Illustration by Neda Hajmomeni
This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!
For decades, the hijab has been a contentious topic among feminists. In the Islamophobic aftermath of 9/11, for instance, Muslims who chose to wear hijab found themselves in a position of dual vulnerability, battling not only bigots who saw them as terrorist accomplices to “savage brown men,” but also feminists who ascribed to them disempowering traits such as passivity or sexual conservativism. Western feminism’s view of Islam has regularly invisibilized Muslim women by homogenizing them into one-dimensional objects—and by refusing to take into account that every hijab-wearing person may have a different take on the garment’s gendered meaning.
But if the lived realities of Muslim women and trans folks—which are more nuanced than the media portrays—have historically been erased from mainstream Western feminism, many recent platforms have actively sought to make visible the archetypical hijabi, with progressive circles in particular celebrating their power. But do such platforms truly aim to dismantle structural Islamophobia as they exemplify their diversity by utilizing the face of the hijab-clad Muslim?
Not all Muslims who wear hijab identify as women; nor do all hijab-wearing people wear the hijab for similar reasons, or in the same manner, or with the same consistency. But it has always been gendered and racialized by colonial rhetoric. Even before the hijab regularly popped up in fashion venues or liberal protests, the idea of the veiled Muslim woman was used to justify colonial missions. Shortly after 9/11, for instance, then–First Lady Laura Bush—a woman with no history of or interest in feminism—cited women’s rights as the primary reason for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing that the “war on terror” was a “fight for the rights and dignity of women” that it aimed to liberate out of their veils.
The co-optation of women’s rights to justify imperial missions is certainly nothing new; its colonial roots creep back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when direct colonization by Europeans was justified as “saving” women from “barbaric” cultures. Yet what continues to haunt political language is the figure of the Muslim Woman, even as her likeness is appropriated for current liberal causes. This woman remains the person conjured by Bush—a symbol, an avatar, but never fully human. She’s used only to exemplify a homogenized group, but never as someone with complex thoughts and feelings that transcend the meanings assigned to the hijab by the white gaze.
Like most people of color, Muslims—especially women and trans folks—have been denied visibility by popular culture and media. And when they have been granted visibility, it comes mostly in forms that perpetuate dominant imperial structures. Recent attempts to redress such visibility have framed it as a necessary form of resistance to previous misrepresentations. Of course it’s necessary to represent those who wear the hijab in a way that resists stereotyping. Of course it’s important to show previously silenced and erased people as active agents. But it is also important to be skeptical of platforms that represent hijabis in a positive light in order to deflect criticism of their complicity in structures of violence.
As Munira Ahmed’s flag-clad photo becomes a consistent presence at anti-Trump protests, I’ve been thinking about the different venues in which the Muslim Woman as icon is granted visibility. And I’ve been uncomfortable with how those occupying such venues—from voyeuristic white men to “well-intentioned” liberal protesters—transform the figure of the Muslim Woman into one-dimensional objects to serve their own goals.
The image of Ahmed that was plastered across thousands of placards during the January women’s marches, and now hangs on walls in countless inclusive spaces, shows a Bangladeshi-American Muslim woman, clad in a hijab fashioned from an American flag. The message, according to Ahmed: “I am American just as you are.”
While such claims to nationality offer necessary pushback to the conservative fiction that Muslims and other people of color are inherently un-American, Ahmed’s remarks frame the United States as a benevolent land of immigrants. “It’s unfortunate that there are still people who feel America is about excluding people of different origin,” noted Ahmed. “That to me is not what the core values of America are about…. A lot of the progress of this nation takes places because of immigrants…. What makes this country great is pluralism. Our diversity is the envy of the world.”
As Ahmed sees it, the United States has always represented pluralism, and it is only the relatively recent violent rhetoric—and actual violence—against Muslims that has shaken that great tradition. Forgotten in her framing is the fundamental racism that has shaped U.S. policy and culture: the building of a nation on land stolen by Native Americans, and a history of slavery and segregation. A false nostalgia haunts not only Trumpies and conservatives who pine for a whiter America, but also the liberals who want to go “back” to one that was pluralist and tolerant.
