Written for Hijab Tales Unpinned
I’m keen to thrash out my thoughts on World Hijab Day but if I’m honest, one tweet summed it up probably better than I can:
#WorldHijabDay only serves to give people who shouldn’t have a voice on this issue a platform on which to speak over the ones who should.
— Amal M. AlHazred (@AmalAlHazred) January 31, 2015
The day itself, conceived by New York Bengali Nazma Khan, invites women who don’t wear hijab to try it for a day. The intentions behind it are well-meaning. The day aims to break down stereotypes, bridge gaps and encourage empathy with the hope of eroding abuse and prejudice. But it is so mind-numbingly naïve in its conception, development and execution that it does almost the exact opposite.
Written into World Hijab Day are narratives of moral superiority, binary ideas on modesty and spirituality and worse, a globalised approach which eclipses the local and personal details that are paramount in understanding hijab as an idea and a practice. Within the point put forward by Amal Al Hazred above, I can see a dozen arguments that explain why World Hijab Day is such a colossally bad idea.
For starters, it promotes the idea that Muslim female experiences are in fact homogeneous, monocultural, easily wrapped up in a length of fabric and neatly exportable to satisfy the curiosity of non-Muslims. It turns hijab into more of a commodity than it already is and claims to educate people who know little about hijab. If there is education involved, World Hijab Day is a kindergarten level, finger-painting exercise for people still learning that the world and all the people in it (including themselves) are vast and almost overwhelmingly complex.
Muslim women in their various localities, with their wildly different histories, cultural heritages and levels of self-awareness cannot be summed up in a day of dress-up. Suggesting that World Hijab Day might encourage people to learn more about Islam, is to encourage people to use hijab and by extension hijab-wearing Muslim women (like myself), for their own agendas. Hijab is not a costume, it is not a mascot, it is not a sandwich board for your message. It is, as Hijab Tales discusses, spiritual, political, oppressive, liberating, confusing and clarifying all at once. It is historic and contemporary, it is organic and synthetic. It is complicated! By contrast, World Hijab Day seeks to simplify it, to “demystify” it and in doing so, it approaches hijab with a cack-handed, Orientalist mindset. It entrenches the idea that Muslim women and their identifiably “Islamic” clothing are an exotic curiosity to be explored.
In welcoming exploration, it places the discourse on hijab in the hands of those whose critiques should not hold as much weight as those who know hijab intimately. And those who do know hijab intimately, who are able to engage with its complexity and contradictions, are all too often overlooked.
Lastly, to those who might claim that World Hijab Day encourages introspection and empathy. Please understand that there are so many levels of heritage, politics, religion and spirituality simultaneously at play in the practice of wearing hijab, that to reduce it to something you can access in a day, is crude.