Too often, Muslim women find ourselves left out of conversations about our own bodies and lives. Unfortunately, the latest media craze about Muslim culture is no different—as CNN, BuzzFeed, BBC, and a number of other mainstream media outlets highlight one woman’s quest to wear the hijab for Lent.
Jessey Eagan, a white Christian woman living in Peoria, Illinois, told the Christian Post that she is wearing the hijab for 40 days so that she can “love other people who are friends, strangers and enemies.” Eagan has taken to documenting her journey on #40DaysOfHijab; she has also given multiple interviews to national news sites about what she’s learned so far. Eagan’s troubling attempt to promote diversity also includes using makeup to “darken” her complexion before going “out into the community.”
This isn’t the first time, of course, that non-Muslim people have worn a hijab in an effort to build “understanding.” Every World Hijab Day, non-Muslim women throughout the world try wearing a hijab and “experience what it’s like to do so.”
To be sure, some Muslim women do appreciate these kinds of efforts, and that is important to note. World Hijab Day was itself started by a Muslim woman who wears the hijab. Others, however, have been growing weary of what they call “Hijab Tourism.” To me, these demonstrations of attempts to be an “ally” feel gimmicky. Thousands of Muslim women who live in the United States wear the hijab and face discrimination because of it—yet non-Muslim women are praised and heralded for donning it for a single day or month. This approach diminishes the experiences of Muslim women and reinforces the idea that stories from their perspective are not as valuable as stories from non-marginalized people. It strips us of autonomy while not authentically showing our nuanced and multiple truths. In turn, incorrect myths or stereotypes about Muslim people are perpetuated, because we are not given the platforms to speak up for ourselves.
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As a first-generation Muslim kid growing up in Florida, my childhood fractured on September 11, 2001. Wearing the hijab became a way for women in my community to identify each other, but it also put them at potential risk for profiling. There were a few women in my life who stopped wearing the hijab for safety reasons. This is understandable, considering the fact that visibly Muslim women are attacked at much higher rates than their male counterparts. We are also hypersexualized: I’ve personally encountered instances of “flirty racism,” where men will approach me and peers to “save us” from our religion or men.
That said, you also do not have to wear the hijab to face oppression as a Muslim in the West. Efforts like Eagan’s effectively limit the Muslim female experience to those wearing hijab, and the hijab itself to a simple piece of cloth. In reality, the hijab is a complex and multifaceted aspect of Muslim faith that has changed meaning for many Muslims over the years. It is not necessarily only a religiously rooted decision for everyone; for some young Muslims in the West, there are often sociopolitical reasons involved. Many of my peers regard it as defiance against colonialism and assimilation: It is symbolic of the fight against white supremacy as well as Anglo-Saxon, Eurocentric standards of beauty. At this point in my life, I don’t wear the hijab. If I did, however, I would wear it as emblematic of resistance against imperialism and a Western culture that is frequently prejudiced against me and my people.
In short, Muslim women have a variety of distinct, multifaceted relationships with wearing the hijab. We all deserve the opportunity to have our voices on the matter amplified. Instead, we are drowned out and overshadowed by women like Eagan and other non-Muslims, who explicitly regard us as “outsiders.” I don’t know why I should be thankful for or in awe of their appropriative actions when they can easily take off the hijab and return to their own lives and privilege. Adopting this “othered” embodiment for a day or 40 is never going to allow them, or anyone else, feel the full, violent, lifetime extent of systemic oppression.
As someone conducting a social experiment in a very singular type of Muslim embodiment, these non-Muslims may be gaining individual empathy. But they are doing so without experiencing the lasting impacts of prejudice.
Other Muslim peers of mine agree. Heather Bukhari tweeted about the subject last week, saying that it’s not non-Muslim women’s job to tell our stories. She also elaborated to me via email:
The concept that a marginalized identity can be “tried on” and “experienced for oneself” by a person (especially a person with racial privilege) demeans and displaces those people who actually inhabit marginalized bodies and identities every single day, again taking the focus off their own experiences.
Leilah Abdennabi, who tweets at @1001Leilah, agreed, saying that it’s not necessary to experience oppression firsthand to advocate against it:
If [Eagan] wanted to learn and/or understand the experiences of Muslim women, she could have simply asked. Must our experiences be validated by a white woman in order to be believable? I don’t need to sit in a wheelchair for a day to understand what it is like to be disabled. I don’t need to darken my skin to understand racism.
Such an approach isn’t just an ineffective way to truly understand prejudice; it actively diminishes Muslim women’s voices and feelings on the subject. This becomes even more egregious when the media flocks to interview non-Muslim individuals doing these “experiments,” as if Muslim women’s voices do not exist nor do they matter—emphasizing the notion that the only valuable narratives come from privileged perspectives.
Many times, allies who are performing marginalized identities in this way will say that they are doing this for the vulnerable population in question. So why not ask us directly? Why not signal-boost our voices and us? Are our embodiments and lived experiences somehow less valid than theirs?
As Abdennabi put it, “What we really should be questioning is why marginalized groups are not trusted to tell their own story? Why must it always be through [the] white lens? … Muslim women have voices; we can tell our own stories—just listen!”
Although to some the concept of “hijab for a day” (or month) seems harmless, these projects do harm by essentially supplanting actual Muslim women’s narratives in the media. Imagine the absence of these narratives as a drought; “hijab for Lent” type of actions just worsen the lack of rain by replacing it with an imitation.
We are capable of sharing our stories—and many try—but our voices are rarely valued as highly, in part because of the predominance and attention paid to others’. As a consequence, we are unable to “bust” myths and harmful stereotypes about Muslim women ourselves. The erasure places Muslim women in a space of always being “saved” or assisted with our own stories and lives. At best, societal prejudices are left up to allies to disprove in condescending, paternalistic ways. At worst, they can continue unabated, creating, and reinforcing racist behavior that puts us and our community in danger.
You don’t have to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” in order to demonstrate empathy or a commitment to justice. Instead, as Abdennabi said, listening is often the first step in doing better. Non-marginalized people who wish to work in solidarity should acknowledge the fact that their own advantages in life come at someone else’s expense, and work to highlight voices on the sidelines. Would-be allies can also reach out to their own peers about stopping bigoted behaviors, rather than forcing oppressed people to do it themselves. Lastly, they can apologize themselves when they are confronted with their own prejudices, rather than trying to make excuses or indicate their past efforts as evidence of their innocence.
Allyship is a process, in which those working in solidarity do not speak over or speak for those they wish to “help.” Rather, they make space for those at the margins and work towards creating equity. All that demonstrates far more solidarity and empathy than a single day of “oppression dress-up” ever could.