Art and the Hijab Politick

JUSTIN TALLIS / Stringer

During the 2014 Dumbo Art Festival in Brooklyn, artists Saks Afridi and Qinza Najm donned Niqabs for the weekend and took selfies in public for their performance art piece, “#DamnILookGood” — Afridi, a man, and Najm, a woman who does not typically wear a headscarf. The piece was meant to explore tolerance and liberation while expressing solidarity with women who wear the hijab (by choice, as the artists repeatedly emphasized) and to boost their self-confidence.

“Every modern human being deserves to have that feeling of ‘Damn, I look good’ about themselves,” they told Buzzfeed later on, “and women who wear hijab by choice are no different.” In their promotional video, Najm describes a selfie as “a product of a moment when one is feeling beautiful and confident,” which presumably makes it the perfect medium to challenge popular perceptions about the hijab, and to express the particular beauty and individuality associated with women who cover.

This foregrounding of beauty and self-confidence is not unusual; somewhere down the line popular, sound bite-y reasoning for wearing the hijab changed from “submission to God” and “modesty” into territories of “refusing to abide by Western beauty norms” and “maintaining a strong identity.” And sure, the hijab can be a marker of identity. It does disrupt notions of beauty in a way that pronounces the difference between public and private spaces, creating modes of being unique to each, but divorced from any directly spiritual reasons, the spectacle of it all can be tiring. We end up with the classic reduction: the purpose of the hijab is ostensibly to mask beauty, but also, that’s what makes it so beautiful!

Well-meaning but overbearing concern from people who don’t wear hijab, and thus don’t quite understand what’s at stake, are often eager to intervene in conversations where they see women are being treated differently or unfairly for wearing it. This usually surfaces as excessively flippant references to the hijab, seeking constant reassurance from the wearer that it’s not even a big deal anyways (it was by choice! She likes it! There’s no force involved here! Everyone can go home now! ….right?) while also attributing to it a wild symbolism and new codes of respect.

People trip over themselves and laugh too loudly, too incredulously, while recounting racist comments they’ve heard about Muslim women and it’s only a confirmation of what you suspected all along; that it is kinda weird. How many times have I sat through colleagues and strangers complimenting whatever embellished scarf I’m wearing on a given day, thinking out loud about what kinds of absurd and useful hijabs they’d wear in my situation. I recall laughing along but wondering, always, why this? What is it that makes people want to draw comparisons between the hijab and ninja costumes or tools of self defense? I understand that it’s not hatred driving these comments; it’s discomfort. I also realize they might be seeking my approval. It bothers me.

It starts with one joke. It’s an amalgamation of jokes. It’s so many jokes, most of them ones you’ve heard before. It’s every compliment you’ve ever received couched between references to your scarf. Sometimes it’s you who tells the joke, pre-empting what’s to come. But there is no real power in reclaiming; most of the time, you are the joke. You can try to be invisible, or embrace the spotlight and affect flippancy while entertaining astonishingly stupid jokes about exposed ankles and tan lines. Even now, as I write this, the impulse to make a light and self-deprecating reference to the hijab persists. It’s so cool to wear the hijab now, I hear a lot, but if that’s true it’s only because people want so badly for it to be a symbol of empowerment or rebellion and somehow, this only feels more alienating. I don’t want to play a role. I’m not trying to be a ‘type’.

This has a lot to do with binaries of freedom and oppression, empowerment and patriarchy, choice and force that dominate the narrative of hijab. These binaries that failed us first because they are constructed as a reaction rather than a truth, and then again when they made us perform strength and cheery indifference not because we felt it but because the consequences of the other option — appearing weak, forced, oppressed — are too great.

The narrative of Hijab has been overshadowed by that uniquely American Muslim desire to prove, to perform an almost obsessive martyrdom and benevolence — or an equally contrived indifference. Attempts to articulate the individuality of Muslim women by screaming tirelessly about not being a monolith begins to lose meaning. We are not a monolith! We are all different! Some of us aren’t like others but, honestly, what if we were? Would it even matter? Why does insisting upon your own humanity seem to only drag you further away from it?

The discussions of duty and representation in a world where a religion we love deeply has been vilified and distorted beyond recognition means that women who wear hijab are usually the most visible and thus, made to bear the larger burden of proving the innocence and progressiveness of a whole community. I’m often frustrated with how difficult it is to have honest and productive conversations about Hijab and being a Muslim Woman without disclaimers and reassuring others that we are not oppressed, that we love the hijab. It’s not that it’s wholly untrue — it’s just that it’s not that simple. ‘By choice’ becomes the key qualifier and forces us to prioritize others worst possible perceptions of us before considering what it might mean for ourselves. I wonder then, what was it before we cared about stereotypes? What did wearing hijab mean before becoming a symbol of contradictory space? There is so little about the spirituality, the beauty of submission to a higher power, so little of this comes through when talking about the hijab. I’m so bored with talk of modesty as something material, and I’m not very interested in defending a freedom I’m not sure I even fully possess — a freedom that seems also to be the prerequisite for even marginal acceptance. I don’t want to waste any more time soothing people’s anxieties about it, when I can hardly manage my own.

I am reminded of a speech by French activist Houria Bouteldja, called “What will become of all this beauty,” (a question posed first by James Baldwin) and I find myself asking the same thing. Bouteldja identifies the hopeful — if not naive — practices of Muslims who “offer flowers to passers-by in order to demonstrate that Islam is good, that Islam is not what they think it is,” as a kind of resistance, even as it is defensive and reactionary. “There are the struggles that make us move forward, and there are those that make us regress,” she continues, “the dead ends of the racial system prompt the victims to offer flowers, make lists of inventions.” Partaking in campaigns meant to break stereotypes and highlight the progressiveness and versatility of hijab is an expression of love for a religion maligned, but it’s just as much an expression of rejection, or maybe the denial of it. When are we allowed to want — and do — better for ourselves?

The first time I was exposed to Meriem Bennani’s work, I was intrigued; her instagram is colorful, fast-paced and playful. I watched a preview of one of her latest projects, “Fardaous Funjab” (2015), now exhibiting at the Jewish Museum in New York, and felt uneasy. There are photos on instagram, clips and interviews available around the web that document the life and career of Fardous Funjab, a fictional designer who has found huge success designing inventive and whimsical hijabs. She markets the bewilderment of a hijabi in disneyland; there is a scarf for every activity, for every type of woman! The designs draw on literal interpretations of interests and events; a scarf for a bride is constructed with a wedding cake on her head, a tennis player beams as she drops tennis balls into the basket that crowns her hijab.

What is most remarkable about Bennani’s take on the hijab is not in its bizarre, lighthearted outlook —women in hijab making a spectacle for public consumption and acceptance is nothing new. What is remarkable to me is how clearly the discomfort with the hijab is articulated, in spite of complex efforts to appear to the contrary.

The role of hijab in the art world in general is steeped in reactionary aesthetics, driven mainly by artists who find within it an easy symbolism and vaguely subversive politic. These artists emphasize their lack of religious involvement and reference instead their upbringing, the women around them who wore hijab and at whom they marveled (or frowned upon). In its more earnest forms, it is made to represent the most abstract anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, anti-anything ideals; veiled women, ever the objects, represent the heat of the #struggle but are not granted much humanity beyond it. When asked, most artists clumsily gesture towards the obvious perceptions and stereotypes surrounding it, sometimes hoping to “break” them, sometimes hoping to make the viewer “question” them. It doesn’t differ much from what any Muslim, well-trained in PR on behalf of the community, might say on a news segment or to curious strangers. But the exact statement is still unclear.

The hijab is mobilized to evoke both militant resistance as well as pitiful subordination; model citizenship but also obscene consumerism. The juxtaposition, you know, really speaks to some people! Picture a woman in a hijab with a gun — no, no — a rose! Or wait, a whole wreath of flowers. Stars and Stripes, a French flag as a hijab. #JESUISCHARLIE projected as a hologram and warped to fit around a woman’s head. The symbolism is politically charged, but without substance. If you ‘get’ it, it’s because you already know to process the hijab as something edgy or weird. Depictions of carefree, athletic, artistic Muslim women do nothing to dispel this; there is no neutral ground. You can be accepted as a palatable example held in contrast with your community, or be observed and marveled at with fascination and contempt through the lens of every possible political strand.

Bennani expresses her tenderness towards the “feminist gesture” she sees in hijabi fashionista blogs that “[allow] the hijab to be creative and fun,” but to me this is exactly the contradiction that still pervades most progressive spaces; the hijab being “creative and fun” is still a novelty that is meant to undermine whatever a traditional hijab is supposed to look like, while a less-trendy hijab is “less feminist” and can be virtually ignored or pigeonholed immediately into a religiosity that circumvents conversation. It’s a contradiction familiar to most women — you’re silly for focusing on your looks, but scorned for neglecting them. There could be nothing less empowering.

“I would come back every year [to Morocco] and notice that so many more women are wearing it now,” Bennani explains in an interview “and I was always having a violent reaction to it. And I wanted to talk about it, but I realized that violence was just pure judgment and a lack of tolerance, and I couldn’t possibly say anything interesting about it…but now instead of judging it, I’m just going to go right into it, into this woman’s world which is all about that.” I disagree; there are actually many interesting things to say about pure judgement and lack of tolerance. I wish she had held on to them longer. In the same way that women who wear hijab are expected to defend it unequivocally and at all times to The West, so too do artists who are not particularly invested in Islam nonetheless feel that they have something to prove with the hijab, as though to justify to everyone else not the existence of women who wear hijab themselves, but to absolve themselves of the discomfort they represent in their own cultures and histories.

The desire — the demand — to be open minded trumps all. What emerges at the end is a try at ‘breaking stereotypes’ that at best only reveals how deep the qualms we have with the hijab run. Even for a project that frames wearing hijab as a radical act, like Afridi and Najm’s does, it must be othered before it can be reabsorbed. In Bennani’s work, any woman who hopes to maintain a sense of individuality while covered is the punchline; that women who are presumed to be purporting modesty can also be self-regarding or hold conflicting opinions about their Hijab is the joke.

To try and escape being judged or valued by your looks is maddening, and even well-intentioned projects like ‘#DamnILookGood’ can’t conceive of an acceptance of covering that does not first situate it within the pop-empowerment that defines neoliberal feminism and confuses perceptions of beauty, supposedly subversive in their difference, with liberation. The reality is, there is no easy way out of ‘Western’ standards of beauty, no escape from objectification. And what’s more, there’s no real way in. At the end of the promo video, Najm encourages all the “beauties who wear hijab by choice” to post their own selfies. Curious qualifications, to be sure. Curious, too, considering everyone in the photos are actually wearing Niqabs.

A cursory look through popular feel-good headlines will reveal how desperate we can be in our search for symbolism. We are starved for it. The hijab offers people a convenient object and oftentimes, in the wearer, a willing participant. For the rest of the time, it’s difficult to feel as though anyone actually sees you. Will being visible and looking good in selfies really help assuage the fear and uncertainty that pervades all of our lives? Probably not! But who among us doesn’t want a friend who actively fights stereotypes and #slays while doing it?

There are things you try to avoid saying — how being called a hijabi makes you cringe; how disorienting it is, as though you’ve just unexpectedly caught your own reflection in the window of a passing bus, when someone makes sudden reference to the scarf on your head because it means you do not exist wholly in the way you think you do; how much time you spend wishing to be free from it while hating how that sounds: ‘free,’ hating how the only opposing image that conjures up is of oppression and hatred and bigotry, how distant that is from my experience and how upset I’d actually be if I were ever made to remove it. How ‘freedom’ here just means hope for a little less heaviness, less implied political statements, maybe feeling less despised.

The hijab at its best can be a material reminder of God and the afterlife, yes, but also undoubtedly a burden that can drain spiritual fulfillment just as much as it can cultivate it. Maybe we’ll never get comfortable, but maybe it’s not so bad. Choosing the hijab, or choosing not to wear the hijab, or not choosing but still wearing hijab; we might always be haunted by the deliberation required of us.