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

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 Farah Azadi




One comment on “Solidarity and ‘the veil’: Why wearing a hijab in solidarity is more complicated than you think”
  1. Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju says:

    Striking but does not recognise the scope of attention created by the professor wearing the hijab herself, thereby identifying through her own embodiment with the cause being championed, taking the cause to minefields that will inspire debate- her Christian school and her church. That says much that nothing else can, although the suggestion of enabling Muslim women’s voices is valid as a supplement to this embodied practice.


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