Solidarity and ‘the veil’: Why wearing a hijab in solidarity is more complicated than you think

by: Farah Azadi

Lately, there have been many stories of non-Muslim women deciding to wear the Muslim head scarf (or hijab) as a way of showing solidarity with Muslims, especially Muslim women, in this age of growing Islamophobia. One example is the Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, who is donning the hijab for the Christian season of Advent, explaining, ‘as part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws and at church.’

There are many other examples, from Facebook groups like Women in Solidarity with Hijabis (WISH) to #40daysofhijab and the ‘hijab selfies’ movement where women, many who self-identify as ‘committed Christians’, post a picture of themselves on social media wearing the hijab ‘out of solidarity’.

Where I think it is important to acknowledge the very genuine motivations behind these acts of ’embodied solidarity’ their efficacy should also be considered.

In a climate of growing Islamophobia in Europe and the U.S., and a narrowing of the political nuances around identity, power and politics, many have attempted to consider how to engage with their Muslim neighbours, colleagues, and friends. For Muslims, as for others who experience violence, hatred or oppression based on their identity(ies) it is  encouraging to see others, outside one’s own community, acknowledge and engage with this injustice. It communicates not simply compassion, but a willingness to act, to speak up, to work to change the status quo.

At the same time, it is good to realise that solidarity, as opposed to charity, works to build relationships of mutual aid. In this way, one does not act simply on conscience, but interrogates why an inequitable relation exists in the first place. As Helder Camara, a Brazilian priest, once said during a period of great repression against the poor in Brazil, ‘Quando dou comida aos pobres chamam-me de santo. Quando pergunto por que eles são pobres chamam-me de comunista.’ (‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’)

After nearly two decades of working at the grassroots level, with campaigns and movements organising for global equity, it is those movements that are led by the communities most affected that sustain the most meaningful change. I argue the same is true in this situation, Muslims are the ones best suited to speak to and to lead discussions about combating Islamophobia.

Of course in the case of the hijab, it is important to realise that there are almost as many opinions as there are Muslim women. Where some Muslim women wear hijab to symbolise their piety, freedom of expression and feminism; others see the hijab as a symbol of women’s subordination. Similarly, as Muslims make up nearly 22 percent of the world’s population and come from nearly every country of the world, there are a myriad of ethnic and/or national cultural traditions that come through dress, including ‘hijab style’. For instance, the burqa, a traditional hijab style from Afghanistan looks very different from styles worn in Malaysia, Lebanon or the Gulf States.

It is also important to realise that within this diversity, are contrasting attitudes towards the hijab at the state level. In Iran, for instance, following the 1979 ‘Islamic Revolution’ the hijab became mandatory for all women (or people presenting as women). Whereas, in states such as Egypt, Albania, Indonesia or Guinea, all Muslim majority states, there is no legislation regarding hijab.

This is why attitudes and experiences of hijab differ greatly within the Muslim community, and why it is important for non-Muslims to think through how their acts of solidarity have an effect on the community they are standing with. For instance, what does wearing the hijab for reasons of solidarity communicate to women whose experience with mandatory hijab is painful or humiliating? What does it communicate to Muslim women who for political, religious or feminist reasons choose not to wear hijab?

It is also important to remember that where wearing hijab might appear to be ‘adventurous’, many women’s choice to wear it is endemic to who they are and what they most fervently believe. In this way it isn’t easily abandoned, even where women may be targeted, abused or suffer violence because of it. For example, post 9/11, Islamophobia spiked and instances of racial violence against women wearing hijab made up the most significant portion of those targeted. Where some woman chose to stop wearing hijab for this reason, the majority of others continued wearing the hijab despite this violence. In fact, often when violence in the name of Islam is perpetuated (largely by men), it is Muslim women who must endure the backlash.

These are the very real, embodied experiences (alongside many very positive ones), that comprise the depth and breadth of experiences of wearing the headscarf—and they hardly scratch the surface of what it means to be a ‘Muslim woman’. For me, these examples provide insight into the complexity of this issue, and why donning the headscarf, even out of solidarity, needs to be more considered.