As the image of the flag hijab spread, some Muslim women were skeptical. In a post titled, “Please keep your American flags off my hijab,” anticapitalist fashion blogger Hoda Katebi noted that symbols of American nationalism erase the people of color who are bombed, harassed, and imprisoned by the U.S. government: “The American flag represents oppression, torture, sexual violence, slavery, patriarchy, and military [and] cultural hegemony for people of color around the world whose homes and families have been destroyed and drone-striked by the very person/former president whose campaign images this one seeks to replicate.” Further, Katebi considers that women who wear hijab embody resistance to capitalism and Eurocentric beauty standards, while the American flag symbolizes the exact opposite. Thus, transforming a hijab into a nod to nationalism may make the garment palatable to white supremacy—but it does nothing to dismantle the racism or Islamophobia associated with hijab to begin with.
My point here is not to critique Ahmed’s intent, but to call attention to the wide circulation of this particular image. Why did an image of a woman in a headscarf appeal to the American masses so much? Perhaps what made it so palatable was that it turned protests and marches into feel-good events for white people. Perhaps it circulated so widely because it helped to deflect attention from the atrocities that the United States is actively committing abroad, allowing Americans to revel only in the benevolence of U.S. liberalism. At times, visibility or diversity projects actually do the opposite of what they claim to be doing—in this case, demonstrate how they can include the faces of hijab-clad Muslims while remaining actively complicit in structures that harm this very community. As folks keep tweeting Munira Ahmed’s photo and holding up placards with her face on them, Muslims of all genders continue to be tortured in Guantanamo Bay, bombed in Syria, and targeted for hate crimes right here at home.
It is not only progressive spaces like protests that are circulating images of hijab-wearing Muslims; corporations, too, have taken up the figure of the Muslim Woman to showcase their own diversity and inclusivity. Nike’s Pro Hijab is the most recent example of corporations adopting hijabs as commodities and creating a ruckus amongst the political right. According to the Islamophobes who have boycotted Nike over the new garment, the brand is promoting “oppression of women” by creating a hijab expressly for sports. While this conception of hijab-wearing women as inherently oppressed should be resisted, it is also strange that Nike—a corporation that has historically exploited working people in the Global South—is now championing its diversity by launching a pro-Muslim product. How do we reconcile the supposedly progressive Pro Hijab with Nike’s corporate abuses, with its sweatshop-studded history, with its capitalist co-optation of feminism?
The Pro Hijab, after all, is not Nike’s first stab at embracing surface-level diversity. In 2009, Nike launched an initiative called the “Girl Effect” to transform girls in the Global South into productive workers so that their empowerment could catalyze the machine of transnational capitalism. But the Pro Hijab is not about saving third-world women through capitalist means like the Girl Effect was; rather, it aims to promote ideas such as inclusion and diversity, common buzzwords used in corporate culture to create a façade of progressivism. Yet, in both initiatives, Nike adopts the same strategy: Portraying itself as a corporate comrade (what an oxymoron!) to the oppressed while exploiting its vulnerable workers.
Even though Nike has tried to assume corporate social responsibility in the past decade, workers continue to strike at its factories because their working conditions are so dismal. The colossal difference between Nike’s retail prices and its direct-labor costs demonstrates how Nike makes use of cheap, underpaid labor in places like Vietman, Indonesia, and Thailand to create products for bourgeois folks worldwide. For example, in 2011 an average worker in Indonesia was making the U.S. equivalent of $2.50 even though the living wage during that year was around $4.50. Apart from being underpaid, workers in Nike factories have experienced severe verbal and physical abuse by employers, with factories failing to meet even the minimum of Nike’s own standards for contract manufacturers.
