*****A previous version of this post was published in May under the title Politicizing the Hijab: How the Hijab became a political symbol. However, I saw it fit to make some changes and post it again as an introduction to the broader conversation we will undertake in the Trouble with Feminism series. Certain changes have been made to the previous version of this post, so feel free to check it out again if you’ve read it before.
Any Muslim woman wearing a hijab has at some point in her life come face to face with the politics surrounding what is primarily a religious symbol of piety and modesty. Whether defined as a sign of oppression or a political emblem, the agency of those women who choose to wear it is often ignored in the discourse surrounding the hijab. While many have already touched on the overt policing of Muslim women’s bodies that takes place in these discussions, very little has been said about the process through which the hijab has been politicized.
The explicit politicization of the hijab—in which the decision to wear it is framed as a political act—finds its roots in the colonial occupation of the Muslim World by Western powers. The imperialist expansion of Europe into the rest of the world during the last four hundred years created a dominant imperium expanding its control and influence over newly acquired territories. This relationship extended beyond military occupation and encompassed a social, pedagogical, economic, political, and broadly cultural project that reiterated the notion of European superiority and the ordained right of Europeans to spread “civilization” throughout the world.
Colonialism was constructed as a noble project, a mission in which the “white man” must take on the burden of ensuring that non-Europeans were civilized and Christianized. Such a system carried within it inherent notions of racial inferiority and exotic otherness. The colonial narrative in its rendition of Islam and Muslims adopted the broader description of non-Western people in colonial discourse as being fundamentally hostile to modernity, and by extension the very values of the West. This perception of Islam as being utterly foreign—and possibly even a threat, to the values of Christian Western civilization—explains the feelings of antipathy so prevalent in the West today toward symbols deemed to be carriers of Islamic values (Said, 1979:209).
Unveiling the natives
Muslim women in the colonial narrative were often described as exotic creatures hidden in harems. This fuelled the fantasies of Westerners—who for the most part had never seen Muslim women—about scantily clad ladies submissively awaiting for the sexual favours of their husbands in their well-guarded harems. This image of Muslim women became so pervasive in Western literature and art that it lead to the widespread proliferation of their supposed submissiveness and exoticness in the Western world’s collective imaginary.
In the Orientalist discourse that emerged from the colonial experience in the Orient, but particularly in the Muslim World, the entire Muslim civilization was said to be recalcitrant to embrace changes that have come to define the modern Western World (Said, 1979:123). Muslims were said to be opposed particularly to secularization and the transition of men and women out of traditional and archaic institutions. Here the hijab was deemed singularly problematic because it’s presence in the social landscape was seen as a rejection of Western values. According to Fanon, “the way people clothe themselves, together with the traditions of dress and finery that custom implies, constitutes the most distinctive form of a society’s uniqueness, that is to say the one that is the most immediately perceptible”(Fanon, 1967:35). In the case of Muslim societies, the hijab not only delineated the genders by reiterating the differences between men and women, but it also helped to demarcate clearly the colonized from the colonizers. By refusing to remove their hijab Muslim women were not only reaffirming their attachment to their native cultural and religious identity, but also rejecting their assigned status as colonized subjects to be westernized.
Western colonizers sought to subjugate in every possible way those under their yoke. The colonized must not only be completely controlled politically, socially, and economically, but also inclined to be investigated, unravelled, and probed by their colonizers. The conquered cannot have secrets, privacy, or intimacy that eludes colonial dominance. The veiled woman however, remains an exception to this rule. Behind her hijab, she escapes the colonial gaze probing every aspect of native life, and in doing so frustrates the colonizers. There is no reciprocity between her and colonial society, since she evades their scrutiny. “She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself”(Fanon, 1967:44). The existing power dynamic between colonizer and colonized shifts in this context. The hijab creates a domain that remains out of the colonizers’ reach, where neither their values nor their authority have any dominion. In response to this defiance, “colonial society, with its values, its areas of strength, and its philosophy, reacted to the veil in a rather homogeneous way”(Fanon, 1967:37).
