“Four Women Wearing Hijab” Can’t Understand My Experience

A recent Buzzfeed video captured four brave and unstoppable non-Muslim women who went out in the world to do the unthinkable. Their task: to change the world’s perception of Muslim women by loosely wrapping a scarf around their heads and necks.

Because rather than asking actual headscarf-wearing Muslim women about their experiences, we need non-Muslim women to speak for us and legitimize our own adversity.

As portrayed in the video, the idea of a Muslim woman instructing and encouraging unveiled women to experiment with a headscarf is not a new concept. Muslim Student Associations are notorious for holding these types of events and naming them something banal like “Hijab-a-thon,” “World Hijab Day,” or “Hijabapalooza.” These events focus all their attention on a piece of cloth — the headscarf — rather than the spiritual connection and personal commitment to modesty that hijab is meant to symbolize. They strip away other aspects of Muslim women’s lives — including ones who choose not to wear a headscarf — and reduce them solely to an outer garment.

With no acknowledgement of how Muslim women have been affected by patriarchy and Islamophobia solely for their choice in dress — or the histories of social, cultural, and political forces behind their lived experiences — the video defines hijab as something worn to be “humble,” “intellectual,” and “equal.” The oversimplification of the hijab not only denies the violence created out of Islamophobia and patriarchy, but also glosses over preconceived notions of the hijab — like the ones in the video — that are embedded in racist stereotypes of it being something obligatory, oppressive, and patriarchal. The statements include:

“I feel like it’s an American thing if you see a woman with hijab, it’s a symbol of oppression.”

“I feel like it takes away from just you as a female, being able to express.”

“A man telling you that you have to do this and you do it.”

“I feel like in some cultures, they don’t have a choice.”

Those statements sound like they can be just as applicable to words like “fashion” and “makeup.”

However, the phenomenon of women wearing hijab might as well be called “Hijaboween” for how, in these settings, non-Muslim women don’t seem interested in wearing it with any intention of longevity or for any deep purpose other than bonuses like special attention, praise, and credibility.

In addition to reducing Muslim women’s multidimensional lives to a headscarf and ignoring how our own self-defined meanings of hijab are continuously evolving, the video does not acknowledge the increasing amounts of violence against Muslim women as a result of wearing the scarf, especially in the post-9/11 era. The video includes focuses on the women’s reflections of feeling uncomfortable from unwanted stares. One woman was patted down extra cautiously while preparing to fly to New York.

Throughout the day, within both mainstream society and inner Muslim circles, these women are celebrated and glorified for wearing hijab — something many Muslim women do every day without the option or desire to take it off the next day. This creates a narrative that homogenizes the individual choice, and sometimes lack of choice, that each Muslim woman has in what she wears. At the end of the project, the women are given platforms to speak on their experiences, share self-reflections, and discuss their journeys toward becoming more “understanding.” In this way, hijab experiments end up maintaining the very hierarchies and privilege that they intend to dismantle.

By Neda Kit