The Relationship Between Muslim Identity, Space, and the Female Body

Between the Lines of Hyper-Visibility and Invisibility 

“The other is the ‘stranger neighbour’: she is distant in the sense that I cannot assume community or commonality with her, and yet she is close by, so that she will haunt me, stay with me, as a reminder of the unassimilable in my life…” – Sara Ahmed (2000) 

Thomas King (2003) tells us that “the truth about stories is that [they’re] all we are.” I tell my story here, not to play on your sympathies, but to suggest how stories have the potential to influence our lives. There is a part of me that has never been able to move past these stories, a part of me that will be bound to these stories for as long as I live (King, 9). Through photography, I tell only part of my story, for my story is never truly whole – incomplete, fragmented, and beautiful. As a veiled Muslim woman of colour, born and raised in Canada, the relationship I have with my identity and my body is complicated – just like the photograph above. Notice how the shades of black and grey clothing serve to highlight the bold red hijab in a way that locates meaning from the body. In both its redness and its boldness, the hijab symbolizes the body’s visibility clearly and unapologetically. Yet, the face is divorced from the body in such a way as to distance the body from its surroundings and its possible encounters with others in the background. It is telling of a kind of faceless embodiment, possessed by an aura of otherness existing from within. It reveals a type of humanness without the human, robbed of its very personhood: an other or alien being. In this way, the understanding of who I am and what I am, both in being and becoming, is very much contingent on how I am perceived by others. That is, my hijab accentuates my visibility in the public scene, yet my body – on account of its muslimness – is marginalized and rendered invisible nevertheless. In a strange and paradoxical way, I am seen and unseen at the same time. Therefore, it is in this very context that I begin to explore how managing visibility becomes critical and challenging when attempting to navigate one’s body between the lines of hyper-visibility and invisibility. In particular, I consider the way in which hyper-visibility threatens overexposure and harsh scrutiny, while invisibility enforces the silencing and erasure of marginalized bodies – including my own. Visibility, in this sense, becomes a double-edged sword that seems dangerous to wield at times. Being cognizant of how my body is read then elicits my desire to further examine the way in which my body is surveilled, governed, restricted, and seen in the watchful eye of the dominant gaze. From this, I also consider how the very essence of my “being-in-the-world” is dependent on my constant need to contest and negotiate my identity in accordance to my positionality at particular moments in time and place. By citing the works of Razack (2003), Ahmed (2000) and Butler (2006), my aim is to draw theory from the photograph in hopes of bringing meaning to my body – as a site of agency and resistance above all else. This process is by no means fixed and linear. In fact, it would be misleading and unauthentic to deny its messy and complex nature. In the same way, I do not wish to make conclusive arguments for my subjectivity is fluid and ever-changing. Instead, I intend to bring clarity to some questions raised in the scope of my writing.

Nonetheless, I try to better conceptualize this phenomenon by first borrowing from what Sherene Razack (2003) refers to as “unmapping.” In unmapping, there is an important relationship between identity and space. Not only does it denaturalize geography by asking how spaces come to be, but it also challenges worldviews that rest upon it, in relation to our bodies (Razack, 5). I pay particular attention to the material and symbolic constitution of actual spaces by exploring the way in which racialization processes become directly experienced as spatial (Razack, 6). By engaging with this idea of spatiality, the hope is that it will yield insight into the multiple ways in which a racial social order is produced and sustained (Razack, 6). With this in mind, when I speak of coming to know myself in and through space, I must emphasize that I can only really come to know myself in relation to others, and vice versa. In other words, I can consider the question of being, of what it means to be in the world, only when I think of myself in relation to the white dominant body first (Ahmed, 139). This relationship explicitly refers to the dominant racial imaginary, whereby the dominant white body comes to know themselves through the spaces in which they occupy. This imaginary then is only ever possible when it is in relation to the racial other (Razack, 13). That is, the dominant white body effortlessly comes to occupy their space with a sense of entitlement, privilege, and superiority. The racial other, on the other hand, inevitably is imagined embodying spaces that are deemed inferior, deviant, and subordinate. In this respect, Ahmed (2000) also suggests that we need to complicate the very notion of coming to know the other by discussing the temporal and spatial dislocations that are implicated in the very possibility of being faced by this other. Certainly, this is partly about locating the encounter in time and space (Ahmed, 144).  