The hijab became the focus of an intense effort to wipe from existence any symbol that could evoke a sense of national identity, ethnic kinship, or religious belonging, distinct from that of colonial society. The roles of Muslim women as mothers, sisters, wives, and grandmothers were studied at length, catalogued, and defined by sociologists and ethnologists in an effort to identify the matrilineal essence of Muslim societies and understand its impact (Fanon, 1967:37). Colonial administrations deployed a whole new set of policies informed by this new found insight on the importance of women to the completion of the colonial project. They elaborated a political doctrine predicated on the idea of first winning over the women in order to win over the rest of society. Shattering any remaining pretences of nationhood and distinctive originality, demanded that women be made the standard-bearers of colonial values. In order to destroy the innate structure of Muslim societies and hinder their capacity to survive the consequences of the colonial onslaught, Muslim women had to be conquered first. They had to be brought out into the open and away from their veils where they were hiding from the colonial gaze.
Feminist discourse in the colonial context
This is where the narrative depicting the hijab as a sign of female oppression and a symbol of backwardness came into fruition. Muslim women wearing the hijab were described as victims of Islam’s deep seeded misogyny and backwardness who were simply unaware of their own oppression. The behaviour of Muslim men toward “their women” was said to be brutish and sadistic; after all their medieval and barbaric attitude consistently devalued and dehumanized women to the status of mere propriety meant to be hidden from view. Saving these humiliated and sequestered women become the newest project of colonial society. Charities and mutual aid societies intended to promote solidarity with Muslim women appeared in great numbers. Fanon notes that in the case of Algeria, “this was a period of effervescence, of putting into application a whole technique of infiltration, in the course of which droves of social workers and women directing charitable works descended on the Arab quarters” (Fanon, 1967:38).
The hijab was said to be the undeniable symbol of the oppressed state of Muslim women. Saving them required that they shall first be unveiled. Western feminists particularly took up the cause of these women’s emancipation and invited Muslim women to play a crucial role in the improvement of their condition. “They were pressed to say no to a centuries old subjection. The immense role they were called to play was described to them”(Fanon, 1967:38). Western feminists, much like the rest of Western society, were imbued with an imperialist consciousness based on a racial hierarchy reiterating the superiority of white women. The very existence of their feminist movement hinged in many ways on the racialized construct of the colonized. Their activism was ingrained with an imperial ethos framed around the idea of moral responsibility (white woman’s burden). Their actions espoused to the same goals than the broader colonial project. Saving the natives from themselves by civilizing them through Western values was an approach the feminist project had in common with the cultural assimilation promulgated by colonial administrations throughout the colonies. Both recognized the pivotal role women could play in bringing to completion the colonial project. Western feminists became the handmaidens of Western imperialism, embracing not only its principal ideological construct (white supremacy) but also its ultimate goal.
Every aspect of colonial society reiterated the call for the emancipation of Muslim women from the shackles of tradition and backwardness. Muslim pupils in schools were told of the evils of their native cultures and religion. In order to embrace the brilliant future awaiting them, they had to first shed away their native values susceptible of only hindering their greatness. The shortcomings of their native societies, in comparison to the greatness of their Western counterparts, were exposed to them in great lengths. Muslim women taking off their hijab were celebrated with great fanfare as examples of saved natives. These individuals adopting Western values were considered by colonial administrations as developed natives who would become part of the colonial cadre and facilitate the erosion of their native cultures. Colonial society expected the newly saved Muslim women, without the supposed stranglehold of the hijab, to support Western penetration into native society by helping them navigate the spaces concealed from their colonial gaze.
Those refusing to follow in the footsteps of their civilized sisters rapidly became the focus of a vehement and aggressive narrative portraying them as custodians of the very backwardness afflicting their gender. Colonial society reacted aggressively to what it perceived as resistance to civilization itself. These women continued to foster spaces that eluded the colonial reach, a world of native mysteries foreign to the European experience. By refusing to bare their secrets, they were unavailable to the scrutiny and influence of the colonizers. Breaking their resistance was the only way of putting them back into the reach of colonial society and making them objects of possession and possible assimilation. In the colonial context the hijab was no longer simply an expression of religious kinship but rather part of the broader anti-colonial discourse as a political symbol of resistance and counter-assimilation, whose bearers displayed a deliberate rejection of the colonial project and its Western values.
