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In her book, Inside the Greater Jihad, the American scholar of Islam, Amina Wadud, states: “If you think the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised.”[1] 

Wadud’s statement refers to the idea that hijab—or the Islamic headscarf—is not the sole marker of a woman’s personal piety. It also reflects an argument that is increasingly familiar in the American context: that hijab is nothing more than a piece of cloth. Indeed, this sentiment is frequently invoked by American liberals and Muslims alike when advocating for the right of women to dress freely. Getting caught up on what a woman (Muslim or non-Muslim) chooses to wear, we are told, is both senseless and inappropriate.

But while deliberately provocative statements, like Wadud’s, aim to diffuse arguments which target Muslim women for their appearance, such perspectives often neglect the deeper theological dimensions of hijab, as well as the cultural, political, social, and even economic factors which influence it and are influenced by it. Whether in the context of the global “re-veiling” movement catalyzed by resistance to “Westernizing trends” in the Middle East (as in Egypt during the late 1970s and into the 1990s), or in post 9/11 America, hijab has always interacted uniquely with time and place, and has never been “just a piece of cloth.” So why is this reductive perspective now so pervasive, especially among American Muslims?

One of the greatest and arguably most obvious contributors is the increasing prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. In some ways, the 2016 U.S. presidential election invited a new wave of negative feelings toward Muslims, with Donald Trump openly claiming during his campaign that “I think Islam hates us,” and rallying his supporters by calling for a Muslim ban “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” This antipathy impelled a new wave of responses from American Muslims, premised on “humanizing” themselves and dispelling false stereotypes about Islam’s place in American society. While these responses have succeeded on many fronts, they have also failed in certain crucial respects.

In particular, American Muslims have largely relied on, and appealed to, “authentic” liberal tenets (such as feminist notions of “bodily autonomy” and the precedence of “individual choice”) when defending themselves against Islamophobic rhetoric. While this may have won American Muslims some public support, and helped them better assimilate as “Americans,” it came at the cost of liberalizing, secularizing, and even commodifying Muslim identity. The hijab has been the clearest and most visible example of this. The challenge, then, is how to talk seriously about hijab, without confining the debate to tired and rudimentary tropes about its presumed status as “just a piece of cloth.”

Commodifying Hijab

Hijab is an Arabic word found in the Quran, meaning “partition” or “barrier.” Rather than revisiting the never-ending debate on differentiating between the use and context of the specific term “hijab” and its relation to the broader notion of modesty (as it is presented in the Quran), it is sufficient to acknowledge that hijab is a normative term denoting the practice of covering. Disproportionate attention is often directed toward the semantics of hijab in order to dispute its requirement (the scholarly consensus within both Sunni and Shia schools of thought maintains that it is obligatory). For our purposes here, it is sufficient to conclude that hijab’s function in Islam is primarily one of self-discipline—to strive toward God. Aside from its pietistic foundations, however, hijab has also become one of the most prominent (and thus, most contested) physical markers of Muslim identity.

Notably, wider celebrations of hijab (and American Muslim women more generally) in mainstream media have become more apparent in recent years. Hijab has, for example, become pervasive in social media, with platforms, such as Instagram, awash with “hijabi fashion bloggers” posting photos and videos for “outfit inspiration.” This is linked, in part, to profound growth in modest fashion worldwide, and the hijab’s greater visibility in public consciousness. Large mainstream brands, like Macy’s and Nike, are now incorporating hijab-friendly fashion into their product lines. As a result, Islamic fashion businesses have grown exponentially. Haute Hijab, for example, recently launched a “luxury collection” selling at upwards of $300 per hijab.

Hijab has also been prominent outside the fashion industry. In November 2017, for example, the popular children’s toy company, Mattel, introduced the first hijabi Barbie modeled after U.S. Olympian, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Another clear example is the release of Mona Haydar’s song “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab),” which was dubbed a top twenty protest song of 2017. As Muslim Girl magazine stated in an article titled “18 Muslim Women to Watch in 2018,” Haydar’s objective is to normalize hijab to public audiences. Modesty, it seems, is now “cool,” and therefore marketable.

