Study

DTS 403 – Final Assignment-Object Study

Prof. Ken McDonald

Spring 2012

Introduction and historical context

The hijab is a piece of clothing used to cover a woman’s head which can take various forms, shapes and sizes. Aside from those hijabs that were particularly made for the purpose of covering, many Muslim women have taken to using scarves they find in mainstream clothing stores, such as the Gap, Esprit, H&M etc. In many countries the hijab has become a fashion item, women wear designer hijabs (Dolce&Gabbana, Calvin Klein) made from expensive material with extravagant patterns and colours that closely match the rest of their attire.

Depending on times and circumstances, the hijab was considered an item for wealthy women/women of high social standing, as the case in pre-Islamic Arabia or as an item for poor, uneducated women as the case in much of the Arab world during the peak of European colonialist expansion to those areas. Different ways of wearing it could relay the social standing, the religious or political attitude of its owner.

The reasons for wearing the hijab reach from religious motives to political ones, they can be cultural, traditional or social (Read and Bartkowski, 2000: 396). The hijab is worn after long consideration and deep reflection or, in reference to Miller (2010), with complete “humility of the thing” (p.50): the wearer might have taken to it without any process of deliberation, simply because that’s what everyone does in a particular society.  From being a “humble servant” (Latour, 2007: 73) in societies in which it is neither enforced nor prohibited, it has come to develop into one of the most powerful symbols (not only) in the diaspora.

Today, in the Western world, the Muslim headscarf (hijab) is one of the most disputed objects. After an initial stage of recognition in the sense of being recognized as something foreign, something different and exotic to us, the hijab has then entered a stage of rejection. Its being out of its original context, being planted into a predominantly non-Muslim society, in which religion plays a subordinate role in daily life, has brought it out of the  shade and made it visible.

Likewise, the above mentioned European colonization of large parts of the Muslim world have turned an inherently genuine object into a diasporic one within its own territory: As French and English cultures flourished in the Indian subcontinent, North Africa and Arabia, and white men started saving brown women from brown men (Spivak, 1988:101), many native people of those societies adopted the foreign “modern” cultures and abandoned much of their traditional practices. More “advanced” regions were characterized by abandonment of the veil, in “backward regions holding on to the old order” the veil could be found mostly among poor, uneducated women (Ahmed 2011: 20). Despite a development that Leila Ahmed (2011) calls an “Islamic resurgence of the veil”, this attitude is still prevalent in much of the educated upper class in many Muslim countries.

In the West, before 9/11 hijab was mainly considered a signifier of the power relationship between Muslim men and women. It has since upgraded to be perceived as a symbol of Islam’s threatening prevalence in the West. No other object has unfolded such passionate debates and taken up such space in public discourse throughout the Western world.

Social context and literature

Non-muslim men and women have also taken to define object and owner, in their function as politicians, jurists, academics, feminists or simply as interested persons (Schwarzer, 2010; Kelek, 2012).

It has come to signify a certain notion of a culture, religion and political movement. While many Muslim women (hijabis and non-hijabis) resist the categorization and amongst themselves try to grant agency to each other, the wider societies, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have taken authority to define meanings. The context in which hijab is placed seems to make a difference: where it is a mere cultural object, an unquestioned object of tradition, a ”humble servant” (Latour 2009: 73), women appear to be the ones who have authority over the definition of meanings and the modes of use. Where it takes on the notion of a religious or political symbol, as in countries defining themselves as “Islamic” or laicist, men and/or state authorities do.

Courts, politicians, “experts” and audiences of various kinds assign and explain the meaning of hijab and subsequently make rules to regulate its use. In Germany, for example, administrative authorities such as school boards and administrative courts have defined the meaning of hijab in the context of a teacher wearing it in school (OVG Niedersachsen, 2002; BVerwG 2002). The assignment of certain qualities to the object, such as an inherent political message, it being a potential danger to students, a possible means of proselytization resulted in legal consequences. The aversion against this foreign, diasporic object was so strong that it concurrently resulted in a prohibition of local objects (such as hats or caps) that Muslim women may have chosen in order to find a compromise to cover their hair while appearing to be non-Muslim (BAG 2009).

The unacceptability of the hijab in German public space has curiously developed only when second- and third-generation Turkish youths graduated from universities and pursued careers in public service areas such as education or law. As long as their first-generation mothers worked as cleaning ladies in the same public institutions, the hijab became somewhat synonym for guest worker cleaning personnel. No one objected its presence then.

Accordingly, much has been written about the hijab in the West. In many countries, popular media makes it topic of a discussion or draws on its symbolic power in images on a daily basis. Likewise, the academia has taken to examine legal and social implications of the hijab.

In European, traditionally non-immigration countries, such as France and Germany, much of the academic literature concerning the hijab deals with legal questions (for an overview Germany see Salama, 2010; for an overview France see Delmas, 2006). These countries place great emphasis on laïcité or secularism and  are characterized by a general a-religious attitude of the general public which results in a phenomenon Alba (2006) terms “bright borders” along religious lines (p.32). The absence of multiculturalist policies and the underlying postulation of immigrants’ assimilation lead to a series of law suits by Muslims for religious accommodation reflected in the vast literature discussing the legal implications.