Further, I think that we can choose paths of solidarity without having to appropriate or become the people or things we are in solidarity with. (An important point made during the Rachel Dolezal controversy). Instead, making and/or giving space to marginalised communities to speak for themselves is often the best way to ally.

In the case of the Wheaton College professor, I wonder if instead of wearing the headscarf, which will inevitably provoke conversations about Islam and gender, what if she made space in her classes to have Muslim women (hijab wearing or not) to speak about their personal experiences? Or making the commitment to developing a course on gender and Muslim-Christian dialogue? Or even finding her local Muslim community or Muslim women’s group and inquiring with them ways they feel Islamophobia could best be addressed on campus?

Instead, I fear her action will place her in the position of speaking to the experience of being a Muslim woman or about gender in Islam even where she is clearly misplaced to do so. In this way she has robbed a Muslim woman from speaking for herself, and that isn’t solidarity – it is, in actuality, colonialism.

Muslim women, religious or not (hijab wearing or not!) need allies to organise alongside them–to make more room for their voices, not rob them of opportunities, or speak -for- them. Though it may take extra effort and more time, and though some might have to risk starting some uncomfortable conversations, it is more likely to lead towards a fuller and ultimately more meaningful understanding of what it means to be a Muslim woman. Those acts may not make headlines, or twitter tags, but they are the necessary ingredients of moving from charity to solidarity.




by: Gayatari Spivak

Collective hatred comes from narratives of cultural memory.

In 1916, anticipating victory, France, Russia, and Britain created the “Middle East” out of the remains of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire. Lebanon and Iraq were directly controlled, others kept in spheres of influence. Haifa, Gaza, and Jerusalem were an Allied “condominium.” Arms control was strictly European. The Arab powers learned of this at war’s end (1917). Agreements assuring Arab independence had disappeared.

Such are the ingredients for a future cultural memory.

The Ottoman Empire was corrupt but, except for focused examples such as the Armenian genocide, generally carried an attitude of conflictual co-existence toward religious difference. Now arrived a master race that thought itself justified in controlling and systematizing the locals, without any social contract, often by remote control. An inchoate resentment stirred in people at ground level who could not combat this transformation. Women felt it strongly, thinking of men as holding their dignity. The skeleton of a cultural memory in the making now fleshes out.

With the Balfour Declaration (1917), approved by the League of Nations (1922), Britain is charged to administer parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire, “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

Nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, the declarations say. Now the sense of a religious as well as civil right is ready to form without internal institutional intellectual support, and the narrative of “cultural memory” thickens further. The outrage is strongest in those–less privileged, landlocked–who are made to feel that they do not deserve to live on their land.

After 1948, the power that had passed from Ottoman to Europe, passes to United States and Israel. Israel begins to justify itself by cultural memory: biblical narrative. The question of the right to religion solidifies, transformed into the new abstract idiom of the state. For Israel this is sharpened by past European oppression and denial of Europeanness. In Palestine, however, the right to land as sacred space cannot invoke that pre-history as justification for the displacement of original inhabitants, who also now begin to inhabit religious rights discourse.

Islam is international. The discourse of religion permitted connections: with the CIA-backed Taliban in Afghanistan, the post-independence recoding of Hindu-Muslim conflictual coexistence upon the Indian subcontinent, the emergence of the Wahhabis, consequences of the Shah’s deposition in Iran, and, after 1989, the “Islamic” post-Soviet bloc. Cultural memory as “religion” can now create an ideology of just war through early childhood education of the deprived.

After World War II, the United States picked up Europe’s burden. And “America” seemed to get away with everything–remaining the repository of Enlightenment virtues, the shining land where immigrants flock. Yet, looking at Haiti, the Congo, or Chile–Aristide, Lumumba, Allende, the list goes on–it seems absurd to say that America stands for justice and right. And Israel is regularly described as the only democracy in the region.