Feminism and the war on terror
While the discourse pertaining to the supposed primitive treatment of women in Islam so pervasively found in the West today can be traced back to the colonial context of the 18th and 19th century, it has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in the context of the war on terror. This new framework rests on the manichean representation of the Muslim world as a barbaric and misogynistic entity that must be civilized by a liberal and enlightened West. Feminist discourse particularly played a major role in the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of Liberal imperialism. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was widely framed as a righteous war to liberate Afghan women from oppression. Shortly after 9/11, First Lady Laura Bush gave a radio address in which she spoke of women’s oppression in Afghanistan as a matter of national import.
“Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror – not only because our hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” (Leila Ahmed)
Invoking the oppression of women to justify war and domination is an old trick from imperialism’s playbook. British and French colonial ventures were often justified as necessary measures to advance the cause of civilization, and rescue women from backward and oppressive cultures. In the context of the war on terror, it become commonplace to hear that “we were in Afghanistan to save the women from the atrocities of the Taliban – which as I said, was implicitly understood too to be those innately of Islam.” Despite mounting evidence that the US/NATO occupation in Afghanistan had done little for women’s rights, groups such as Amnesty-USA campaigned for a continuation of the occupation.
“In 2012, ads appeared in public places of Afghan women in burqas with the caption: “Nato: Keep the Progress Going!” Amnesty further organized a summit that rearticulated through the voices of powerful women, such as Madeline Albright, imperialist feminist justifications for war.” (Deepa Kumar)
While feminist discourse was being utilized to justify and legitimize Western invasion of sovereign nations in the Global South, in the West the same discourse is often used to police the lives and the choices of Muslim women. The endless obsession with the hijab, the niqab, and lately the burkini stems from feminism’s “racist, patronizing attitude towards women of color who have been seen less as allies/agents and more as victims in need of rescue.” The events of 9/11 brought back into Western consciousness the colonial narrative about Islam, and by extension the hijab. Islam became once more an existential threat. The old European lore of Muslim armies at the gate waiting to take Western civilization by storm resurfaced, and with it old sentiments of antipathy toward an “other” conceptualized first as a rival, and later as a colonized subject. The hijab has become the focus of this fear. Seeing Muslim women in the West choosing to wear the hijab symbolizes for many Westerners a rejection of Western values. These women are in their eyes expressing their loyalty first and foremost toward Islam, and in doing so rejecting all that Western civilization stands for. This perception of the hijab as a symbol of opposition to modernity and women’s rights is one of the many tenants of the feminist narrative that feeds present-day Islamophobia.
It is true that feminist ideology encompasses multiple movements; some vehemently opposed to what is referred to as Western feminism. In the aftermath of the war on terror, many feminists criticized what they considered to be a “co-opting of feminism” for the purposes of empire building. It is also very true that in the Global South a postcolonial feminism has emerged, while islamic feminism makes its own forays into the Muslim world and Muslim diasporas in the West. Both are critical of the patronizing attitude of Western feminists toward cultures they barely understand, or are aware of. Both reiterate the need for women of colour and Muslim women to exercise their agency openly and to not let themselves be erased by the skewed vision of Western feminists.
However, considering the history of this ideology and its participation in the subjugation, domination, and exploitation of non-Western nations, one has to wonder if it can ever be a vehicle for the liberation of women of colour, and Muslim women. The ease with which it lends itself to a rhetoric of racial supremacy makes it a profoundly problematic ideology. What reigns supreme in Feminism is Western exceptionalism. This is an ideology that reiterates the centrality of Western civilization as a model to emulate in order to achieve the liberation of women from oppression. Even when it rejects the idea of white supremacy, it still operates through a pattern of Westernization, which alienates and marginalizes all other cultural systems. Despite their valiant efforts neither postcolonial feminism nor Islamic feminism have escaped the shadow of Western feminism. They continue to borrow much of their vocabulary and strategies from it. By adhering to Feminism, they—more than Western feminists—continue to cement and enhance the centrality of Western civilization above all else.
So the question remains, can Muslim women find within feminism means of advocating for their rights, or are they simply facilitating their own oppression and erasure while strengthening Western influence?
Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 1967.
Edward Said, Orientalism, 1979.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993.