Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reclaiming: "I've stopped being Theirs"

Some clarity about this hijabi season has found its way into my into my body, has manifest itself in truth-tears, and I think can finally be put into words.

A familiar response that I have received from both men and women when explaining the hijab, especially from those who know me well, has been something in the key of, "But aren't you a feminist? How can you wear something that symbolizes patriarchy and the oppression of women?" And part of me understands where this comment is coming from, but most of me wants to nuance what the hijab symbolizes and for whom, as well as what the 21st Century American context is for all humans, including feminists.

The argument goes that Islam is an historically patriarchal religion/culture that tells women that they must cover themselves, which strips women of their agency and their own freedom of their bodies. This covering is imposed by men, who do not cover themselves, and thus, the hijab is a representation of the oppressive, possessive control that Muslim men have over their women. I understand the argument, and why it is a charged subject for many, especially self-proclaimed feminists. How quickly, though, the other side of the story is forgotten--that is, our own story.

Our own American culture implicitly, subtly, and many times poisonously tells us who we are supposed to be. Women are constantly bombarded with messages from the social sphere (internet, television, movies, advertisements, men, and other women) about what beauty is and should be. It is a narrow, unattainable, oppressive ideal. Women from the time they are young girls are told how to value, dress, and think about their bodies. They are sent the message to undress their commoditized bodies and to meet aesthetic expectations or else be less human. Many are silently told that their bodies are only for sex and/or reproduction. Many are told that they are only their bodies and nothing more.

Men also are told who they are supposed to be. They are not free to express a full range of emotions, but are rather limited to anger, numbness. Young boys are sent messages that they should not cry, play with dolls, or be afraid. Certainly, it seems, men and women in our American culture are oppressed by social structures rooted in gender norms, sexism, and a limited acceptance of what beautiful bodies and beings may and may not do and be.

When I hold these two social realms up next to each other, I don't compare and contrast Islamic cultural expectations to mainstream American cultural expectations. The aim of the game is not to figure out who is worse off or who creates more oppression and suffering. Instead, the goal is to grapple with both, to understand that oppression is polymorphic.

We can unmask and address injustice in the world, violence, hatred, sexism, racism, heterosexism, agism, and on and on. We can see how patriarchy has historically played a role in the shaping of religious traditions (including Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and societies. We can also see the humanity in these spheres and the reform that is arising from within these traditions and cultures that point toward a more just future for all humans. And in the end, isn't that really what feminists want--the flourishing of all?

Within a mainstream American social context, the hijab itself has the potential to become (and is, for me and for others including Muslims and non-Muslims, hijabis and non-hijabis) a powerful symbol of counter-cultural rebellion and liberation. It proclaims, "I will not let the surrounding oppressive culture claim my body." And, in my case I add to the end of that statement, "any longer." As I reclaim my own body, which has been in the possession of American social expectations for the past 25 years, I find myself in a liminal space. After this hijabi season has past, can I possibly go back to the life I knew and lived before? I think not. I have been changed in my bones. I have tasted the sweetness of liberation, made possible through felt and lived and embodied experience. As Emily Dickinson wrote, "I'm ceded--I've stopped being Theirs--"

One breath at a time,



  1. We're in Kentucky this weekend for the confirmation of my husband's cousin's daughter- an absolutely beautiful, delightful, talented, and compassionate young woman- who doesn't know, in her bones, any of these things. She asked her mother last week if she was ugly- partially because her first boyfriend broke up with her (two days before their confirmation retreat on "purity, sex, and dating." sigh.)

    The confirmation service we sat through used exclusively male language for God- even used a male pronoun for the activity of the Holy Spirit.

    The sermon also had very troubling implications for inter-religious relations.

    May more women have transforming and liberating experiences such as the one that you are having. There are MANY ways to be a feminist.

  2. totally random ramblings- sorry.

