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Support or not? Australians donning the Hijab

A scarf

Given the terrible actions against innocent Muslims in our community of late, I joined a social media group of everyday Australians supporting our Muslim brothers and sisters. Through my participation in this group I became aware of the #WISH campaign, Women in Solidarity with Hijabis.

I thought this sounded like a great idea and decided to get a headband and scarf on the weekend and participate. I wasn’t limiting myself to taking a selfie and posting it, my plan was to actually wear it out and about and see what reactions I got. Maybe even wear it to work. While yes, I admit to having reservations about the burka and the niqab I am also well aware I am not a Muslim and therefore don’t feel the spiritual connection the wearers feel to those garments. I also was seeing plenty of posts from Muslim women clearly indicating they wear the various styles of covering through CHOICE, not at the direction of the men in their lives, as Westerners often assume. If I chose to wear a hijab, it would be a gesture of solidarity, not in any way trying to assume the role of a Muslim woman.

I was left with the question of would this be welcomed by the Muslim women? The group I am participating in certainly seemed to be in favour of the idea. I discovered the campaign had been initiated by Mariam Veiszadeh. Mariam is a lawyer and a Muslim who wears a hijab and I have followed her on Twitter for quite some time. Mariam is no shrinking violet – so I knew if she had initiated it, she believed in it and that was good enough for me.

Then my attention was drawn to an article by Zeynab Gamieldien criticising an article by another reporter who had written about her experience spending some time dressed in a naqib. The heading is “Non-Muslim women wearing ‘solidarity head coverings’ is not helping anyone”.

Zeynab says:

It plays into a long tradition of those in possession of this privilege speaking for those without, rather than allowing them to speak in their own voices and inhabit their own experiences. It also completely desacralises and makes a mockery of the complex and rich spiritual beliefs informing upwards of a billion people all over the world, particularly those whose spiritual compass and/or cultural context directs them towards wearing niqab.

This pricked my conscious. I thought of all the times white people seem to think it OK to speak for people rather that allow them to speak for themselves. Our own First Australians being the closest-to-home example. The fact I am an atheist also gave me cause for concern. Would this be insulting to people who clearly hold very deep beliefs that I don’t hold at all and never will? At that point I had not read the article Zeynab was concerned about. I changed my mind about wearing a hijab and decided perhaps I’d be better giving Muslim women an opportunity to speak here if they wanted to.

I had read several other articles. One about a Muslim woman in Canberra who had removed her scarf out of fear of being attacked. Another about medical students in the Hunter being verbally abused for wearing the hijab. It had seemed to me Mariam’s idea wasn’t so bad: a little solidarity might not go astray!

In the meantime, the Muslim women in the group I was participating in all seemed to support the idea of the #WISH campaign as well. So I bought my headbands and scarves. When I posted a selfie in the group it was warmly received.

I then tracked down the article “Life under the Muslim veil: Our reporter’s day shrouded and afraid on familiar streets“. The problem I have with the article is while it certainly highlighted the “racist and abusive taunts cast my way from a steady stream of Sydneysiders”, it dealt with how the author, Tanya Smart, felt in an unfamiliar style of dress and this was, to my way of thinking, irrelevant. Neither Tanya nor I are going to feel normal in a naqib, but the Muslim women who wear it do. The emphasis needed to be on the reactions to the garment, not how Tanya felt. How Tanya felt is NOT how a Muslim woman feels. Even so, I think the article raised awareness of the treatment our society is dishing out to the Muslim women choosing to wear their covering. I could see Zeynab’s concerns as well.

The debate is everywhere. Western feminists fail to see freedom in burka debate addresses how Western feminists fail to understand the Muslim woman’s perspective.

Chair of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Sydney, Sahar Amer, who last month published a book on Islamic veiling, What is Veiling?, says Western feminism has fundamentally failed to understand that women may choose to wear a niqab or burka.

“I think that there are probably some women who are forced to wear them. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture; I’m sure that that happens,” Amer says.

“There are women who are oppressed in all societies and of all backgrounds.

“But this is a first-wave feminist idea, that the more clothing you have the less you’re liberated; that if you can just wear a tank top and shorts you’re super liberated.

“There is a lack of understanding of feminism in the context of Muslim societies.”

Then Lauren Rosewarne on The Drum came into the battle with an accusation of slacktivism.

There’s a reason why involvement in social media campaigns such as #WISH are so frequently downplayed as slacktivism. Invariably they are examples of the laziest form of political… <cough>… participation imaginable. Incorporating a headscarf into our daily social media lifestyles isn’t consciousness raising; rather, it is attention seeking and it is about a privileged delusion that non-Muslims can dress-up, partake of and then somehow protest discrimination. All using the mystical power of the selfie.

