolutely not. It is also important to note that female suppression is not confined to Muslims, the patriarchy that infects and hijacks Muslim societies and cultures also effects western ones. Patriarchy is a universal, pervasive problem that is not symbolised by the piece of cloth I wear on my head and reducing it to such does a disservice to society.
I recently attended a feminist gathering (as I often do) where a woman’s mention of how she used to wear the hijab, but no longer does was met with enthused applause by the predominately white audience, incidentally breaking off the rest of her sentence. As the only hijab wearing woman at the gathering, I suddenly felt like an outsider to the ‘sisterhood’. Whilst I respect that woman’s autonomy, life choices and liberty, it appeared that not everyone respected mine. Throughout modern history and when the women’s movement became more strident in the 70’s, the burning of bras and the removal of an article of clothing became symbolic of feminism, much as the free the nipple campaign has been embraced. Does anyone question those ideals? Are the choices propagated by a majority of white, western women accused of being infiltrated and indoctrinated by men who may want to see braless women and free nipples? The answer is no. We accept that these women know their own minds and that if she says she feels empowered by it, then surely she is. So why do we hold such parochial attitudes to Muslim, hijab wearing women? And if you genuinely feel they need your help, what it is with this palpable othering and side lining? Why is it so hard to accept that we too know our own minds and bodies? I was once accosted by a woman in the supermarket who began screaming at me ‘did he make you wear that?’ , ‘I’m surprised he’s let you out’ and other niceties. I looked around, puzzled as to who ‘he’ might be until I realised that she was in fact referring to the omnipotent ‘he’, the incongruous bearded brown male who lurks in the shadows behind every Muslim woman pinning down our hijabs with his invisible hairy brown hands. Him again. When I tried to explain the choices that I, as a woman born and raised in a liberal democracy had made at my own liberty, I was accused of projecting my oppression on to her. (I resisted the urge to project my fist into her face..). I am therefore compelled to think that perhaps this general unwillingness to accept my stance has nothing to do with liberation. Perhaps it has more to do with imposing western ideals upon minority groups, colonising our ideas and spaces. Perhaps it is a white saviour complex and this faux liberation has nothing to do with me. Perhaps you are unable to take my word at face value because you are too busy staring at my head.