  3. When I was in the village of At-Tuwani, in the South Hebron hills, I met a Muslim woman who talked with us about the women's co-op she had started in the town. Yet, she wore the hijab. Some of the women asked if her husband forced her to wear the covering. She responded that her husband had asked her not to wear it. He was a communist who saw everyone as equals and thought it would be best to disregard the covering. She simply replied, "But I choose as a woman to wear it. I have deep respect for my community and Allah. In this way, I am acting as a true feminist."

  4. Thanks to Sarah and Eric for your comments.

    Sarah, I think the personal example you've shared here provides a telling glimpse into the lived experiences of many young women in America. As I mentioned in my post, I am grateful for the gender inclusivity and sensitivity to sexism (and heterosexism) that have arisen in many religious contexts. I hope that through these changes and through unmasking oppression in all forms, our future daughters (and husband's cousin's daughters) can flourish.

    Eric, I appreciate the example you have given also. The context of the hijab, I am realizing, is crucial. I have come more and more to see my hijabi experience as a social/cultural intervention. For the woman in your example, it seems like she is motivated by the deep respect she has for her community, for Allah, and, I sense, for her own flourishing. The idea of choice, though, still troubles me. I'm not sure I completely buy the common argument that a woman who exercises her right/ability to choose is, necessarily, a feminist. I believe that societies shape individuals so much that what many times seems like a choice, really isn't. Women may claim to "choose" to wear makeup and not to shave their heads, or men may "choose" football over ballet, but the reality is that society plays a huge role in who we all become, and tries with all its might to dictate what should and shouldn't be acceptable options for our lives. That said, I love societies because they are made up of beautiful, diverse human beings. It's those oppressive, death-dealing structures within societies that make me squirm...Hope this wasn't too much rambling, and I certainly hope you have heard my appreciation for this woman's courage and commitment to her faith and community. Just trying to wrestle out some of those invisible factors at play in this example and elsewhere...

  5. I completely agree with your assessment. Another story involving the same woman: demolition orders were placed by the DCO (Israeli Civil Administration) on the generator that pumped electricity to the homes for two hours each night. They said if any men came out to try to stop them they would be arrested immediately. So the women of the village linked arms in the street and refused to let the bulldozers past. They didn't know what to do; so they left. They ended up winning in the Israeli courts the right to keep their electricity.

  6. Beautifully said. I'm reminded of a time I went to pray at the Muslim center for its Friday prayers. I had brought a head-covering, to be respectful, but did not know what it might impress upon me in mind/spirit/body. Earlier that week, I had attended a worship service within my own community which I experienced as antithetical to Christian faith, to everything I hold as holy. I wanted to be with a people of I went to the Mercy Center. (Title appropriate). Never before had I felt so cherished, safe, enfolded in unfamiliar but sacred-space as I did in that space/time of head-covered prayer. I learned something about head-coverings that had been inaccessible to me before. My Muslim-women friends, when I said something the next week, reached out and impulsively hugged me, they were so pleased I "got it" at some level.

    Of course,whenever gender politics fire up in my own work-place, (completely unrelated to this community), I cannot return to praying in the back of this praying people, where the women are required to be. I understand differently, appreciate more, but I also cannot erase what my body has been told for decades, how my 'system' reads social systems and the difficulties women face regularly in religious garb. It's a both/and somehow...

  7. Hi Sarah. A friend found your blog through a colleague. I am a Christian (Episcopalian) also wearing hijab for Lent and I´ve really enjoyed reading your blog. You can find mine here if you´re interested in reading it:


  8. PS: Would it be ok if I post a link to your blog on mine?

  9. Dear J -- I am looking forward to reading your blog and learning about the similarities and differences in our hijab experiences. Thank you so much for sharing! Yes, please feel free to post a link to my blog on yours. Also, you might be interested in learning more about the Lent practice that Dr. Lisa M. Hess (who commented above) is undertaking. She is exploring kosher practice:

    All the best,

  10. Sarah,

    Thank you for that link! I started to read it, and it´s great.

    I will post a link to your blog soon.