In the North-American, particularly in the Canadian multicultural frame of reference, where the legality of wearing hijab in different societal situations is mostly not a legally disputed issue (apart from individual American States that take the European stance on neutrality in the school environment). The literature concerning hijab is therefore much more focused on questions of identity formation (see e.g. Nagra, 2011, Moghissi, 2006), gender (Read and Bartkowski, 2000;  Mc Ginty, 2007) and race discourse (Abu Lughod, 2002, Al Saji, 2010). While most of the German scholarly (particularly legal) articles are written by non-Muslim native Germans, North-American voices include those of Muslim women.

Neither tradition, however, has taken to examine the hijab as a diasporic object, whose being out of place makes it visible in the first place. None has looked at how the hijab as an object acts on people. This study aims at filling some of these gaps.

Research question and theoretical framework

Ensuing from Miller’s concept that things make people as much as people make things (Miller 2010:42), I am looking at the hijab as an object that influences its bearer’s demeanour as well as those encountering her. I position the hijab as the frame (ibid:49) that determines what is appropriate and what is not.

Despite its current position as a politically disputed object, the hijab is also always a piece of clothing that serves to cover certain body parts. Together with the rest of a woman’s clothing, her skin colour and her general demeanour it serves to create an overall impression. Against this background it may at times be impossible to dissect which individual part or (combination of parts) may have warranted a certain reaction.

While clothing in general and the hijab in particular visualize the role of the bearer to the wider society, they also contribute to an internalization of the order implicit in this role (Elmenthaler, 2010: 11). This internalization, however, occurs not necessarily unconsciously, in the way Bourdieu framed it (Miller, 2010: 53). On the contrary, in the diasporic context, the existing theory often preceded the following practice.

Turning on its head Gombrich’s argument that we tend to overlook a frame when it is appropriate (ibid:49), I contend that in case of the hijab it is the diasporic context in which the humility of the thing (ibid: 49) ceases and the object becomes the foregrounded point of reference.

Looking at the social history of the hijab however, I argue that the current position of the hijab as an object of heated and highly controversial debate in public discourse in the West does not have to be its ultimate fate. Rather there is a possibility that even in the post 9/11 Western world it may retreat once more into the position of the “humble servant“ (Latour 2007:73).

Methodology

The data for this study was derived from standardized open-ended interviews with seven Muslim women. In recruiting the interviewees I relied on personal networks: some women I approached directly, others responded to a general email I had sent out to Muslim women, asking whether they may be interested themselves or know someone else interested in participating in the study. I also spread the word in my neighbourhood, an area in Mississauga that is predominantly inhabited by recent immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. When selecting the participants, I tried to create as much diversity as possible considering the relatively small number of women. In order to avoid an essentialist view of “the“ Muslim woman and in order to do justice to the fact that Muslim immigrants are not a homogeneous group but consist of many different fractions who differ amongst themselves and within the respective groups, I selected women from different national/ethnic backgrounds, foreign born and Canadian born, Muslim born and convert, with different levels of education, in and out of the workforce and from different socio-economic strata:

Karam and Alia are Pakistani first generation immigrants who followed their husbands to Canada. Mona is from Morocco and used to live in the US with her husband and children before her husband’s job brought them to Mississauga. Fauzia is of Pakistani origin but grew up in different countries due to her father’s position as a diplomat; before she came to Canada, she lived in the US. Sarah is a South African woman of Indian background. Before she came to Canada, she used to live in Saudi Arabia with her Saudi husband. Aasia was born in Canada to parents of Pakistani origin. Lara is a German convert who migrated to Canada after getting married to a first-generation immigrant of Pakistani origin.

The women’s education ranges from high school to university (Masters): one is currently a BA student, one is a Masters student, two are working, two are currently stay at home moms, one has never worked.

The participants had to identify themselves as Muslim. Wearing the hijab was not a criteria for selection, which I made explicit when recruiting. All but one participants, however, do currently wear the hijab. One is at present debating whether she should continue wearing it.

The study does not claim to represent all Muslim women or to be generalizable to the wider population. Diversity was important to me, however, to avoid that the findings focus on experiences specific to one particular group.

My own position as a researcher was influenced by several factors: being a German citizen, I mostly had the position of an outsider in terms of nationality/ethnicity, which created a certain distance between me and the participant making it easier for them to talk about their cultures without a sense of reprisal.

Being a Muslim wearing the hijab myself, however, made me an insider of the same religious group. As such I shared some common reference points with the participants which let them assume at times that I knew what they were talking about, as they sometimes omitted answers or ended sentences stating: “You know what I mean” or “You know how it is”. I then used follow-up, probing questions or silence avoiding interpretative questions to make sure I reported the interviewee’s opinion and not my own assumptions.