That’s why “they” want to harm “us”–because, for a long time, “we” seem to have wanted to harm “them,” and own “them,” for no reason at all: imperial foreign policy, narrativized into cultural memory. Yet “we” are the angels. As a literary critic/activist/educator, I think to find such causes–though I applaud Helen Thomas’s tenacity–is as counterproductive as avoiding the question. For the point is to dislodge the polarization, unmake narrative, undo memory. Impossible tasks.


Amnesty International: Human Rights are meaningless without human solidarity.

In a speech for Amnesty International’s  International Council meeting in Dublin yesterday Michael D. Higgins called the EU response to the migrant crisis ‘shameful’:

We must acknowledge that the European response as a whole has been grossly inadequate….This failure can only be described as shameful and undermines both the ideal of the European Union and any prospect of that Union being an exemplar for international law and its instruments.

On his twitter account today Colm O’Gorman the Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland quoted this line from Higgins’ speech in an apparent affirmation with the Presidents’ sentiments. Where there is clearly nothing to fault about such sentiments, their expression by these two well-known political figures should be fortified by an equal measure of action, and particularly moral leadership when it comes to a crisis that so visibly challenges the universality of the concept of human rights.  However, the words of Higgins and their echo by O’Gorman are nothing more than pretence when not forged within meaningful commitments to action or to support individuals whose lives are gripped by such pernicious failures.

Amnesty International began in 1961 after an article about two Portuguese students imprisoned for holding a ‘toast to freedom’ sparked a British journalist to author a piece which inspired the ‘Appeal for Amnesty 1961,’ launching an international movement highlighting the plight of prisoners of conscience. That movement today is Amnesty International (AI), one of the most well-known human rights organisations in the world.

Since its founding AI’s work has evolved in many directions, yet there has always been a consistent core focus on incarceration especially for those imprisoned ‘in defence of freedom of opinion and religion.’ The focus of AI on prisoners of conscience has raised awareness worldwide about the right to freedom of speech, and more generally over the importance of narrative in the shaping of political events and consciousness.

This is precisely the reason that Higgins’ speech is in some ways exceptionally critical at this juncture, where there is a pressing and crucial need to challenge the rhetoric of European leaders who would use the migrant crisis to further deflect from the growing indignities resulting from austerity and its grounding in neoliberal capitalism.

In contrast to the racist conclusions that groups such as Identity Ireland peddle in their misguided attempt at political populism, an appeal to ‘human rights’ and commitment to ‘anti-racism’ cannot be faulted—everyone from Fine Gael to the Socialist Party can agree that racism is ‘wrong’ and that human rights are ‘good’. Yet it is precisely what those values mean in practice that produces their most consequential significance as concepts we have come to see as so fundamental to our world-view/s, and thus so important to examine.

Which is why I feel it is critical to challenge both President Higgins and AI – Ireland in drawing the perceptible lines of connection between a commitment to human rights in word and its exercise in deed. To me this means where Michael D. Higgins calls the ‘migrant crisis’ shameful I do wonder why there is a studied silence as to how those migrants are treated after they have been ‘rescued’? Does their being locked away in detention centres or concentrated into camps such as those in Calais or across Greece or Italy with no recourse to social protections not also shame us?

A few weeks ago a letter went out to the Department of Justice calling for the immediate release of an Afghan refugee found in Naas. Many will know what subsequently happened to him being imprisoned on the criminal charge of not having documents, and then subsequently brought three times before the court on the same charge only for the reason that the person responsible for his welfare was incompetent and refused to file the paperwork that would see his immediate release.

The letter warned against the dangerous precedent of further criminalising migration and compounding trauma through treating refugees in this manner, and while multiple NGOs who advocate for migrants, refugees and human rights signed, AI – Ireland remained silent.

This failure provokes questions over how an organisation so dedicated to the issues of imprisonment, protection and human rights can so thoroughly fail at connecting those values on which they claim their organisation’s founding principles and ongoing legitimacy. As Angela Davis has said, ‘prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear people,’ and claiming the prison system is an adequate place to address the myriad of issues presented by an undocumented, traumatised and extremely vulnerable Afghan refugee not only shows a lack of understanding of contemporary migration, it reveals a poverty of compassion.

