‘Women’s Running magazine features a woman wearing a hijab on its front cover,” UK’s Metro announced in September last year. “Meet the first hijab-wearing Muslim to pose for Playboy,” read a BBC headline in October. “Reporter becomes Canada’s first hijab-clad news anchor,” celebrated The Guardian in November.
Last year it seemed every month brought new headscarf tidings. Time Magazine announced that America’s first elected Muslim female legislator, Ilhan Omar, “proudly wears the hijab.” When millions of women turned out to protest against US President Donald Trump over the weekend, People Magazine told us that “actress Kathy Najimy wants people to wear headscarves on inauguration day in support of religious freedom.” The article showed an iconic meme that has been floating around, of a woman in a US flag-themed headscarf.
“The Sisterhood of the Travelling Scarves – with the support of the Muslim Women’s PA C – is putting out a nationwide call to don headscarves in the style of a hijab.”
In Australia the hijab-obsessed public created a controversy over an Australia Day billboard which featured two Muslim women in hijab in Melbourne. According to an article the billboard was taken down after threats to the advertising company and then $125,000 was raised in an anti-racism campaign to put the sign back up.
In the West we live in a hijab-obsessed society. Seventeen years ago, before 9/11, most Western countries didn’t care about headscarves. This isn’t surprising considering the fact that only a few generations ago many women in the West covered their hair. Google “Ellis island women images” and you’ll be struck by the fact that around 90% of women in the first pages of images are wearing hijabs.
Well, not hijabs – they aren’t Muslims, they are mostly Christian and Jewish women who covered their hair.
Some Dutch women even wore the most unusual large white frocks. That was 1910. Fast-forward 100 years and for some reason our media has decided headscarves are the most exotic thing under the sun. Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair? Boring. Nuns cover their hair? Boring. Muslim women cover their hair? Feature story, front page news.
The fetishization of the hijab began after 9/11. It began, and continues, with stories about Muslim women being harassed for their choice of head covering. Women say they were harassed, subjected to verbal abuse and attacked over their outfits. To counteract the racism some reporters wore headscarves to see what it was like. Some even went further and wore the face-covering niqab. Journalist “Zaiba Malik wears a niqab for a day and is shocked by the reaction,” The Guardian noted in 2006. In 2010 Chamselassil Ayari, a reporter for Deutsche Welle, wore a niqab for a day “in a major German city.” The Daily Telegraph’s Australian edition followed up in 2014 with the titillating headline “Life under the veil: Our reporter’s day shrouded and afraid on familiar streets.” The reporter claimed she had never known what it was like “not being able to smile.” “Much worse than the racist and abusive taunts cast my way from a steady stream of Sydneysiders was the inability to show them how I felt.”
Don’t worry, America got in on the action, too. A Daily Beast writer played dress-up for “World Hijab Day” in 2015 and “took the streets to film the reactions of friends, family and strangers.” Huffington Post also sent four staffers around in hijabs in 2015 “to see what life is like for some Muslim women.” In order to conform to the most Orthodox view they “spoke with Edina Lekovic, the director of policy and programming of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, to learn what the hijab stands for and how to put it on correctly.”
The policing of women’s bodies by the media and inquisitive public goes beyond the fetish of “24 hours under the veil” and attempts to highlight discrimination.
There is a public war being fought over these head coverings.
In France the attempt to ban the “burkini” led to a backlash. Throughout Europe there have been attempts to ban burkas, niqabs and, in France, to remove veils from women in classrooms. At the same time women have won the right to wear the hijab as part of uniforms in various places, including Scotland and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In Egypt air stewardesses won the right to cover their hair in 2012 for the first time since EgyptAir was founded in 1932. Muslim women have won the right to compete in international sports dressed as they choose.
In contrast in Malaysia an airline company began requiring women to cover up in 2015. Women have also sued for the right to cover their entire face in driver’s license photos and complained of being fired for their headscarf choices. While one society celebrates the first hijab-clad reporter, another part of society bashed Fatima Manji, a journalist, for covering her hair during a report on Channel 4 after the Nice attack in 2016.