By this stage I was catching up with Mariam again on Twitter and could see she was calling for support, highlighting that the campaign had done more to raise awareness about Islamophobia than anything else.

How do I feel after reading all of these articles and seeing the reactions? I’m an atheist. I don’t understand the deep commitment the Muslim women have to their naqibs, burkas, hijabs and the other variations. What I do know is I am prepared to accept they are not being forced by patriarchy to wear them (I have trouble believing anyone could force Mariam to do anything) and I believe our government should not be telling Muslim women what to wear. If Mariam and other Muslim women are happy to accept my support, I am very pleased to be able to do what little I can to raise awareness and show support.

We don’t all have the same idea of feminism, yet we need to remain inclusive to remain meaningful.

It seems the women of the Muslim community attract more negativity than the men in the current climate because the dress is so distinctive. Yes, there has been property damage, I know, but the women are easy targets for many.  Every day Australians visibly showing support, provided it is done with respect and all concerned understand the focus and the intent, is one way we can tell our government we don’t like discrimination. Which brings me to an article in The Age by Waleed Aly, Burqa ban a political excuse for persecution.

In short, they become the symbolic target for our rage; the avatar we choose to represent a generalised enemy, and the threat it poses. In this, we obey what seems a diabolically universal principle: that whatever the outrage, whatever the fear, and whatever the cause, it is women that must suffer first and most.

Yes, social media is also alive with those decrying the #WISH campaign.

This is where those of us who are both feminist and atheist struggle. I want to support the Muslim women PROVIDED I am not supporting oppression. So I will support them if they choose to wear the Islamic coverings and I will equally support them NOT to wear, should they so choose. I will not support them being forced either way, by religion, men or our government.

Richard Glover reminds us all that we need to be careful who we blame. It shouldn’t be the women.

This is the real battleground of terrorism: a million tiny interactions on the streets of our cities. Will that glance be a hostile one or a kindly one? Will the angry Facebook post be shared or criticised? Do we together push the vulnerable towards the extremists, or do we tempt them back to the middle?

And how do we collectively cope when things go wrong? Will the Muslim community, seeing a mosque daubed with graffiti, understand the crime is the act of a deranged, hate-filled minority? Will non-Muslims, aghast when a preacher refuses to criticise a terrorist, understand that he speaks for the few and not the many?

This article has been updated to include reference to the articles by Richard Glover and Waleed Aly, both of which factored into my decision making process.

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19 comments on “Support or not? Australians donning the Hijab

  1. […] asks what the Muslim Hate Social Experiement video really tells us about Australian attitudes. Robyn writes of supporting WISH while being white and atheist and the challenges that came with it. Yassmin looks at some of the many things women wearing niqabs do. If you want insight into life […]

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  2. Some interesting thoughts here Robyn. I get so frustrated at the stereotypical bullshit ignorant people pump out about Muslims and the Islamic religion. Like you I am an atheist, but I have studied both the Bible and the Koran. Both books are unfortunately twisted and used by fanatics to provide [so they believe] substance to how they want the world to operate. That is not to say that there does not exist some rather disturbing passage in both books. I wish and hope that one day we will actually learn to be respectful of each other.

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  3. ‘I do believe we need to give people time to adjust.’ I think so too!

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  4. There are 2 comments I would like to make. The first is about the article which I genuinely enjoyed. You clearly raise some of the issues I have been pondering as a non-Muslim and an atheist in relation to donning a Hijab in support of the WISH campaign. Because of this, I have not actually donned the Hijab myself. I have joined the page and I strongly support their choice to wear what they need or wish to wear without suffering harrassment or bullying. However, I have not felt comfortable to actually wear a hijab.
    One small criticism of the article is that you fall into the same trap that most of us fall into. Not every Muslim women covers her hair. Many muslim women do so for reasons of modesty and faith but not all Muslim women agree with that perspective so that is a generalisation that perhaps we shouldn’t make.
    My second comment relates to feelings about the niqab and the burqa. I think about, recognise, and respect a person’s right to wear whatever is appropriate for them and their circumstances. I am aware that my response has everything to do with me and nothing to do with the person wearing one of these garments, Yet I am uncomfortable when I meet women wearing either of these 2 garments, although I have met anyone in Australia wearing the burqa.
    While I intellectually understand why they are wearing them, my response is emotional (and sometimes even physical). I can see nothing about them. Appearance and particularly the face are very important in communication. What we see helps us to connect with a person and to make reasonable assumptions about how the person is thinking and feeling, as well as whether they are comfortable in the situation or not. When the face and the entire body is so covered as to become just a blob, we lose all of that. The feelings are somewhat less intense with the niqab. I think this is because I can see the woman’s eyes and can tell if they are smiling or otherwise. If I can see the woman’s face, feelings of discomfort do not arise.
    In addition, I do not see these articles of clothing as simply modest. I see them as either negating the person who is wearing them or hiding them. The garments remove them; they make the woman literally invisible. A woman who is wearing one of these garments seems to be saying “don’t see me” or “I will not let you know me”.
    It is interesting but not easy to try and articulate what brings the discomfort. I hope that I have explained clearly how I feel when I meet someone who is completely covered.

