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,