There are three things going on in the debate. First of all there is a Western obsession with it. It’s strange considering scarves have been a part of Western fashion for a hundred years. Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe wore “hijab for a day.” The same media that doesn’t find that particularly exotic and yawns at Jewish headscarves and nun’s habits finds the exact same outfit interesting so long as a “Muslim” woman is wearing it.
After the fetish comes the soft-sell propaganda of religious coercion. When media or advertisers want to depict Muslim women they are increasingly encouraged by well-meaning policy-makers and Orthodox Islamic consultants to use only images of religious Muslim women.
Tansu Ciller, the Muslim president of Turkey in the 1990s, and Atifete Jahjaga, the president of Kosovo, or Ameenah Gurib of Mauritius, don’t wear headscarves but are just as Muslim as women who do. But when media, advertisers or politicians want to make a splash with a symbol of “Islam,” they use a woman in a headscarf. It’s like using a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish man every time you want a token image of a “Jewish person” on stage. That’s a betrayal of the diversity of Muslim women. It’s also frequently a betrayal of the diversity of headscarves. Why, for instance, when women don hijab “for a day,” don’t they try the ones that tie behind the neck, rather than the more orthodox style? The reason we get a more orthodox “headscarf is Islam” presentation in the West is because many Muslim human and civil rights organizations are dominated by religious conservatives. They purposely attempt to insert hijab-wearing women into protests and marches to create intersectionality with other human rights and liberal agendas, so that the hijab becomes a symbol of liberalism and diversity, and so that the only Muslims that are invited to be represented are those wearing “modest” attire as symbols of “Islam.” From their perspective having a Muslim woman on stage dressed identically to her non-Muslim counterparts won’t help the image of “Islam,” because no one looking at the woman will see a “Muslim.”
Ironically this serves the purpose of “othering” Muslim women and forcing Westerners to relate to Muslim women only through the prism of religion. It’s like saying the only Christians you can include in a panel are nuns and priests – those dressed as Christians. But of course we know Christians and Jews, or Hindus or Buddhists, come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Only with Islam are we presented with a conformist dogma.
The conformist religious dogma that presents the hijab as the only way for Muslim women to appear is reinforced with programs in schools and other places that encourage “hijab day” as a day to present Islam.
That’s like getting all the kids together to put yarmulkes on them when discussing Jews, or having all the kids wear crosses when discussing Christians. No school would of course do that; only with Islam is the policing of women’s hair considered a normal way to present the entire religion.
The purpose of that is to normalize the hijab, rather than normalize Islam. It even becomes an advertisement for the faith.
“Kind of like walking around with a billboard saying ‘I’m Muslim,” one woman told USA Today. The student, who just started wearing a hijab, said that now she approaches people and asks them if they have questions about Islam and then lectures them about how jihad “means striving.”
The hijab becomes a quiet conversion course.
“By covering up too much Western women betray their Muslim-world sisters,” wrote Phyllis Chesler in 2016 in The New York Post. This raises a third issue about the hijab, which is that while the West fetishizes and presents headscarves as the only choice for Muslim women, in Muslim societies the same women are sometimes fighting a war against a society that aggressively demands modesty.
Last year a female chess player sought to boycott a tournament in Iran over the forced covering of women’s hair. In most Islamic countries an increasing religiosity has forced women to cover up. Quiet and pervasive sexual harassment and intimidation are used to first get them to cover their shoulders and then their hair. In many countries young girls in segregated classrooms are increasingly encouraged or forced to cover up. This orthodoxy is then exported in education throughout the world by a welloiled financial machine run by the most conservative countries and groups that target young women to police their bodies. Young men of course keep wearing shorts, while their sisters are asked to don more and more layers of clothing.
The only way to relate to this hijab-centric mass culture is to both normalize it, such that headscarves are no more interesting than when Jackie Kennedy wore them, and demand that images of Muslim women not only include orthodox Muslim women. Don’t allow the religion prism to be the only way to include Muslim women, or allow the most conservative voices to always dictate the rules for women and decide how they should appear.Follow the author @Sfrantzman.