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Though it shouldn’t have to be said, I will say it anyway: In no way is this commentary meant to be construed as anything but what it is: An observation of the post-Christchurch reaction by non-Muslims. Those who died at the Al-Noor mosque are victims of a horrific crime, amplified in its tragedy by the fact it was committed in a place of worship.
While New Zealand, a very small country this will no doubt have a lasting impact on, has been coping with the aftermath, a debate has arisen over the hordes of sympathetic non-Muslim women taking up hijab in an attempt to show “solidarity” with the Muslim community. The trend started with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and was eventually replicated by several female newscasters and policewomen while spreading in the general community as a movement under the name “headscarf for harmony.” Even female-bodied mannequins were given hijabs.
The post-Christchurch mourning wasn’t the first time western women wrapped their heads up and called it righteous solidarity, of course. World Hijab Day has been observed since 2013, and non-Muslim women are invited to wear hijabs in support of the Muslim community. Booths are even set up on college campuses and in communities where Muslim women will offer wrap the heads of non-Muslims in the name of “interfaith solidarity.” And who doesn’t want to show interfaith solidarity, right? You’re not a bigot, are you?
It does not have to be said that you don’t see Muslim women removing their hijabs to stand in “interfaith solidarity” with any other community, because that would be absurd. Of course they don’t, nor should they. Solidarity isn’t supposed to have a dress code. But when I expressed my awkward concern over the adoption of the hijab as some sort of grand symbol for peace and harmony, I wasn’t surprised to have immediately been met with an onslaught of resistance and, of course, accusations of racism and Trump-ism. When I noted that people were not so quick to adorn a crucifix or any other religious symbol in a show of “interfaith solidarity,” I was met with silence.
The weirdest reading of the situation, as far as I am concerned, came from a Muslim women’s blogspace Amaliah, which patently refused to say the word “woman” when referencing who was adorning the hijabs in the name of “solidarity.” Their short post chronically utilized the terms “people” and “New Zealanders”—“Headscarf for Harmony launched an initiative calling people to wear hijabs to show solidarity with the Muslim community”—as though the hijab was a universal, non-gendered garment. Meanwhile, all of the photo-tweets they provided in their post were of women, not men, wearing hijabs. Duck-faced white women posing for selfies in their bathrooms and cars, as though they’d just picked up the hottest new accessory.
Amaliah’s post inadvertently drew attention to the biggest issue surrounding these hijab-based campaigns for “solidarity” or whatever nonsensical hashtag buzzword, and that is the gendered nature of the hijab. No men in New Zealand were walking around in hijab. They were allowed to grieve and show support in the normal way anyone would grieve and show support after a tragedy… there was no dress code. Just in that fact alone, that there were two radically different options for “showing support” depending on gender, demonstrates the extremely problematic nature of the “headscarf for harmony” movement.
But this is just one way in which it is a concern. Many ex- or reform-Muslim women, including Rita Panahi, Yasmin Mohammed, and Masih Alinejad have also spoken out against adorning the hijab as a symbol of harmony, love and solidarity. They rightfully note that it is a compulsory, sexist garment in the vast majority of the Muslim world, directly intended to suppress women’s sexual expression and bodily autonomy.
Movements like World Hijab Day have absolutely no statement on compulsory hijab and celebrate the concept of “modesty” as though it’s not one western women have been fighting against for generations. This speaks to the wider issue of de-liberalization when faced with creeping Islamism, westerners readily and happily throwing out long-held concepts in favor of acquiescing to the Muslim community. Recall the Birmingham school which literally cancelled its LGBT sex education lessons after 400 Muslim families withdrew their 600 children from the school in protest. “Modesty,” of course, will always go back to a question of why, for whom, and what is the implication of non-modesty?
In Muslim nations, of course, the connotations of being an “immodest” woman are very dire—“immodest” women are shameful, provocative, and undeserving of respect or safety. In Iran, where women have been staging anti-hijab protests to the deafening silence of the same western women who will adorn the hijab in ‘solidarity,’ Islamic police known as Modesty Guards will frequently confront and even attack the women for removing their hijab. In other words, like the hijab, the concept of modesty (especially within an Islamic context) is yet another regulation on female sexual expression and bodily autonomy.
During my Twitter-mobbing on this issue, I was confronted by someone whose logic effectively amounted to “well they’re not compulsory in New Zealand!” As though suddenly all of the hijab’s problematic connotations disappeared the moment they crossed the border into a more liberalized society. As if the ideology behind it melted away, and the influence of its place of origin did not follow it. Nothing could be more ignorantly stated. As the Birmingham example reveals, ideas follow people.
Hijabs are not simply pieces of cloth. They are symbols with origins and ideas attached to them, none of which simply vanish based on location. But that symbolism is legitimized every time a western woman throws on a hijab as though it is a singularly positive gesture while either naively or purposefully ignoring the plight of women who do not have a choice, often at the behest of hijabis who would rather pretend like those women don’t exist at all (like Nazma Khan).
However, I am not so easily able to dismiss the plight of millions of women worldwide for whom control of their own bodies has been stolen away. Those women who disappear into the void of nothingness every time World Hijab Day rolls around, or a white woman takes a selfie in her fashionable new hijab. For those women we must remain skeptical and continue to assert the inherently sexist nature of hijab and modesty politics. Until not a single hijab is compulsory, and the ideology of religious sex policing has been scrubbed into the fringes of recognized patriarchal bullshit, not a single one can be legitimized as an honest-to-goodness choice.