My wearing the hijab also made me a person who might be perceived as potentially judging the participants’ views and practices. I tried to counteract that possible notion by clearly stating my neutral and non-judgmental stance on the issue of hijab at the beginning of the interviews and by dressing in a Western, non-Muslim way apart from the hijab itself. In a private setting, I would take the hijab off during the interview.

Diasporic ties

Conspicuously absent from the narratives were notions of the hijab as a link to a (n imagined) home country. None except for one of the participants viewed the hijab as inherently tied to their country of origin.

Alia was the only one strongly emphasizing the hijab as a Pakistani identity marker. For her, being recognized as a Pakistani appeared to be the predominant motivation of wearing it.

“Where ever we go it is easier for people to identify us. Living in these kind of countries it is our right to be identified, we can tell by skin colour other people are Indian or Italian. I think it is important for us we don’t want anybody else to think we are Indian, we are Pakistani.”

“If we don’t wear hijab, they call us Hindus, I have seen that discrimination, people asking are you Hindu.”

Asking her to expand some more on that she stated:

“We have our own identity, our own nation, so why would we want to be called any other nation when we have our own country we are proud of. We have all the luxuries back home, we sacrificed everything and the we are called any other kind of person. It’s in blood I guess, we have always been against Hindus, they have been racist when it used to be one nation.”

While the hijab does not tie Alia emotionally to her home country, it serves the function of a tool through which (she assumes) others will know which country she is from and more important, which country she is not from.

None of the other participants, however, even remotely mentioned anything relating to the hijab being a tie to a home country. On the contrary, they all saw it as a religious item that stands above nation, race and ethnicity. It connects them, if at all, at best to an imagined ummah, a worldwide community of Muslims.

Things make people

According to Latour (2007), anything that modifies a state of affairs is an actor (p.71). Being an actor, however, does not imply determination of an action. While the hijab certainly does make a difference for its bearer and her surroundings, it does not act instead of human actors, but it “allows … encourages, permits, suggests, influences, blocks …” (p.72). This notion of an actor was very clear in many of the statements the participants made.

Several participants referred to the hijab as a “package”. Wearing it is not an end in itself and it does not stop there. Rather, donning the hijab brings with it a set of attitudes and behaviours that are deemed appropriate for a woman wearing the hijab.

“Hijab is about covering … Not only the hair but the body as well. It’s not only about what you wear but how to behave, act, it’s a whole package.” (Mona)

The fact that the hijab makes Mona do things is also evident in how she describes her step-by-step development to wearing hijab after she became a mom:

“There are so many things you can put in the package but I always say you try your best, a lot of things, some people find it too hard to do or to stay away from. It’s also one of the reasons why I never started wearing it before. I always thought I have to be ready for it. By saying ready it does not mean ready to wear a scarf. I have to be like, I need to work on my prayers, I used to pray 5 times a day but not on time. So I need to work on that first and lots of other things, like gossiping and lying. Hijab is not only scarf, it’s a whole package so for me I had to work on the other things first.”

Clearly, for Mona wearing the hijab alone is not something that makes sense. It has to come with certain behaviours like observing the daily ritual prayers and other religious command such as abstaining from backbiting and lying.

Lara used the same term “package” when she described what hijab means for her:

“Hijab for me was an auxiliary object, a constant reminder. Alone when you go out, everything must match. Putting on the hijab is like a ritual, but you do not only put on the hijab, you put on a whole set of behaviours.”

On my question which behaviours this would be she clarified:

“You don’t go to bars any more, places where people consume alcohol, the hijab reminds you and reinforces new practices. The combination does not make any sense: putting on the hijab and going to a bar.”

In addition to influencing her actions, the hijab also had an impact on her self-perception and demeanour:

“it has given me another self-perception as a woman, I started wearing skirts, it was kind of a gender-affiliation-thing. […] One limits oneself in movements. You don’t move the same way, don’t look men in the eye, the whole posture is different, I wouldn’t skip the line any more, speak softer, the whole language becomes more reserved, more introverted.” 

She accounts how donning the hijab helped her to shun certain behaviours after converting to Islam:

“Through wearing the hijab it was easier for me to shun certain habits, I could feel more spiritually grounded, it helped me to remember allah and feel more spiritual.” 

Other participants framed it similarly:

“If I were to wear hijab tat would be my ultimate devotion to Allah. To be at that level that I already understand, read, follow, practice, not just covering my hair but fearing Allah at that level. That is more important than anything else.” (Fauzia)

While for Fauzia the “package” included fear of God, Sarah focused mostly on the aspect of dressing modestly:

“I came to the conclusion to do it the proper way, not only headscarf but dress modestly with no hair showing, no excess of make up. To me it’s all … covering.” (Sarah)

For Aasia, wearing the hijab facilitates her dealing with the opposite gender in daily interactions, particularly in her workplace.

