I’m writing the following while waiting for my flight, so expect typos, incoherence, etc. I’m happy to clarify things later on if necessary.
In what follows, I want to discuss some of the problems with Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa’s recent article as well as some problematic reactions and responses to it. Most basically, both Nomani/Arafa and their detractors are displaying and perpetuating a whole bunch of patriarchy in their attitudes towards Muslim women’s bodies and choices. One side says the hijab isn’t required so why wear it, being totally dismissive of the nuance in some women’s choice to wear it; another side says, “you don’t cover your head, you ‘so-called Muslim,’ and so you don’t get to have an opinion on the hijab! We wear it because this is our choice, because we want to respect our bodies, because we want to obey God’s command that we cover.” I think this response to Nomani/Arafa is deeply flawed (arrogant and patriarchal and righteous), as is this other response, coming mostly from men: “Uh… actually, the hijab is mandatory, and it is so per the consensus of the ulama for over 1400 years.” What happens here is that, while some hijabi women have told Nomani that she doesn’t get to opine on the hijab since she doesn’t cover her head herself, they totally ignore the fact that men are constantly talking about the hijab, in support of it, and those men do not wear a head-covering. Why do men get an opinion, then? (I know, I know – a lot of women have spoken critically of this, but I’m speaking of the men who have been talking about it in response to Nomani’s article and not a flinch from the hijabi women who don’t want non-hijabi women to speak.) Or is it that you can have an opinion so long as you say women are required to wear the hijab, because apparently, that’s the only legitimate face of solidarity?
So, I fully support problematizing popular claims–in general but especially when they pertain to women or have some sort of an impact on women’s lives, including the claim that the hijab is required or that its purpose is modesty and all (because early Muslim scholars’ opinions actually don’t see it this way – and remember that the hijab was not allowed to slave women while required of free women. That should make us pause for a second and wonder about modesty and piety, unless we decide that slave women don’t get to have access to the same level of piety and modesty that free women do); I also think that the claim that “we” wear the hijab to resist patriarchy, Islamophobia, capitalism, etc. is totally fair (so long as it’s not “we” but “I” or “some of us”), but then I’m tempted to ask … how do Muslim men show resistance to those same things? Note, then, the gendering of resistance. My point isn’t that resistance can look only certain ways; my point, instead, is that we need space to critique the different displays of resistance, of piety, of any and all things, really, when they carry serious implications—and one person’s telling us that “we wear the hijab to be modest” does have implications, as does the argument that “we wear the hijab to oppose imperialism.” But at the same time, I think that there’s an appropriate time and place for raising these discussions or probelmatizing popular ideas and practices.