While it is certainly appealing to get behind these popular trends seeking inclusivity for hijabi women (for the sake of promoting better understandings of Islam, at the very least), the hijab’s growing commodification ought to give us pause. We cannot ignore how the hijab’s positive representations in popular culture, and the burgeoning hijab fashion industry, are redefining (and in fact reducing) hijab from a religious symbol to a cultural marker of identity. This is perhaps most evident in the “trendy” and “sexy” ways hijab is talked about and visually portrayed. It is precisely within this profound shift in discourse that an increasingly “liberal” and “secular” iteration of Muslim identity is emerging.

As scholars and imams like Sherman Jackson and Mikaeel Smith have argued, we are now witnessing a new wave of American Muslim activism that, ironically, relies almost exclusively on liberal principles such as individualism, autonomy, and public reason in order to reclaim and defend Muslim identity. In this way, an inherently religious symbol, such as hijab, is being discussed largely in terms that are non-religious, political, and “socially relevant”—all at the expense of hijab’s fundamental theological essence.

Consider the example of a recent MTV video titled, “Do All Muslim Women Wear a Hijab?” The jocularly-toned, witty video features a non-hijabi, self-proclaimed “cultural” Muslim host who attempts to make hijab more accessible to general audiences, while also informing us that not all Muslim women are, in fact, hijabis. As the host notes, “to say that all Muslim women wear hijab is like saying all Brooklyn hipsters drink fancy coffee while riding unicycles.” The host emphasizes the various kinds of hijab that exist, and the many reasons Muslim women choose to wear them. Many women, according to her, wear hijab as an expression of their cultural identity, and therefore “no one interpretation [of hijab] is the correct interpretation.”

Although well-intentioned, this is at best a shallow, if not misleading, explanation of hijab. Viewers walk away with no substantive understanding of either Islam or hijab in a theological sense. Rather, it retains a mildly apologetic tone, following in the footsteps of other lighthearted videos which attempt to liberalize and “humanize” Muslims (and as Riad Alarian argues here, secularize Muslims as a result).

It is understandable why many American Muslims are seeking to discuss their tradition in “neutralizing” terms, and treating Islam as a feature of liberalism and American culture. Yet, as Alarian argues here, appeasing liberal fears of Islam and its practices can be “problematic because it involves throwing conservative Muslims under the proverbial bus.” In the case of the MTV video, fears of hijab’s “oppressive” or “foreign” nature are appeased by neutralizing its conservative theological foundation and re-imagining Islam as little more than a cultural heritage.

The Individualism of Self-Authenticity

In The Malaise of Modernity, philosopher Charles Taylor describes what he calls the “malaises of modernity.” Of these malaises, perhaps the most important is modern individualism, or individualism based exclusively in self-fulfillment and being “true to oneself.” This sense of individualism, Taylor argues, causes people to feel unbounded by social or moral restrictions, except insofar as they corroborate personal desires. What drives this, according to Taylor, is “the moral force of the ideal of authenticity”—a moral relativism in which everyone’s individual values and opinions are respected rather than challenged.[2]

In its effects, this culture of “being true to oneself” (the “culture of authenticity,” as Taylor describes it) feeds into what Taylor calls a “liberalism of neutrality,” or a liberalism that is “neutral on questions of what constitutes the good life.”[3] In other words, moral questions about the ultimate good and bad, or right and wrong, are off-limits for public debate, because they have a subjective value to be found in the experience of the individual. 

Taylor’s insights may help inform discussions about how Muslims absorb (or uncritically endorse) liberal positions, like the individualism of “self-expression,” especially when it comes to hijab and Islamic belief in practice. Many American Muslim women today, for example, express their religious identities through “liberal individualism,” especially when defending their choice to dress how they choose. In the name of greater inclusivity for American Muslims, however, the “culture of authenticity” also drowns out religious voices—particularly those considered “too dogmatic” in practice or belief.