“It allows me to do things I may not have been able to do. Daily interaction with the opposite gender, for example, we do have dealings on a regular basis. Without hijab you feel subconscious, how you are being perceived, this way you get the job done without the other judgements.” 

In case of Sarah, the hijab/niqab took the function of conveying explicit messages to men. In absence of her being fluent in Arabic, the niqab “spoke” for her and overcame a language barrier:

When I used to go to the open markets in Mekkah, Medina, I used to put on niqab, because it was definitely for my protection. Because men could get out of hand and I felt uncomfortable. You could say something (instead of covering) but because of the language barrier, I was not fluent in Arabic at the time, now I know how to deal with things.”

The niqab in this case spoke instead of her to strange men who may have conveyed sexualized messages to her in public places.

All participants framed the hijab as an object that makes them do or that prevents them from doing certain things. What these things are depends on the participants’ personal understanding of meanings attached to hijab. In the case of Sarah it is mainly the process of covering the whole body, not only the head, for Mona it implied certain moral values based on her understanding of religion and for Lara it went so far as to make an effort to change her entire personality. In all cases it is the hijab that warrants these particular actions and behaviours that were not present without it. Most obvious this is in the case of Fauzia who does not wear the hijab, “yet” as she says, because

“I am not at that level yet. I don’t doubt it, yet I don’t do it. It’s a personal weakness, I’m too weak to come to that level.”

Aasia explicitly states:

“It’s part of my identity, of who you are, I am not out there to be noticed but my faith is my identity and by showing it through my physical dress it strengthens what I am. Naturally, you become what you physically look like, naturally, it becomes part of you. By wearing it, I am complete and it forms me as a Muslim.” 

Bourdieu’s theory of practice

As much as the hijab “makes” people and as much as it influences the participants’ actions, behaviours and attitudes, the study did not confirm Bourdieu’s “theory of practice” (Miller, 2010:53).

The decision to don the hijab (or, as in Fauzia’s case, not to do so yet) occurred in none of the cases on a practical, a-theoretical basis. It was not the consequence of an internalization of an existing external order. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, of habitually doing things without thought (Miller, 2010:53), which perpetuates existing societal norms, does not even seem to apply to those cases in which the interviewees started wearing hijab in their country of origin. Seeing the hijab in certain environments or on certain occasions made these women recognize it as a possibility but did not trigger the decision to don it. This would come only after intensive studies undertaken on their own initiative and deep reflection of what it entails.

I would, however, argue that in those particular cases the reason is the inherent diasporicness of the hijab even in traditionally Muslim societies due to the above mentioned colonization of those countries.

Sarah, who started wearing the hijab in her home country, South Africa, explains that she was never forced to wear the hijab by her parents. After she graduated from university and started working as a teacher in an Islamic school, she felt that she had to be an example for the children.

“I really went into it and studied Islam in that respect and came to the conclusion to do it the proper way. I taught at an Islamic school and I decided to set an example for my students. But I had to correct it in myself first before I could set an example for others.” 

Mona’s decision was triggered by being a mom.

“I started after my first daughter was born … I was thinking, I am a mom now, I should be doing what I should be doing.”

Fauzia, who is not wearing the hijab yet, still made her decision after extensive deliberation. She actively searched for answers by attending classes outside a regular school environment.

“I attended classes, Tafsir (quran exegesis). I was always an inquisitive child.”

Karam’s mother was encouraging her to wear the hijab but did not put any pressure on her.

“My mother was always after me, cover your head, I used to be a tomboy, so.. It was something odd and then I did some research what Islam says and why she is doing it …. So it was my own research that convinced me, nobody else. I was not forced to doing it.” 

Aasia, growing up in Mississauga, used to attend a Muslim primary school where wearing the hijab was required. When she changed to a non-Muslim public high-school, she took it off and started again wearing it on her own account when she was 17. She makes a distinction between those first years in primary school and her later decision.

“Obviously, in primary school you wear it because you’re told to but it has always been part of my life. I wore it until the age of 13/14 until I finished primary school and then I started of my own when I finished high-school at age 17.” 

According to Aasia, the definitions change following the motives:

“As you mature and you can value what it symbolizes, the definitions of hijab change. When I was younger, perhaps it was just my way of showing that I was a Muslim without understanding what it was protecting me from and what it did for me spiritually. And now as I grow older it has become, I can really appreciate the value of it.”  

Both, Lara, and Alia, indicate that their decisions to wear or not wear the hijab in different situations are strongly influenced by other people’s expectations.

“When I go to Germany, I have not even left the plane and the hijab is off, it is different when my husband comes along, then I cannot simply take off the hijab.”

Upon my question why she takes it off when she goes alone and what difference her husband makes, she says:

“My parents don’t like it (the hijab) and I respect their wishes. I make it easier for them but when they come here (to Canada), I leave it on. When my husband is with me I think he would feel bad about me taking it off, he would interpret it as weakness of will. Also, if he is there, we are a group, you are stronger in a group and my parents may see it different too. Maybe it’s also a question of loyalty and I am more loyal to my husband than to my parents. Then I would take it off in my parents house and only wear it outside.”

Alia used to wear hijab when she was younger and then took it off after she got married at age 23. For her, in Pakistan wearing the hijab was a sign for being backward and from the village.

“People think you are backward, from the country side, a village girl, they don’t think you go to university or yo are from a respectable family. If I don’t wear it I can show off so they will serve you first before the person who is wearing hijab, if you are not wearing it, you are from a modern, respectable family, they will serve you first.” 

Upon my question how she came to take off her hijab when she got married, she stated:

“nobody wears hijab in that family (her in-laws), we never came across a discussion but I know there was no one in that family who wears hijab.”

After several years living in Canada, she decided to wear it again. Her husband who works at a bank, did not agree with that decision.

“He used to be irritated, well he is not any more, he stopped bringing me to his office parties because he thought I looked backward again. If you don’t wear it, people can shake hands with you, they don’t feel you are an outsider … there are no hijabis there at the office parties. He asked me ‘we are going somewhere, are you still going to wear that hijab?’ He felt bad, he thought his colleague will think I am backward.”

Alia is now wearing the hijab when she goes to the mall or to school events but takes it off when she and her husband go out to mainly non-Muslim meetings. If they attend (her husband’s) family meetings she wears a scarf loosely over her head that leaves the hair visible.

“I am comfortable, whether you wear it tight or loose it’s not a big deal. Religiously, we should not take any option, we should cover properly but I want to make my husband happy. But it’s not a compromise, I am not that strict any more because I want to have a comfortable environment. I don’t want to irritate my husband.”

Despite the fact that in Lara’s and Alias’ cases the decisions do not result from their own conviction, they still result from intensive processes of deliberation. Both spend extensive thought on how they can adjust to certain environments and juggle the responsibilities of doing “the right thing” while pleasing people close to them.

The object “out of place”

Miller (2010) speaks of the relationship between culture and things: “stuff has adhering to it this tragic contradiction of culture itself” (p.63). According to Gombrich (Miller, 2010: 49), material objects are a setting, a background of objects that should remain unrecognized, unspoken. What, however, happens, when culture changes but things remain the same?

Hijab has become an object out of place. In the Western cultures it is clearly associated with an orientalist image of “the other”, exoticized and demonized at once.

The image of the hijab, in the Muslim diaspora abroad, is born of the disruption of objects and culture, the alienation of the object from its point of origin.

As argued above, the same development occurred in much of the Muslim world during colonization, when the British and French brought with them a new culture, a set of new values and beliefs and imposed them on the colonized communities. Previously existing cultures in those regions underwent severe transformations, incorporating much of the new, “modern” ways and abandoning much of the old, “backward” habits of their forefathers.

In one case an object was transferred into an environment in which it is currently foreign, in the other case a new culture was transferred to a place that alienated its traditional practices. In both cases, the hijab became a diasporic object, an object out of place. It became visible, “inappropriately foregrounded” (Miller, 2010: 50).

This clash of object and environment and the ensuing visibility invoke different outcomes. The hijab can turn into a tool to build bridges, it can also turn into an obstacle.

“This is a non-Muslim society, I am under pressure. I see people watching me. When you are out with the kids, you see them throw tantrums. As a Muslim mom, everyone is watching you. What I used to do when my daughter would throw a tantrum, I would speak in English deliberately. I feel I had to be extra careful how to act in public.” (Mona)

For Mona, who used to live in the US without hijab for a long time before eventually accepting it, the difference in behaviour of people towards her was particularly striking.

“People think they can teach you how to behave (when you wear hijab). When you are in the store and your kids do something they would say ‘excuse me, they are not supposed to do that’. People give themselves the right to tell you what to do with your kids. Or they speak to the kids directly. ‘Wait for mommy, that’s not safe’”.

Karam accounted several instances where people were openly hostile towards her and/or her family.

“One time my husband was crossing the road … and a white lady was reversing her car and she started yelling at him and called him terrorist. You are the one at fault, you should be taking care, yet she yelled at my husband!”

Being of Pakistani origin, however, she did not attribute the hostility and remarks to her hijab.

“I can take it off (hijab) but I will still be brown, it could be the skin colour, it could be the hijab. Life and death is not in my control. There are lots of racist people in Canada.”

Sarah who is educated and wealthy, realizes a difference in people’s behaviour depending on the locality. Living in high end areas and shopping in expensive places makes her enter a world that is mostly reserved to white Canadians.

“Certain areas, if you go to certain areas, Sherway Gardens and Square One for example. In Square One am never looked at the way I am stared at when I am in Sherway, it’s more high end and I have been stared in in such a bad way and obviously it’s the hijab, if I was dressed the same way without hijab it would not have happened. The more affluent people are the more they look down upeon, I have noticed.”

“Montreal was the biggest struggle… I had to prove myself as a human being, by greeting, smiling, talking and some people were just not interested, they did not like us as Muslims”.