The hijab in this sense must then be contextualized according to its specific locality and spatiality. For instance, the hijab in the West is often viewed as a symbol of oppression by the dominant white gaze. Yet it is almost never equated with representations of liberty and freedom, as it sometimes is by women who choose to wear the hijab as part of their religious dress. Focusing on the perceived lack of agency signified by the hijab not only misunderstands the various cultural, religious, and spiritual meanings that the hijab might carry for women who wear it, but also denies the very idioms of agency that are relevant for such women (Butler, 47). In particular, the hijab gives meaning to my body in that the hijab itself makes me vulnerable to an acute kind of visibility. Its symbolic meaning (e.g. oppressive, barbaric), on the other hand, renders my body an other, lesser, alien being – unimportant and invisible. This symbolic constitution of space becomes gendered as well, especially as the hijab imparts specific implications on the bodies of veiled Muslim women exclusively. This is not to say that Muslim men are not vulnerable to this kind of subjugation, but veiled Muslim women face a very distinct and different experience altogether. In consequence, the gendering of the hijab constitutes more symbolic meanings to my body, in that I am further marginalized by my perceived passivity and docility as a result of both my womanness and my muslimness. Therefore, understanding the concept of the dominant racial imaginary in relation to its symbolic constitution of space is essential, for it illustrates the way in which my body is conceived as a veiled Muslim woman living in the West.

Likewise, the material constitution of space in relation to my body is best exemplified in the way that Muslims have experienced an arguably unique brand of body terrorism based on the perception that they pose a hypervisible “threat” to the dominant society. That is, in the wake of the war on terror, there has been a radical desire for security, a rush to ‘secure,’ abuse and detain the bodies of Muslims, and a heightened surveillance of anyone who looks vaguely Muslim in the dominant racial imaginary (Butler, 39). The media, for instance, authorizes various terror alerts, whereby others are solicited to be on guard but not told explicitly what to be on guard against; thereby heightening racial hysteria in which fear is directed anywhere and nowhere all at once (Butler, 39). Accordingly, as a racialized body that reads “threat” or “terror” in the eyes of the dominant gaze, there are real and material consequences to my body. My hijab deems me a threat, and this perceived deviance falls under the watchful eye of those who do not see me for me, but rather a monolithic risk or inferior group of which I am apart. In this way, the hijab then justifies any (perceived) risk or vulnerability to violence or hostility that I may experience. Recognizing the social and political implications imposed onto my body in this violent manner compel me to be especially vigilant in how I navigate my body in accordance to particular social contexts. For example, I find that I have to conduct myself differently when I am walking in the streets of Toronto, as opposed to when I am riding the TTC. Similarly, my experience during the day is certainly unlike my experience after dark. This constant need to negotiate my identity in accordance to my positionality at particular moments in time and place serve two purposes. For one, my survival of “being-in-the-world” depend on this very contestation. More importantly, my understanding of how I am perceived in the dominant racial imaginary (and the way in which symbolic and material constitutions of space materialize) equally influence this need to negotiate my identity within the broader social context, both in being and becoming me.  

The concept of visibility – particularly in the void between hypervisibility and invisibility – then is just another way to deny individuals recognition and the right to truly be seen. The ability to be recognized is often constructed as a type of privileging reserved for the dominant white body, commonly accepted by default. As such, it is the processes of recognition and expulsion that produce the very figure of the other in the first place (Ahmed, 140). The national racial imaginary further emphasizes how such processes of incorporation and expulsion involve the figuring of the other as the ‘outsider within’ (Ahmed, 140). In turn, the figure of the other is an effect of the processes that come to imagine it as either welcomed or expelled to begin with (Ahmed, 141). This is to say that to name some-body as other is already to recognize them (Ahmed, 156). In this process of recognition, my body is made visible and vulnerable, but it contains a kind of agency nonetheless. In being exposed to the gaze of others, my body is an instrument for agency and resistance against this violent marking of the other (Butler, 26). Striving for recognition as a form of resistance is to solicit a becoming, to instigate a transformation, to exist – here, not there, present, and never absent, still human. My story paints my body scarred and my psyche bruised, but my existence with and without my hijab, in all its corporal meanings and inscriptions, is how I come into being, again and again. For, yes, my story is broken, permeating with pain and lost words that will never be able to completely formulate any sense of who I am. As I navigate my body and identity between the lines of hypervisibility and invisibility, I am constantly reminded of that which I have yet to know. But, in the same breath, I am also reminded that my story has been told, forever loose in the world, never to be reclaimed again (King, 2003).

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