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    • Hi Dianne, you are right not every Muslim woman covers her hair, but this was a specific campaign to support those who do as they were becoming the victims due to their visibility.

      I tend to think many Western people have a similar reaction to that expressed by you here, to the burka and naqib. They challenge our sense of normality. Imagine, therefore, how our style of dress must challenge their sense of what is normal. I have similar reactions to you, emotionally.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective on this sensitive topic. 🙂

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  5. Recently was telling my (natural) blonde, dreadlock haired, multi-pierced hairdresser, who also happens to be Muslim, about just after September 11, 2001, when local bus drivers in my area were refusing to transport SCHOOLGIRLS wearing veils. At the time I was busy doing some “extremists don’t represent their religion” in my own faith community, and never got around to veiling up and catching a bus to give the driver an opportunity to pick on someone his own size. My idea then was basically to identify myself as a Catholic and tell them to stop acting like fuckwits, and assuming anything at all about someone in the same sort of headwear their bloody nana probably wore to church in her youth. Fast forward to yesterday and this post menopausal body simply could not stand the extra insulation of a veil at a venue filled to capacity and admitting only ticket holders. Was thrilled when I saw a hijabed young woman weaving through the crowds and wondered to myself what had motivated her to veil up that morning. This, I believe is the beauty and great triumph of #WISH. For the very first time in Australia I couldn’t assume, however benignly, much at all about a woman in a veil. Job done #WISH.

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    • Thanks Toni! I don’t think any Australian has a problem with the hijab. It is the burka and the niqab that are SO foreign to the Australian way of life that there is a problem with accepting that level of difference. Not being able to SEE a person’s face is what we struggle with.

      I wandered around my local Coles today in a hijab without incident or even any sideways glances. As I just replied to Vera, it is the attacks on the women that bother me, blaming women for something unrelated to them.

      Mind you, I am bothered by the comparison in reaction by Muslim and non-Muslim leaders alike to the UnIslamic State terrorist activity in the Middle East and the Boko Haram kidnapping of girls and murdering of so many students in northern Nigeria. Nigerian girls not as important as western journalists beheaded in the Middle East?

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      • Beg to differ Robyn. The hijab is considered the thin edge of a very scary wedge, perceived to go from scarf to Koran-free jihad without passing “Go”. I know this because these people are in my street, my shopping centre and my family. Have only seen a burka once and was spontaneously furious at the dehumanising barrier it seemed to impose. Niqab by choice is none of my business, but simply can’t imagine any healthy, active woman choosing a burka. Sincerely hope I’m wrong.
        My response to mentions of the Nigerian girls is to read over their names from a screen shot I took. Affirms the horrific reality and sends complacency packing. Mightily pissed off about people murdering people in the myriad ways documented world wide. But kids? I see red.

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      • Toni, I guess some people do see the hijab as the thin edge of the wedge, but I’ve had no personal experience of that sort of sentiment.

        I get so mad that insane people like the leader of Boko Haram manage to continue their rampage against their fellow man with no real opposition!

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      • Toni, a question. Are you able to explain for Muslim readers’ understanding why you believe you found the burka so dehumanising? I think this reaction is something those used to seeing a burka everyday don’t understand. I admit I got used to it in Qatar, strangely enough. They were everywhere. Familiarity changes one’s reaction I think.

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      • Dehumanising because I turned around in the supermarket and bumped into what I thought was a dad out shopping with his kids, only to realise there was a woman with them too. The usual awkward smiling apologies were made, and as I stepped around the trolley I found that amidst this busy, animated group was a perfectly still woman looking out from an obscuring mesh panel. I don’t know how to express this, but she didn’t seem congruous with her own children. If you compromised my own and my children’s safety by restricting my vision and physically hampering my ability to respond, I would resent it hugely. I would not in a million years prohibit the voluntary wearing of a burka, and I’m certainly not suggesting the garment is purposely dehumanising, I simply (and yes, ethnocentrically) cannot see how this treatment of the human form is of benefit to anyone.

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      • Thank you so much Toni. I hope your experience may help those Muslims who do wear the burka to understand the emotions non-Muslims may feel and then be better able to encourage dialogue.

