Gendered Islamophobia ― targeted violence against Muslim women ― has reached a terrifying level in Western society. Current political rhetoric is toxic, and according to a report from Georgetown University, attacks on Muslims in 2016 increased to the highest level in the last 15 years.
Women who choose to wear hijab, a headscarf (or turban or loose-fitting clothing) that covers the hair and neck, are often immediate targets for violent and verbal assaults. In response, some non-Muslim allies have taken it upon themselves to wear hijabs as an act of solidarity.
But while this may seem like a tangible way to express support, in reality, lasting change requires a lot more work than draping material over your face and hair.
Moreover, and unsurprisingly, this act of unanimity did not start with Muslim women, even if they choose to support this type of action. And that is a problem.
Lasting change requires a lot more work than draping material over your face and hair.
In November, CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota caused a ruckus in the “alt-right” (read: white supremacist) media circuit by publicly suggesting that non-Muslim Americans should wear hijabs in solidarity with their fellow Muslim citizens. More recently, actress Kathy Najimy, a non-Muslim woman, decided to speak up for her “about-to-be-disenfranchised Muslim sisters” by declaring her intention to sport a headscarf on inauguration day. As she explained to People magazine:
“I saw a woman with an hijab, and I thought, how can she know that I support her without going up and embarrassing her? So I thought, what if we wore them on Inauguration Day?”
Perhaps Camerota and Najimy intended to be helpful ― but the fact is, if the ideas don’t come from Muslim women, they are shallow.
In the case of Najimy, instead of engaging with the Muslim woman she saw (or, for that matter, one of the women who help make up the Muslim-American community of approximately 3.3 million), she determined what she thought would be best . . . a classic case of the savior mentality.
This may come as a shock to non-Muslims, but engaging in a conversation and asking the opinions of a Muslim woman is not “embarrassing.” From my perspective as an actual hijab-wearing Muslim woman, it would be a relief to be spoken to ― as opposed to spoken for.
In an email, Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best, a public health researcher and consultant with expertise in mental health, emphasized that Muslim women should always dictate what is wanted and needed in terms of solidarity:
It’s the responsibility of non-Muslim women to ask what they can do to assist us. If a non-Muslim woman doesn’t know what Muslim women need or want in terms of solidarity, then it means you probably don’t know enough of us. And that may be the place for you to start doing some deep thinking and change-making, rather than immediately looking to make a show of solidarity.
In addition to de-centering Muslims, calls from non-Muslims to wear hijabs detract from what matters: breaking down racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic systems. Wearing a stylish scarf for a few hours is insufficient in addressing the lifetimes of oppression and bigotry that Muslim women face. As I previously wrote on the Muslimah Media Watch blog:
This exercise reduces a Muslim woman to one yard of material. It is not an action that one can adequately educate and put another woman in their position. It’s completely disingenuous to think so.
Darakshan Raja, co-director of the Washington Peace Center and an activist committed to fighting violence against women, notes that allies wearing hijab “take attention away from putting pressure on institutions. They center the guilt of the ally [instead of centering] justice around the Muslim women who have been wronged.”
It is also crucial to remember that not all Muslim women wear hijab — in fact, many do not. Muslim women may wear burkinis, bikinis, or burqas to observe their faith . . . or they may not. I wear a scarf because I feel it is an obligation as a Muslim woman; that is my interpretation and my right. I would not force another women to veil, nor would I expect her to unveil. It is her choice. Full stop.
It would be a relief to be spoken to -- as opposed to spoken for.
For many Muslim women, wearing hijab is an extremely personal choice. And if showing solidarity only reflects the reality of a few, it isn’t solidarity at all. Only recognizing hijab-wearing Muslim women erases the experiences of thousands of Muslim women who do not cover, but are hardly immune to Islamophobia as a result.
As Dr. Jackson-Best puts it:
Muslim women are living and breathing our rights and manifesting our agency and autonomy every day, and non-Muslim women must acknowledge that by recognizing the diversity in the ways we choose to represent ourselves.
Anyone actually affected by oppression could tell you that demonstrative white feminism is not the solution to gendered Islamophobia. As Raja says, “So many layers of how hijab is being co-opted by political liberals and even Islamophobes . . . [are] as tools to talk about how progressive they are.” And just talking it not nearly enough.
Wearing a hijab in solidarity may lead to compelling photo-ops, but these ultimately offer little substance. The action does not affect policy or organizational structures, and it doesn’t help to dismantle unjust systems that cause distress to so many women of color within the wider Muslim community.
So what can non-Muslim allies do? A lot. And they can start by empowering and amplifying Muslim women themselves.
There are Muslim women mobilizing and organizing in various social justice circles. There are websites dedicated exclusively to the voices of Muslim women, including Muslimah Media Watch (I am a contributor) and Muslim Girl. The Women’s March includes a handful of Muslim women as featured speakers—some of whom wear hijab, and some of whom do not.
Allies can also support self-defense seminars that have been organized by Muslim women (myself included) in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They can participate in workshops on solidarity. They can directly help Muslim women during an assault. They can make phone calls, petition different levels of government, protest, and support campaigns at local Islamic centers and mosques.
Raja notes that financial support for grassroots initiatives is also key. “Muslim women have organized self-defense rapid-response seminars, but to my knowledge, not a fucking dime had been given by mainstream feminist agencies,” she says. “We must build and support grassroots organization for Muslim women.”
Supporting Muslim women can be done without wearing a headscarf. It can be done in track pants, a miniskirt, or a ball gown.
Perhaps most importantly, non-Muslim allies must confront their own biases and push themselves to learn more and do better. “We live in a time where many of us know the right things to say… in public,” says Dr. Jackson Best. “But privately we are just as guilty as people who are openly discriminatory or racist. Getting real about what you think of Muslim women and gendered Islamophobia is a necessary place to start that internal work. And then don’t stop there. Get educated and informed. Read the many many works by diverse Muslim women that are available for free online.”
Supporting a plethora of Muslim women can be done without wearing a headscarf. It can be done in track pants, a miniskirt, or a ball gown. It is possible to show solidarity with Muslims without appropriating their clothing.
Every Muslim woman may not agree on this issue, because as it turns out, we are not a monolith. But our voices are powerful and our spirits are indomitable.
If women who do not identify as Muslim sincerely want to support us, they might consider putting away the scarf, and listening to and following us — instead of excluding us from the conversation we should be leading.
Other recent stories include: