In “Men Explain Things to Me”, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story…(T)he ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” A declaration meant to illuminate the struggle of women at large, this statement also resonates in a very particular way for many Muslim women. We too are the nameless victims in a saviour story whereby the saviour – a hero or heroine – is more important and consequential than the supposed victim. Muslim women are made to be caricatures shaped and molded to fit an image already constructed. Other times, we are simply reduced to academic subjects examined within a theory designed to justify conclusions already reached about Islam and the lived experiences of Muslim women everywhere. Rarely, if ever, are we considered as living breathing beings, with real voices of our own. Voices that are often raised but completely ignored, let alone listened to. To be the understudy of your own story, to be relegated to the wings of life’s stage while others say your lines for you, is the reality of many Muslim women out there, including myself. Time and tired time again, we have seen how the claim of standing up for Muslim women has served as a pretext for singling out Islam and Muslim men for misogynistic domination and control of their own. This has been the case in the ongoing furor over providing space for Muslim students to pray (in which girls and boys are separated) at many schools across Southern Ontario, and in the previous Conservative federal government’s efforts to prohibit niqab-wearing women from becoming Canadian citizens. Nearly two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the receiving end of some rather harsh criticisms for attending an Ottawa mosque on Eid Al-Adha, whereby men and women pray in separate areas (but are mixed during other events). This makes for a good example in a string of fabricated controversies seen in this country. To condemn Trudeau’s visit to the mosque as a betrayal of “feminism” and collusion with patriarchy is hypocritical at best. Never mind that some of Canada’s most elite educational institutions also practice the apparently cardinal sin of gender separation, in the form of single-sex schools. And never mind that former prime minister Stephen Harper also visited religious spaces whereby gender segregation is the norm, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2014.
It is high time that we begin to see through the pretense that these campaigns against Muslim “misogyny” have anything to do with the wellbeing of Muslim women. If they did, one would expect them to be more concerned with accuracy than with sensationalism – to the benefit of cultural hysteria in supporting the media’s propagandist, Islamophobic agenda, I might add. Now, let me make myself very clear. I am by no means interested in defending the misogynistic behaviour of some Muslim men – or any man for that matter. I personally believe that some Islamic traditions and practices are long overdue for reform. But that’s not the point. While undoubtedly an issue, it’s completely absurd – even outright racist and xenophobic – to accuse Muslim men of being the only beneficiaries of male privilege, and perpetrators of gendered violence. And what’s worse is that in effort to save face, it’s all being done under the guise of “saving” Muslim women from themselves. From my experience, Westerners seem to like the idea of a brown Muslim girl finding “liberation” and “freedom” through “Western” values. Mainstream media usually depicts Muslim women as docile victims forced to wear the “oppressive” hijab and obey the men in their lives. While I cannot deny that this is the experience of some, it is ridiculous to think that all Muslim women are subjugated and in need of rescue. In this debate on whether Muslim women need saving, the voices that are most often ignored are the ones that are most important – those of Muslim women. To even call it a debate is dishonest and unequivocally biased. The media does not care to focus on what Muslim women happen to think about wearing the hijab or even what Muslim women find empowering. The truth is many Muslim women are empowered by their faith – finding both strength and freedom from it. But the media – including the very people who consume and give into the problematic narratives that illustrate Muslim women as “submissive” and “oppressed” – are not concerned with understanding and acknowledging the very wants of Muslim women whatsoever. Even when Muslim women tirelessly argue that they are not oppressed by Islam, people like to believe otherwise. Some are even quick to dismiss their claims altogether by stating that these women are brainwashed and don’t know what’s best for them. A patronizing pity of sorts. So, it would be a fairly reasonable thing to expect them to pay more attention to the actual voices, experiences and perspectives of the women whose rights and interests are at stake. Rather than to completely ignore most – expect for the few – who supposedly represent Islam as the entire cause of Muslim women’s suffering. This is not solidarity with Muslim women, but racism thinly veiled in the language of “feminism.” While the demonization of Islam and Muslims as exclusively oppressive certainly advances the cause of racist stereotyping, it does little to benefit the women in whose interests these so-called champions for equality claim to speak. On the contrary, Muslim women bear a heavy part of the burden of violence and hatred generated by these stereotypes. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, from 2010 to 2013, hate crimes against Muslims in Canada has increased by a staggering 253%, with the highest percentage of hate crime victims being female (47 per cent). During the aftermath of 9/11 (and the decade ensuing), we have seen women wearing the hijab and niqab being physically attacked in cities across Canada and the United States. This has increasingly been the case, especially with our current political climate ruled by the Trumps, neo-Nazis, and fascists of the world. The critics who are so incensed by the subjugation of Muslim women tend to be conspicuously silent when the agents of violence are non-Muslims, motivated by the Islamophobic narratives that they have helped perpetuate. So much for a principled stand against gendered violence and inequality.
Misogyny and sexism are universal issues rooted in the deep-seated belief that men are in many ways superior to women – including socially, politically, ideologically, and morally. Ultimately, it all comes down to power and control. Any other assertion would otherwise be inaccurate and completely out of place. So, we must do away with the double standards that continue to muddle with the advancement of gender equity and women’s rights both locally and abroad. Islam is not synonymous with misogyny, just as much as Christianity is not synonymous with racism. And so, I refuse to have my faith incriminated by others in an attempt to distance us from the other. In our own way, we are just as complicit in allowing gender inequities to happen right under our noses here at home. Masking this gendered Islamophobia in a cloak of so-called “feminism” and “gender equality” is a tasteless sham, and it certainly hasn’t fooled me. Many Muslim women are reclaiming their story and talking about their experiences. The media and civic community just need to hear them out and take them seriously. My story is not that of a victim, and I choose to define my narrative on my own terms. The right to claim one’s narrative is something that everyone should have. Muslim women are no different, and definitely don’t need others to tell their story or speak for them. They are more than capable to speak for themselves. In Canada, Muslim women have been at the forefront of fundamental struggles for justice, equality, and freedom: Monia Mazigh, who advocated for the release of her husband, Maher Arar, when he was secretly imprisoned and tortured in Syria with Canadian complicity; Zunera Ishaq, who successfully challenged the government’s discriminatory ban on face veils at citizenship ceremonies; and, Yusra Khogali, who is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Toronto. Of course, there are far too many to name here, but you get the idea. We are fighting the struggles that need to be fought on several fronts: against sexism, against racism, against Islamophobia. We do not need to be told what to wear on our faces and on our heads and on our bodies, or where to sit when we pray. And we definitely do not need to be “saved” by ideologues who are only interested in Islam to prove its supposed inferiority, or as a proxy for attacking a political party. It is an insult to Muslim women’s agency and intelligence to be rendered silent puppets in a stale supremacist script.
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).