One well-known example is an interview by Newsy’s Noor Tagouri in Playboy Magazine. The 2016 interview described the then-twenty-two-year-old Tagouri as a “risk-taker and rule-breaker,” and included her profile in the magazine’s “Renegades” series.  

The piece, which was titled “Media Wunderkind Noor Tagouri Makes a Forceful Case for Modesty,” presents Tagouri:

As a badass activist with a passion for demanding change and asking the right questions, accompanied by beauty-ad campaign looks, Tagouri forces us to ask ourselves why we have such a hard time wrapping our minds around a young woman who consciously covers her head and won’t take no for an answer.

Amid the resulting backlash from the Muslim community, Asma Uddin and Inas Younis penned an Op-Ed in The Washington Post, stating:

[T]he Playboy interview is a step too far. It represents Muslim women, as purportedly represented by Tagouri, not on their own terms but in Playboy’s terms—and, in the process, mocks the very ethics and morals the hijab is religiously intended to reflect. The hijab, though politicized in a variety of contexts, is at its religious core a symbol of chastity and spiritual connection to God. As one prominent Islamic scholar has explained, the hijab is “essentially a mode of living” that reflects the sanctity of privacy and private spaces. In other words, it is a repudiation of the voyeurism Playboy is fundamentally about.

In a subsequent Huffington Post Live interview, Tagouri responded to a question about whether posing for Playboy was in tension with her embrace of modesty. In her own defense, Tagouri explained that modesty goes beyond clothing and is reflected, first and foremost, in one’s character. She also shifted the conversation back to the importance of presenting her personal narrative to a wider audience, which she considered to be of predominant importance.

During a CNN interview in which a similar question was raised regarding hijab and what it embodies, Tagouri stated, “The thing with that statement is that it makes it seem like everybody’s connection to God should be the same. Everyone has their own interpretation and practice of the religion, of how they wear the hijab, of what it means to them.” Tagouri then added, “I constantly am talking about the objectification of women, combating the sexualization of women in media today, but me being absolutely myself, wearing what I want, being authentically myself, on the front lines of a publication that’s known to objectify women, that’s breaking that barrier.”

These statements from Tagouri are some of the clearest examples of the “culture of authenticity” at play. The manner in which Tagouri justified her Playboy interview, including the language she adopted, signifies a shift in hijab’s understanding and what it means to wear hijab as a Muslim woman. For many, it has been transformed from a mere symbol of modesty and spiritual devotion (as traditionally interpreted), to one of defiance, self-expression, and “individual authenticity”—very much in line with Taylor’s insights on the individualism of self-fulfillment. Tagouri, like many other American Muslim women, assumes a neutrality of sorts when it comes to the “correct” adherence to Islam and its normative prescriptions. Through this “neutrality,” it is impermissible to question, let alone challenge, the meaning and function of hijab in Islam. Such is the emerging social expression of Islamic identity in America today.[4]

Tagouri is ultimately a small part of a much broader phenomenon in the United States. Many others, including well-known Muslim personalities, have also taken to discussing hijab almost exclusively (if not entirely) in cultural language, and have justified it through the lens of “individualism.” More recently, writers at The Huffington Post launched the hashtag campaign #HijabToMe, “to show how beautifully diverse the hijab can be” and to combat Islamophobic stereotypes of Muslims. The campaign asked Muslim women to post a photo of themselves to social media and share their narratives for the world to see. One submission of a hijabi Muslim woman in soccer gear read, “#HijabToMe I support choice. I support an (un)veiled woman’s right to body autonomy. Also, men need to step back.” Another wrote, “I am posting to support @huffingtonpost’s #HijabtoMe on their great initiative to introduce diversity in hijab. Hijab to me reflects personal identity, and not where you stand in your religion…Freedom is all in the heart and mind and not in the body. We are not tied down by hijab, but by people’s conception of how a hijabi should look and act like.”