The way people perceive hijab as an object in and out of place becomes particularly obvious in Sarah’s account of her and her (white, Muslim-born) Bosnian friend walking on the streets.

“Whenever she was out with me people would accuse me that I brought her to Islam because I am the brown one with hijab. They would ask her ‘why did you take that faith?’ Strangers on the road would just stop her and question her.”

While Sarah as a “brown” person was perceived as “the right one” wearing hijab, her equally Muslim-born white Bosnian friend evoked perceptions of something being “wrong”. A white woman wearing hijab can only be a convert and she must have been influenced by someone else.

Language is another signifier of difference. Some participants reported people’s surprise at their ability to speak English.

“People assume I don’t speak English. They speak very slow and look at me” (Mona)

Canadian-born Aasia laughs at the surprise of people commenting on her impeccable Canadian English.

“They are like ‘you don’t have an accent!’ – I appreciate your honesty, why could I not have been born here! I am always out to prove that I don’t have an accent. My husband laughs at me: ‘you are always trying to prove that you are just as Canadian as anyone else’. People just think I am not Canadian, Maybe they would do that anyways because I am of colour but Is till feel I have to step up to prove how Canadian I am.” 

While the hijab is perceived as an obstacle in these cases, in others it can be a tool for conversation and education.

“I take it off and do you think it will stop comments? It’s not going to happen, taking it off is not a solution, exposing people is the solution to why you are doing it. Giving more exposure about Islam yourself that’s the solution opening up their minds”. (Karam)

“Some strangers would come to me out of interest. They would come and ask with a smile why is it that you wear that, I explain, they will understand”. (Sarah)

“It is a tool of educating. Wearing it is almost like presenting someone with a quran, it sparks curiosity, someone might take it upon themselves to learn about it. It opens .. sometimes I look at other religions and I wonder why do they do that and it prompts us to educate ourselves.” (Aasia)

The object out of place thus can be an obstacle for the bearer but it can also serve as a tool for communication and education.

Two additional observations are worth mentioning:

First, Mona’s negative encounters mostly involved other ethnic minorities as being hostile towards her. In case of Karam, hostilities came from both, other ethnic minorities as well as people belonging to the dominant white culture. Hostilities therefore are not exclusively occurring between ethnic/religious minorities and the dominant culture but also between minorities themselves. The reasons for this phenomenon would be interesting to find out.

Second, there seems to be a great difference in how members of the dominant society perceive women wearing hijab depending on factors like speech and skin colour. Women who had a darker skin colour such as Sarah and Karam seemed to experience hijab more as an obstacle than women who have a lighter skin colour. Aasia, on the other hand, is also of Pakistani origin. Her being born here, speaking Canadian English, having a university education and being in the workforce all seem to be factors that override her darker skin colour. Mona, who is light skinned but speaks with Arab accent and usually a very soft and low voice, again, faces more obstacles. While the hijab therefore, certainly is an object that influences people’s perception, it cannot be seen independently of the complete personality of its bearer.

Conclusion

Concurring with Miller’s observation, this study has confirmed that the hijab “makes” people as much as people make the hijab. It influences its bearer in her attitudes, behaviours and demeanour but it also influences people around her. It facilitates opposite-gender encounters, it sends clear messages to men regarding the sexual (non-) availability of the bearer, it conveys spiritual identity,  it reminds the bearer of her religious duties. It also builds bridges and constitutes obstacles.

In contrast to Bourdieu’s theory of practice, however, which assumes that most practical patterns of behaviour are not critically reflected upon but adopted and unconsciously incorporated, all participants reported that they did or did not wear the hijab after extensive deliberation and thought process.

One reason for that could be the diasporicness of the object that has taken it out of its position as a humble servant and made it visible, in Western as well as in traditionally Muslim societies. The existing visibility of the hijab compels the women to reflect on it. It is disputed in daily life, on TV, in print media, it is topic in university classes. In most of today’s societies it is impossible to be born into a community that uses it naturally as a habitus in the sense Bourdieu framed objects.

Considering the many different stages the hijab has gone through, however, it is not impossible that at one point in time it may once again take a backseat and become a humble servant. Women like Aasia, who are born in Canada but naturally demand the right to be at once Canadian and Muslim and to be able to wear the hijab in Canada without being labelled an immigrant, contribute to the possibility of such development.

It may just be another chapter in the social life of this object.

References

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist 104(3): 783–790.

Ahmed, Leila. 2011. A Quiet Revolution. The Veils Resurgence from the Middle East to America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Alba, Richard. 2006. Bright vs. blurred boundaries: Second-generation assimilation and exclusion in France, Germany, and the United States. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28: 1, 20-49.

Al-Saji, Alia. 2010. The racialization of Muslim veils: A philosophical analysis. Philosophy and Social Criticism 36 (8), 875-902.

Delmas, Clemence. 2006. Das Kopftuchverbot in Frankreich. Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Elmenthalher, Sophie. 2010. Hijab und Highheels: junge Frauen in Sanaa und ihre Kleidung. Universität Leipzig. http://sanaastyles.org/2010/MAGISTERARBEIT.pdf

Kelek, Necla. 2012. Chaos der Kulturen. Die Debatte um Islam und Integration. Köln: Kiepenheuer und Witsch.

Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mansson McGinty, Anna. 2007. Formation of alternative femininities through Islam: Feminist approaches among Muslim converts in Sweden. Women’s Studies International Forum 30, 474-485.

Miller, D. (2010), Stuff. London: Polity Press.

Moghissi, Haide. 2006. Muslim diaspora: Gender, Culture and Identity. Florence, USA: Routledge.

Nagra, Baljit. 2011. “‘Our Faith Was Also Hijacked by Those People’: Reclaiming Muslim Identity in Canada in a Post-9/11 Era,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37(3): 425- 441.

Read, Je’nan Ghazal and John P. Bartkowski. (2000). To Veil Or Not To Veil. A Case Study of Identity Negotiation among Muslim Women in Austin, Texas. Gender & Society 14: 3, 395-417.

Salama, Ibrahim. 2010. Muslimische Gemeinschaften in Deutschland. Recht und Rechtswissenschaft im Integrationsprozess. Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Schwarzer, Alice. 2010. Die Grosse Verschleierung. Für Integration. Gegen Islamismus. Köln: Kiepenheuer und Witsch.

Spivak, G.C. (1988) Can the Subaltern Speak? In: Nelson, C. And L Grossberg (Eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Cited Court Decisions

Federal Labour Court Decision from August 20, 2009: BAG 2 AZR 499/08

Federal Administrative Court Decision from July 4, 2002: BVerwG 2 C 21/01

Administrative Appeals Tribunal Niedersachsen Decision from March 13, 2002: 2 LB 2171/01

Advertisements

Research Question

Ensuing from Miller’s concept that things make people as much as people make things (Miller 2010:42), I am looking at the hijab as an object that influences its bearer’s demeanour as well as those encountering her. I position the hijab as the frame (ibid:49) that determines what is appropriate and what is not.

Turning on its head Gombrich’s argument that we tend to overlook a frame when it is appropriate (ibid:49), I contend that in case of the hijab it is the diasporic context in which the humility of the thing (ibid: 49) ceases and the object becomes the foregrounded point of reference.

Looking at the social history of the hijab however, I argue that the current position of the hijab as an object of heated and highly controversial debate in public discourse in the West does not have to be its ultimate fate. Rather there is a possibility that even in the post 9/11 Western world it may retreat once more into the position of the “humble servant“ (Latour 2009:73) and allow Muslim women to be seen by the majority society primarily as individuals and not as symbols heavy with meaning.

Do objects have gender?

Hijab is an object that takes on different meanings in different social and natural environments. The notion of hijab in the West and in Muslim communities -other than originally Nomadic desert dwellers- has completely lost its categorization as a piece of clothing that protects from environmental influences. It has come to signify a certain notion of a culture, religion and political movement. While many Muslim women (hijabis and non-hijabis) resist the categorization and amongst themselves try to grant agency to each other, the wider societies, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have taken authority to define meanings. Courts, politicians, “experts” and audiences of various kinds assign and explain the meaning of hijab and subsequently make rules to regulate its use. In Germany, for example, administrative authorities such as school boards and administrative courts have defined the meaning of hijab in the context of a teacher wearing it in school. The assignment of certain qualities to the object, such as an inherent political message, it being a potential danger to students, a possible means of proselytization resulted in legal consequences. The aversion against this foreign, diasporic object was so strong that it concurrently resulted in a prohibition of local objects (such as hats or caps) that Muslim women may have chosen in order to find a compromise to cover their hair while appearing to be non-Muslim.

 

The question arising from this is what means “ownership”? Does it refer to the person who materially possesses an object? Does it refer to the person or body who defines the object, its meanings and implications? Does it refer to the person or body who defines, categorizes and sanctions the person who materially possesses the object?

 

What is the inherent characteristic of the hijab that encourages other people than its material proprietor to take ownership – and implicitly to take it away from the material proprietor?

The context in which hijab is placed seems to make a difference: where it is a mere cultural object, an unquestioned object of tradition, a”humble servant” (Latour 2009), women appear to be the ones who have authority over the definition of meanings and the modes of use. Where it takes on the notion of a religious or political symbol, as in countries defining themselves as “Islamic” or laicist, men and/or state authorities do. Does the otherness of the object in the diasporic context play a role? Does the inherent gendered nature of the object make a difference? Do objects therefore have gender whose role and rank corresponds with the role of that particular gender in society?

Historical Context

The hijab always has been and is owned by women. Depending on times and circumstances, it was considered an item for wealthy women/women of socially high standing or an item for poor, uneducated women. Different ways of wearing it could relay the social standing, the religious or political attitude of its owner.

