Dec 17, 2015

Hijab wearing as "embodied solidarity"

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins, a tenured professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution, was placed on leave on December 10th for wearing a hijab for advent, or "from now until Christmas" in as she puts it "embodied solidarity" with Muslim women. She is calling on other women to join her.

I have posted repeatedly here about campaigns that in different ways play that I am you to show that I am with you. In general my concern is that though they may be well meaning, they run the risk of appropriation. They can give participants a false sense of knowing what other people's experience is like, and can actually close rather than open space for the experiences of people they are trying to be in solidarity with.

As Farah Azadi put it in her powerful critique of this action:

"In the case of the Wheaton College professor, I wonder if instead of wearing the headscarf, which will inevitably provoke conversations about Islam and gender, what if she made space in her classes to have Muslim women (hijab wearing or not) to speak about their personal experiences? Or making the commitment to developing a course on gender and Muslim-Christian dialogue? Or even finding her local Muslim community or Muslim women’s group and inquiring with them ways they feel Islamophobia could best be addressed on campus?

Instead, I fear her action will place her in the position of speaking to the experience of being a Muslim woman or about gender in Islam even where she is clearly misplaced to do so. In this way she has robbed a Muslim woman from speaking for herself, and that isn’t solidarity – it is, in actuality, colonialism.

Muslim women, religious or not (hijab wearing or not!) need allies to organise alongside them–to make more room for their voices, not rob them of opportunities, or speak -for- them. Though it may take extra effort and more time, and though some might have to risk starting some uncomfortable conversations, it is more likely to lead towards a fuller and ultimately more meaningful understanding of what it means to be a Muslim woman. Those acts may not make headlines, or twitter tags, but they are the necessary ingredients of moving from charity to solidarity."

I couldn't agree more.

I was also disturbed this morning when listening to the news to hear that in Hawkins' statement to the press she said that solidarity required "bodily sacrifice". Though I understand that her job is on the line, it seems problematic to me to frame wearing a hijab as a 'sacrifice'. It sets her up as a martyr, as a savior rather than a sister. 

I think and write about international accompaniers, who show solidarity by putting their body in the line of fire, walking next to peace and justice activists under threat in conflict zones. I am interested particularly in whether and how it works to use the fact that in our current global systems of inequality some lives count more, to work for a world where everyone's life counts, where every life is respected.

It is problematic to frame as a bodily sacrifice even this sort of solidarity action, which puts accompaniers at much more risk than wearing a hijab does. Accompaniers seem to sense this as I have very rarely found them using this language. Indeed more than a sacrifice it could be seen as a privilege and honor to walk alongside and learn from some of the bravest peace and justice organizers in the world.

Likewise, women who choose to continue to wear the hijab even when this makes them subject to Islamophobic attacks are brave, righteous, and important to listen to and learn from. Empathy experiments like Hawkins' (or like the many wear a hijab for a day exercises) do not amplify those voices, or even seem to learn much from them - but get a good deal of media coverage that can instead actually drown them out.

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