Amnesty claims that its work today has grown

from seeking the release of political prisoners to upholding the whole spectrum of human rights. Our work protects and empowers people…from combatting discrimination to defending refugees and migrants’ rights. We speak out for anyone and everyone whose freedom and dignity are under threat.

I hope that AI – Ireland takes the opportunity afforded by the attention shone on its work through Higgins’ remarkable speech to nuance its understanding of contemporary migration and to speak out against the many forms of imprisonment, from direct provision to the criminalisation of the undocumented, that present contemporary examples of ‘prisoners of conscience’ upon which their movement moves.



by: Farah Mokhtareizadeh

Walli Ullah Safi, 21 years of age, has been in Cloverhill prison for more than two weeks.

In very different circumstances, I was in prison at the same age for two weeks after protesting the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was one of hundreds of demonstrations I had been on after returning to the United States from Iraq. I had first travelled to Iraq, just barely 18 years of age, with a campaigning group who had highlighted the humanitarian crisis Iraqis faced under the sanctions. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the group had rallied in opposition to the Iraq war, mobilising thousands onto the streets.

Those years protesting the Iraq war were the most formative political experiences of my life, but being in prison had a haunting, and honestly chilling effect on my activism. I became all too aware of the complex matrix of issues that resulted in people engaging in ‘illegal’ action, and soon felt rather ashamed at the fact that I had consciously made the decision to go to prison when so many of the women who shared my experience were largely forced into the prison system due to their lack of privilege, knowledge of their rights or simply the absence of a way to make those rights actionable.

Walli Ullah Safi is a young man from Afghanistan and that is as much as I can confirm that I know about him. However, unlike those given the responsibility over his care, I do know more generally about the context and circumstances that may have affected his decision to leave Afghanistan. Though I have never travelled to the south of Afghanistan where the war between the international forces, including Ireland, and those of the opposition has never really ended, I have met many people who had to flee the south due to drone bombings, night raids, paramilitary incursions against ‘occupation friendly’ villages, military incarcerations, torture, rape—including that of children, and any myriad of brutalities that have resulted directly from decades upon decades of serial war. Walli, based on his language being Pashto, is very likely native to the south of Afghanistan where war has characterised most of his life—a prison of another form.

But war isn’t inherent to Afghan society, despite what the ‘graveyard of empires’ narrative would suggest. Rather, war has been visited upon Afghanistan time and again by the remorseless calculations of empire, beginning with the British occupations in the 1840s. At the start of the potato famine and mass emigration in Ireland, where the British deprived its starving colonial subjects the most basic necessities of human substance, they spent their fortune spilling the blood of Afghans in an attempt to constrain the growing dominance of another imperial state—Russia. Since that time, Afghanistan has been used by different colonial powers (the British, the Soviets, the Saudis and the Americans) to service ambitions I can only describe as frivolities.

The common experiences of colonial occupation and oppression should, for anyone with a sense of history, present a tangible and direct connection to the Afghans despite the myriad of differences of culture, language, religious background and colour between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This perceptible link should be the context in which those so-called representatives of the Irish people lead this island in moral and political courage, fortified by the sagacity, savage as it is, of our own past and renewed by the remarkable commitment to equality demonstrated earlier this year.

Walli Ullah Safi, if like the other young people I met across Afghanistan, has experienced more violence than most could imagine in a lifetime. In contrast with the chauvinistic rhetoric of the American government, the ongoing violence that condemns Afghans largely to a lottery of poverty or death will inevitably lead the determined to resist or to migrate. That migration is about survival, a defiance of the American attempt to ‘carve 9/11 into the history of loss in other places.’

In many ways, Walli Ullah Safi’s experiences acts as a mirror, the looking glass through which we can regain our sense of history. These bare facts and what can be extrapolated from them about Walli Ullah Safi and the circumstances of his life echo the conditions that circumscribe the lives of millions of people worldwide. In this, Walli Ullah Safi is representative of the punitive existence that faces those imprisoned in a myriad of realities in which their agency is deprived of its actionability.

