Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa wrote a problematic op-ed in the Washington Post that suggests that allies can stand in solidarity with Muslim women by not wearing the scarf because the “only” valid struggle worth providing solidarity towards Muslim women includes Muslim women who choose to take the headscarf off in order to resist patriarchy in their specific context. The piece diminishes and minimizes the anti-Muslim violence that veiled women face. This is among one of many problematic assertions in this op-ed.
There are numerous opinions regarding the donning of the headscarf for Muslim women based on Islamic theology. The discussion on the hijab and veil isn’t new. On the contrary, there is a long history of Muslim feminists such as Fatima Mernissi who have challenged the patriarchy and violence within Muslim communities without furthering imperialistic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist agendas. Regardless of what one’s theology prescribes them to think about the headscarf, it is important to note that the struggles Muslim women experience cannot solely be defined by what they choose or do not choose to wear.
Moreover, it is a fact that the recent uptick of violence towards Muslim women is a direct result of anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred that is uniquely targeted at Muslim women who wear the headscarf. Bigots do indeed target the bodies of Muslim women, visibly identifiable because of the headscarf, in order to send a chilling message to the Muslim community that we don’t belong here as Muslims. We need look no further than the hate crime at Chapel Hill that resulted in the execution of three Muslims, which occurred because the Muslim women murdered wore a hijab. Moreover, data from the UK found that hate crimes increased by 275 percent, where the main targets were Muslim women.
Nomani and Arafa base their argument on solidarity for Muslim women around their own personal philosophies on the practice of wearing the headscarf. Their perspective is presented as universal, suggesting that they represent mainstream Muslim women as a group, as if only mainstream Muslim women experience struggles. To be clear, the arguments for and against this solidarity measure are nuanced and complex. This is because Muslim women experience multi-layered forms of violence and thus these varied experiences cannot be translated into a single measure of solidarity. Thus, it is up to Muslim women who are resisting and organizing against the systemic forms of violence within their respective contexts to determine how others can show solidarity with them.
While acts of violence towards Muslim women are primarily thought to occur against those wearing a headscarf, Muslim women who don’t wear the scarf also experience violence. Thus, excluding their experience erases them from the practice of solidarity. Standing in solidarity isn’t about pitting oppressed groups against one another.
The question of who has the power to define the Muslim woman’s struggle is also important. This cannot be brushed over and homogenized. Conflating the struggles of Muslim women globally, from Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Palestine to Europe and the United States plays into the Islamophobic arguments that reduce all Muslims to a monolithic and homogenous identity. When mainstream feminists adopt this outlook, they engage in erasure and silencing of the margins. In fact, this has been one of the staunchest critiques of the mainstream feminist movement.
Muslim women do not have a homogenous struggle and suggesting as much is emblematic of the ways that mainstream social justice movements have operated when it comes to Muslim women. This also holds true for Muslim communities where mainstream Muslim women exploit their privilege and speak on behalf of ALL Muslim women as if our oppression can be narrowed to anecdotes of one individual’s experience.
Moreover, this reductionist analysis of Muslim women’s struggles as confined to the scarf, hijab, and dupatta plays into the dehumanization of Muslim women by reducing us to pieces of clothing. Rather than focusing on the root cause of the problem with enforcing the hijab, which lies in robbing women of their agency and control over women’s bodies, Nomani and Arafa solely hold Islamists accountable, as if policing women’s bodies is a tool of repression that is mainly found in Muslim majority societies. In doing so, they play into the hands of imperialist feminism that posits that Western forms of patriarchy are more civilized and uniquely different than “third-world” patriarchy.
What Nomani and Arafa also conveniently leave out is that the same root problem of erasing Muslim women’s agency is also the driving force behind Islamophobes who terrorize, ban, and police Muslim women for wearing the hijab.
These dehumanizing binaries between “oppressed” and “empowered’ due to the scarf is felt mainly by the majority of Muslim women. Rather than competing between our various struggles and dangerously arguing that we have “one” valid struggle, the world needs to recognize that Muslim women are resisting against multiple systems of violence.
At this moment, we need renewed calls for building transnational solidarity among Muslim women and with allies, rather than engaging in oppression olympics. We need a deeper examination of the multiple forms of structural violence Muslim women experience, such as anti-Black racism, anti-Muslim violence, patriarchy, classism, ableism, gender-based violence, war, imperialism, poverty, and how these forms of state violence, alongside others, intersect. As Muslim women, we also need to build with each other and reject the ways systems of violence enlist us to commit violence against each other.
Muslim women’s liberation is intersectional. It isn’t rooted in competing between our struggles and arguing for instituting an hierarchy of oppression. We must reject the structures of violence that are responsible for reducing our struggles as Muslim women to narrow definitions of the veil and hijab. Finally, at this moment, for allies, wearing the hijab or holding signs cannot be a substitute for a deeper self-examination of the systems of power that marginalize us. Pieces of fabric aren’t keeping us from liberation, it’s dehumanizing systems.
Written by Darakshan Raja
Edited by Maha Hilal and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh