I am not asking for your approval
Kameelah Jnan Rasheed
2007-02-22, Issue 292
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'The concern is not my oppression, but the inaccessibility of hijabi bodies and a general discomfort with those who have no problems with visible signs of cultural and religious difference', writes Kameelah Janan Rasheed in recounting her personal experience of wearing the hijab.
I have spun myself into a web of non-stop, albeit non-linear, intertextual journeys and discursive shadow boxing matches towards a coherent narrative about hijab. I feared that in writing about hijab that my thoughts would be so reminiscent of previous works, that my narrative would be surrendered to the museum of embalmed anachronisms and clichés. This fear kept me running as far as my short legs could carry me away from the oppression versus liberation paradigm, and hiding in a dark corner away from self-hating confessionals about the ugliness of Islam.
I am not interested in proving to anyone that I am in fact liberated or that by wearing hijab in America I am engaging in a radical feminist act. Just as I gave up the task of proving my blackness or womanhood years ago to those who were skeptical of my 'credentials', I do not plan to spend time here validating my humanity or agency. Such a task is a distraction. The task here is not to shuck n'jive or discursively gyrate towards a presentation of hijab and myself that will grant me entrance into the feminist or 'mainstream' community. I do not want to spend time convincing people that in fact my hijab is not surgically attached to my scalp.
Nor, do I want to spend energy arguing that there is not a tracker embedded in my hijab that screeches a pronounced 'haraam, haraam' when there is too great of a distance between the said hijab and my head. The task here is to share stories that if nothing else will illustrate that self-elected liberators who are convinced of my oppression are doing more to oppress me than my hijab ever could by fixing me in conceptual incarcerations. In telling me that as a hijabi, I can only represent and ever be seen as the epitome of oppression - the atavistic aberration, then you have succeeded in reifying the patriarchal structures you pretend to despise. You have held me hostage in your imagination and my only key to freedom is to surrender and corroborate your assumptions of my subjugation.
If I tell you that I am comfortable as a hijabi, and do not feel the least restricted, why do you still feel the need to speak down to me as if I am a child? Why do you feel the need to convince that I am living in a matrix where I have managed to confuse liberation with oppression? The question has never been so much 'is Kameelah oppressed'? because when this question is asked I do not believe that there is a genuine concern for my wellbeing. The question has always been twofold: 'Why do you feel it to be your right to tell me how I should live my life? And: 'Why do you even care?' My experiences, that are mine and not to be generalised for other hijabis, have illustrated that the concern is not my oppression, but the inaccessibility of hijabi bodies and a general discomfort with those who have no problems with visible signs of cultural and religious difference.
My childhood and adulthood, neither of which are completed life stages, were full of paradox and alienation as I attempted to navigate what seemed to be rough uncharted territory of a nerdy short black Muslim girl suspended in time and spaces that just could not 'figure me out'. I am the daughter of two black working-class Muslim reverts. I grew up in a small city in northern California where you could count the number of Muslims on one hand. Because being starred at and having rude comments directed at me is a sadistic task I rather enjoy, I then spent four years at a private Catholic school where I was not only one of very few black students, I wandered about as the only Muslim student. Thinking it could not get worst then being called a suicide bomber, or Osama bin Laden's wife, I embarked on another four-year journey at a private liberal arts institution where the number of Muslim students was heartbreaking. While most comments at this institution were reserved for private discussions, the college experience as well as my time in Johannesburg, South Africa provide an opportunity to understand what literally annoyed people about my hijab.
While in Yeoville, a hybrid inner-city/suburb of Johannesburg, I was approached by a man who was intent on liberating me from not only my gender oppression, but from my racial confusion. Apparently, 'I am not free' in hijab and Islam is not an African religion.
I had committed not only the ultimate sin of embracing a faith that 'forced' me to be modest; I had chosen a faith that had no roots in Africa. Let's not bother with the contrary historical facts, as that is the least of our concerns. What I found of the utmost importance in this monologue (yes, because I was unable to get a word in edgeways) was that he conceptualised my channels of freedom via the ritualistic removal of my hijab and his penetration or sexual conquest. I never knew that my freedom toolbox included a penis and an instruction guide - I will keep this in mind.
As he continued to speak in a series of poorly phrased insults, I realised that this was no longer about gender oppression or black authenticity; it was about the politics of accessibility to certain bodies. He repeated almost in a hypnotic fashion, 'I cannot see you…I cannot see your essence'. In wearing hijab, it was his argument that I was making myself inaccessible to men, and particularly to him. Choosing to place myself off the radar was not a choice I could exercise. In fact, I was required to make myself available and accessible to his gaze as well as the gaze of other men.
Thus, the crime I had committed was not one of accepting my subjugation as a Muslim woman and 'confused African woman', but of refusing to situate myself in his myopic discourse of liberation that ultimately puts me at his mercy. If I was mistaken in this assumption, it was further validated by a number of men in Johannesburg and in America who have told me similar tales of my inaccessibility, as a reason why I should not wear hijab. They started with a narrative of genuine concern for my oppression and devolved into a shallow desire for a free pass to accessibility. It was not always about what was said, but the delivery of these diatribes. In many of these situations, these men used aggressive and paternalistic tones. They attempted to silence me by raising their voices. They worked to discredit my line of defense by telling me I did not know enough. Most of all they were surprised that I was able to put together a sentence and to give as good as I was given.
It was a reminder that the covering of my head is not a covering of my mind or my mouth. Now, my mama taught me that in a conversation that I need to speak up irrespective of the genitalia I assume the other person to possess. My dad taught me to do it with tact. I think that while I am better at the former than the latter, it was a necessary lesson. For me, this battle over hijab editorialised by patriarchal not feminist discourses has never been about my liberation or the liberation of Fatima or whatever common Muslimah name you choose to insert here. Really, can men and institutions that consider me less intelligent and inept be that concerned about the death of patriarchy? This battle has always been about the accessibility of certain bodies and a neurotic discomfort with difference. If I can be convinced or forced to unveil and assimilate my discourse and lifestyle someone else can feel comfort. Someone will assume greater access to my body. However, for someone else to feel comfort when they look at me, and secure greater dominion over me, some part of me has to be sacrificed.
I cannot make any conclusive remarks about hijab generally or in my personal experiences. What I can say is that as these discourses about my oppression reach a nauseous height and hegemonic preoccupation in numerous imaginations, I will continue to write. I will not write to prove my liberation, but write to assert my right to exist as I choose without harassment, intimidation and ridicule. People often say, 'well, if you don't want to be singled-out then just don't wear hijab'. I guess while I am at it, I should lighten my brown skin to reach a more appeasing colour? Or give my hips back to mama. Assimilation is not an option. The reality is that, yes, I wear hijab and no, I do not need your approval. While I do not need your approval, I would not mind a little respect.
* Kameelah Rasheed is a Fulbright scholar at Wits University in Johannesburg South Africa. She also blogs at Kameelah Writes
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