His plight is also a reflection of the callousness of the Irish state and the European Union whose stance concerning the misery of the Greeks is incomparable in many ways to those whose hue, religious proclivities and circumstance render them as less than human ‘cockroaches’, a ‘swarm’ in Mr Cameron’s estimation, whose occupying troops only left Afghanistan this week after 14 years.

What troubles me most, however, is that Walli Ullah Safi is also an augur. His story typifies what the future will hold for these ‘undesirables’ we label ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘refugee’, ‘illegal’…but no amount of legal terminology can cloak the flesh and blood young person suffering needlessly in Cloverhill prison.

He doesn’t need to be there, the law ironically is on his side—the section that holds him does not apply to refugees or to people who have made an application for asylum, as we are told Walli Ullah Safi has done. If Walli’s best interest were foremost, the demand for an immediate application for habeas corpus under article 40.4.2 of the Irish constitution would be called for by every migrant rights organisation following this case. The questions loom as to why these have not been done, and a traumatised young man seeking protection remains in a place where, after last week’s events, he is not safe.

Yet Walli Ullah Safi remains in prison due to a mix of incompetence and an aversion to accountability that so characterises the many institutions of the Irish state.The intrepid prophesier himself, James Baldwin, imparted that ‘the relationship of morality and power is a very subtle one…because ultimately power without morality is no longer power.’ What is it that threatens so the imperium of the Irish state and its E.U. collaborators about cockroaches? One day, maybe soon, they may inherit the earth.

french algeria

Talk Notes: After Charlie Hebdo: complex media cultures and the limits of liberalism

Impossible Solidarities: Islam, Feminism and (fortress) Europe’s shifting frontiers

Whilst co-organising a vigil this past week commemorating those who drowned in the Mediterranean attempting to breach fortress Europe I came across a passage by the late James Baldwin that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The passage comes from an interview Baldwin did for the NY Times on the occasion of his 52nd birthday and his return to New York after more than a decade in Paris. Time constraints wont’ allow me to give you much of a background, but given the ways in which racism and the tropes it perpetuates again and again remain as prevalent today as they were in 1977 when this article was published its perhaps better you hear it as if Baldwin is speaking about Baltimore or Ferguson or even Lampadusa or Calais when he says,

there is a history w all have to contend with…For a long while, liberty was a privilege in this country–if you’re doing well, you can shout to your heart’s content, provided no one starts listening to you and your message doesn’t threaten too many people. We act as if this is a free country, until the White people tell us its not by jailing us or killing us. And a lot of us have been locked up or murdered over the centuries we’ve been here. Its a hard thing to talk about…Some people have tears in their eyes and let me know how awful they feel about the way our poor live, our blacks, or those in dozens of other countries, but people can cry much easier than they can change.

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women with stash

Talk Notes from Kieran Flynn Memorial Lecture Series on Islam in the West


The silence around feminism and religion is a profound one, and I think some of its roots lie in the narrative of secularism and its influence on feminism in both the academy and in feminist social movements. I think the silence functions to highlight a difficulty in approaching the subject of female autonomy in relation to religion, but also indicates a negativity towards religion on the part of feminist scholars –justified or not.

Although there has been a significant amount of work on religion and patriarchy (Dominance of a society by men, or the values that uphold such dominance.) as well as on agency, autonomy, and gender; there has less on the subject of women, religion and autonomy. Continue reading

(Un)making Idolatry From Mecca to Bamiyan

By: Jamal Elias

Note: A pdf of this article, inclusive of pictures and captions that we have not been able to reproduce in this format, can be found here

I ask the Afghans and the Muslims of the world: Would you rather be the smashers of idols or the sellers of idols? – Mullah Umar, supreme leader of the Taliban

It is not those who forget, but those who “remember” the past that are condemned to repeat it. -Sheldon Pollock, “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India” Continue reading



The Charlie Hebdo killers were operating under a misapprehension. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam.

The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.

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