One of the more interesting entries states:

#Hijabtome is the freedom to choose my lifestyle in a world that’s constantly trying to get you to be someone else. Wearing the Hijab at the age of 8 was a choice based out of love and beauty because I wanted to emulate my single mom who struggled to raise three girls alone. I developed my American Identity before I even understood the religious obligation that came with wearing the Hijab. Hijab to me is beauty, sincerity, struggle, identity, strength, challenge, meaning, purpose, and most importantly my choice!

The vast majority of submissions in the Huffington Post article echo these themes of liberation, rebellion, personal choice, and body autonomy—themes mostly revolving around the identity of the individual. It is yet another packaging of hijab which overlooks, and in certain ways traduces, its theological substance.

More recently, Muslim Girl magazine’s founder, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, and Minnesota State Representative, Ilhan Omar, both appeared in the Maroon 5 music video “Girls Like You,” ostensibly as a way of “representing” Muslim women and giving them greater “mainstream visibility.” In response to the controversy inevitably stirred by their appearance in the music video, Al-Khatahtbeh published a response, titled “The Public Hijabi Syndrome.” In her words:

[There is an] emerging profile of a Muslim woman, usually identifiable by her hijab, in the mainstream landscape, often tokenized to represent Islam or Muslim women. Long neglected from mainstream inclusion except through largely negative portrayals, the Public Hijabi marks a new age in the role we play and level of visibility we receive in society, and it’s one that comes with newfound potential, rewards, risks and challenges.

Al-Khatahtbeh argues that one must not get caught up in what she downplays as a “temporary moment of tokenization.” She regards her appearance in the Maroon 5 video as a stepping stone or strategy toward greater access and inclusion. The “temporary tokenization” of her Muslim identity is, therefore, seemingly justifiable. But, while Al-Khatahtbeh is right to say that Muslim women face the burden of public representation as a minority group within a “pluralist,” non-Muslim majority society, the question remains as to whether short-term “strategies of inclusion,” like her’s, bear harmful long-term consequences, especially when they involve capitulation to public appearances based on the terms of the dominant liberal culture.

These attitudes raise questions about the blurred boundaries between American Muslim strategies of inclusion and the negative pressures of liberalism on Islamic belief and basic theological literacy. It is not clear to what extent we, as Muslim women, are willing to champion liberalism and employ “individualism” and “autonomy” in order to normalize our presence and align with so-called “American values.” While Muslim women are celebrating the victories of greater media visibility and representation, they have failed to reckon with this important question, and they have failed to ask themselves whose interests this liberalized conception of hijab ultimately serves.

A Better Way Forward

At the risk of reinforcing an Orientalist notion of an inherent incompatibility between Islam and liberal (i.e. “Western”) values, it is important to state that notions of individualism, autonomy, and reason are not at their core directly in contradiction with Islam. Indeed, Islam upholds its own understanding of individualism and autonomy; individuals can be both self-directing as well as part of a collective community. The tension, is therefore, not in these principles per se, but in allowing these principles to become ends in themselves, as opposed to being a means to the end of submitting to a higher authority (i.e. God) which transcends and morally directs individual desire and whim. Simply, the problem lies in constructing an understanding of hijab by appealing to liberal doctrine independently of religious edicts.

For better or worse, hijab in America was not widely accepted or represented in popular culture until it was defined exclusively in terms of the language of individual choice. The irony is that many women decided to put on hijab in defiance of hyper-commodification, but now it is being hyper-commodified. This is not to say that Muslim women should not be active in dismantling stereotypes about the hijab and Islam in general. Rather, it is a question of whether it is in the long-term interests of American Muslim women to represent themselves and the hijab through the exclusive lens of a liberalism devoid of any spiritual or theological meaning. Redefining hijab so that it is “decoupled” from its religious essence results in mere custom, elasticized for further distortion.

Endnotes

[1] Wadud, Amina. Inside The Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (London, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2006), 219

[2] Taylor, Charles. The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 1991), 32

[3] Ibid., 33

[4] Hamdah, Butheina. Liberalism and the Impact on Religious Identity: Hijab Culture in the American Muslim Context,” (Master’s thesis, University of Toledo, 2017).

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