The reasons for wearing the hijab reach from religious motives to political ones, they can be cultural, traditional or social. The hijab is worn after long consideration and deep reflection or, in reference to Miller, with complete “humility of the thing”: the wearer might have taken to it without any process of deliberation, simply because that’s what everyone does in a particular society.

Apart from the material ownership -that to my knowledge always has been in the hands of women- men and non-Muslims have taken ownership of the hijab in symbolic ways. In some cases alongside women, in other cases under exclusion of women, men have taken to define the object as well as its wearer. In their function as religious, political or social leaders they have assumed the role of authorities in determining, whether or not to wear the hijab, how to wear it in an appropriate manner, the consequences for contravention of their verdict. They have taken to define the wearer herself religiously, politically, socially on the grounds of her wearing or not wearing the hijab. These particular aspects of the hijab -the gendered nature of its ownership and the gendered nature of authority with regards to its usage- constitute the creation of the role of a mediator between object and owner.

Non-muslim women have also taken to define object and owner, in their function as politicians, jurists, academics, feminists or simply as interested persons.

In daily interaction, the hijab takes on a personality in itself. Hijabis (term used for women who wear the hijab) are being appreciated and judged through the object, by women, men, Muslims and Non-muslims. It serves as a platform for judgements, prejudices, opinions that overshadows the wearer herself and overrides her personality. While Muslim men and non-Muslim men and women voice their opinion publicly, define and discuss the hijab and its wearer, the voices of Muslim women themselves are rarely heard. The Toronto Star recently made an exception: Shaila’s “dejabing” decision and Hijab as completing one’s identity.

The particularly heated political dimension that is attached to it today has been around in different societies throughout different times. In the West, however, it has changed drastically after September 11.

Hijab also changes its meaning in combination with other objects, i.e clothes. When worn with an abbaya, it conveys a different message from when it is worn with a skintight jeans or, as in case of fashion models, exotic dancers, flight attendants and other women during the course of their occupation as a teaser put in contrast to more revealing clothes.

Intended Sources:

1) Academic Articles

2) Newspaper articles and responses/Forum discussions

3) Interviews with Muslim men/women

Hijab as a diasporic object

The hijab is a piece of cloth used to cover a woman’s head which can take various forms, shapes and sizes. Aside from those hijabs that were particularly made for the purpose of covering, many Muslim women in the West have taken to using scarves they find in mainstream clothing stores, such as the Gap, Esprit, H&M etc.

Production modes vary from hand-producing to industrial mass production with the latter being the more frequent mode. In various stores in Canada, hijabs are sold from 10$ up to around 100 $. Since the hijab is also a fashion item, prices con go much higher in countries where women are culturally or legally obliged to wear it.

Examples for hijabs particularly made as such are:

  1. The pashmina shawl, named after the kind of wool it is made of. The cashmere wool  originated from goats indigenous to the Himalaya regions of Nepal, Pakistan, which is nowadays due to high demand of their wool, commercially reared in China, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and India. This kind of hijab is particularly soft around the head and very warm. For the purpose of head-covering, it takes the shape of a rectangular shawl, measuring about 30 cm x 150 cm. It varies in colour from unicoloured to elaborate patterns. Due to the quality of the wool it is rather heavy and weighs around  220 g.
  2. Pakistan also produces the lighter cotton scarves, which way with similar measurements of 30×150 cm only around 50 g. They are often unicoloured and can have embroideries, such as sequins or miniature beads made of wood or plastic as well as fringes on the short ends.
  3. Many Turkish women wear hijabs made of silk. These are square shaped, measure around 1 x 1 m, are  with about 50-70 g very light and usually have elaborate patterns and bright colours. Many are diverted designer scarves from brand names such as Calvin Klein, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.
  4. In the Middle East, a 30 x 150 cm Polyester scarf matches the corresponding abbaya, a long sleeve wide dress. At its short ends it often has the same colour/pattern embroidery as the abbaya, thus identifies as matching piece and distinguishes one abbaya/hijab form another in terms of grade of fashion, price and “hipness”.
  5. In many Arab countries, a two piece set of a broad hairband (5-20 cm in width) and a matching tubular piece that covers the hair up to the shoulders, is considered fashionable for young women as opposed to scarf or square styles.
  6. A new kind of industry has emerged that produces functional hijabs for physical activities like swimming, running, biking etc. They are shaped much like the Arab style tube-hijabs but may differ in material as to be water resistant. The so-called “Burqini” is a whole body swim-suit with a built in head-covering http://www.ahiida.com/
  7. Women in Muslim countries with females in the military (or as part of insurgence groups) and/or police wear particularly made matching headcoverings.
  8. Certain corporations use the hijab to advertise a “hint of Orient” to their clientele, such as the airline Emirates. Female flight attendants do not wear a hair covering hijab but a little hat with a piece of veil indicating their otherness as part of the flight experience.

Despite the many religions that offer head-coverings to women (various Christian denominations, Jewish, Sikh), there does not seem to be any “interfaith-headcover-mixing”.