        I was referred to this article today which you may find interesting as you will see similar feelings expressed by the author.

        http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/why-women-wear-burqa/

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      • At this time, due to recent events, Australian Muslims are being set apart from the rest of the community mostly through no fault of their own. For me the #WISH campaign is not so much about wearing this or that exotic covering to see what it looks and feels like but because these items are indicators of Muslim women; a non-muslim and even an atheist may choose to wear a hijab or other garment to flag their common humanity and to flag their being co-nationals of the same country. It’s also going out into the street without the protection afforded by being ‘Mainstream’, blue-haired and blond-eyed majority residents. And doing that to lift the spirits of our sisters and cousins.

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      • Thank you Jutta! Very well said!

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  6. As ever, Robyn, your views are intelligible and reaching the readers who perhaps have not thought so deeply about this topic. I confess, my thoughts on it have been superficial to say the least. I have no objections to how women choose to dress. I have to say that the burqa or hijab are in themselves not offensive. What is offensive are the misinformed comments from ignoramuses to those who choose to wear them and hopefully these are very much from a minority of insensitive people in our community. As a JP, I am instructed in the delicate and sensitive ways to ask a Muslim woman to identify herself. Legal situations insist on photographic proof of identification before we might confirm that the person in front of us is indeed the person they are claiming to be.
    There are several incongruities, however, that I, as a member of the public, might be concerned about. People are not allowed to enter banks wearing a helmet that covers their face. That person might be an innocent lady or man making a quick visit to the bank in their lunch hour and potentially would not be a threat, but I don’t know that as a woman behind them in the queue for the teller. Similarly, if a guy in a balaclava was in that same queue, he too would be a cause for concern. A person ( and please note I say person) who is dressed in black from head to toe with no visible features on display in such a situation causes concern – not because of the religion she follows, but because there could be a bank robber, or dare I say it, a terrorist inside that clothing. How would we know?
    I think I’m speaking for Joe Public, the ordinary man in the street who values his security at all times. I think Muslim women who choose to dress like this in our free and multi-cultural country, should also take into account that they are living in circumstances that are presumably better than where their families came from and perhaps be aware that some adjustment is preferred.
    I would never demand a “when in Rome” way of life, but I think there has to be compromise.
    Thank you for making me think more about this.
    Hope to see you in January!

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    • Hi Vera, thank you for contributing to this topic. I think sharing thoughts in this topic is challenging for many. Non-Muslims don’t want to appear as bigots and Muslims are perhaps wary of offending in an already volatile environment. Sadly, this state of affairs doesn’t help improve understanding and tolerance on either side.

      You have shared valid practical concerns. I can indeed see the possibility of Western criminals hi-jacking the burka for nefarious purposes. This would be much less likely to happen in Saudi Arabia (for example) because of the penalties the perpetrators would suffer for wearing female clothes – so things that may happen here because this is a different society do have to be considered. In many countries being non-religious is almost unheard of, whereas here it is commonplace.

      Of course, in Saudi Arabia or Qatar, no-one would be remotely nervous about a woman dressed in the full covering because in that society that style of dress is normal. We, on the other hand, are naturally nervous because we don’t understand it and it is DIFFERENT. Humans do not like difference. No-one in Qatar would worry about a person in a burka being a possible terrorist, burkas are way to common. Here they are an oddity.

      Both Muslims and non-Muslims need to be very alert to people such as Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali who I referred to on The Assimilation Question. Such people, I suggest, find it very self-serving to become a big fish in a little pond. He upset a great many of his fellow Muslims and for good reason. There have been people throughout the ages who have used religion (any and all of them) to their own benefit and given the small number of Muslims (comparatively) in this country it may perhaps be easier to have a louder voice here than in a Muslim country.

      I do believe we need to give people time to adjust. Can you imagine the psychological shock a woman clocked all her life would experience suddenly showing herself? Tanya’s experience in reverse. She hated that no-one could see her smile.

      I am not a fan in any way, shape or form of the burka or the niqab which is understandable because I am no fan of religion or of lack of equality or rights. I’m very wary of the precedent we set if we start legislating what people can wear. What is the next piece of legislation going to ban? When do we transform into a totalitarian society?

      There is no doubt an argument for the case of “live here, live like us”, but how do we define how we live? There are so many variations already.

      When I went through Doha airport there was a special immigration/customs counter for travellers dressed in a burka or niqab. Clearly it would be impractical for every bank in Australia to adopt such a counter given the low numbers, but hopefully we can as a society determine an appropriate middle ground. I didn’t wander around in Qatar in shoe-string strap dresses and perhaps Muslims should make similar adjustments if wanting to attend some buildings here. We need to remember they already make many adjustments, such as missing prayer times due to meetings at work, not having ready access to halal food at work functions, limited ablution facilities and so on.

      What worries me is again history is attacking women, blaming women, making women the focus.

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