A 2015 H&M ad campaign runs into similar issues of representing marginalized brown folks in advertisements while denying brown workers their rights in the Global South. The worlds second-largest retailer began featuring Muslim model Mariah Idrissi in advertisements for women’s clothing and accessories, part of a series of “diverse” images that also included Sikh models in turbans. While fashion is certainly political, and representation of the hijab in fashion does shape how we view a piece of clothing that is so politicized, the ad campaign came soon after H&M was criticized for labor violations in its factories. The 2013 tragedy at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 workers died, brought attention to the poor working conditions of those toiling in garment factories, many of whom are women and children. Pressure from labor activists did lead to some positive change regarding workers’ safety, but companies like H&M continue to exploit the labor of women in Bangladesh—and other places in the Global South—so that folks in the West can consume affordable fashionable products after being enthralled by ad campaigns that feature brown hijab-clad folks. As Nike creates products for marginalized brown consumers, and H&M features marginalized brown models in its advertisements, how many marginalized brown workers are exploited and harmed in the process of making the very products that allow for such visibility?
As someone who has never worn the hijab, I cannot speak to the joy of personal identification with such representations. I don’t want to rob fellow Muslim feminists of the opportunity to identify with fashion or sports representations in a culture that denies that to so many.
But amidst these celebrations of inclusivity and diversity, we must remember that while such representations may create individualized gratification for consumers, they do not dismantle structural Islamophobia. We must remember that the very venues granting this representation to the Muslim Woman harm vulnerable folks in the Global South, many of whom are also Muslim women. And we must remember that many of these strategies at expanding representation to include the Muslim Woman are strategies that help deflect attention from the exploitation of those who are most at risk from the violence of transnational capitalism.
Equally interested in representing the contentious Muslim Woman in seemingly “progressive” ways are historically patriarchal venues like Playboy. The controversy around Playboy featuring a hijab-clad model on its front cover—as it did with model Noor Tagouri in October 2016—is simply another example of a problematic platform attempting to visibilize hijabi women. Tagouri did subvert the stereotype of the passive hijab-wearing Muslim in the photo; not surprisingly, her performative photoshoot proved so threatening to the magazine’s status quo that she became the target of sexist abuse. And while the backlash against Tagouri by conservative Muslims and Islamophobic others alike was repulsive, it is ironic to celebrate Playboy’s diversity ploy as something feminist. How can we rejoice in the visibility of the hijab when it is being featured on the cover of a men’s magazine that has historically objectified women’s bodies? Has the project of inclusion come down to including hijabi women under the voyeuristic gaze alongside other women?
When I first saw the image of Tagouri on the cover of Playboy, I couldn’t help but think about the long history of white men fetishizing Muslim women. It seemed to me that suddenly, a men’s entertainment magazine was simply expanding its objectifying horizons. Even though Playboy considers itself liberal, I wondered if this feature was just a “liberal” kin to the violent genre of burqa porn. Yes, burqa porn is actually a specialty genre in which women wearing a partial veil—over their hair or faces—are transformed into sex objects for white Western men. White men’s sexual fascination with Muslim women is rooted in political histories of colonization; Edward W. Said, in his groundbreaking book Orientalism, delineates how European colonizers imagined Middle-Eastern women during the era of colonial expansion. In European paintings, North African and Asian harems usually depicted naked women lounging about lazily, usually bejeweled
in exotic ways. These days, white men’s fascination with the women they attempt to colonize runs rampant as U.S. drones continue to terrorize abroad.
Playboy’s use of Noor Tagouri helps Playboy maintain a façade of inclusion and diversity while it continues to espouse an ideology built on the sexualization of women.
So what does it mean when antifeminist media like Playboy suddenly bring into focus those who have been invisiblized by Islamophobia and white supremacy? How do we make sense of the visibility that H&M ads or Nike products are granting brown Muslim women, when the same companies exploit the labor of factory-working Muslim women in countries like Bangladesh where workers are denied safety and wages? And is Munira Ahmed’s face actually mobilizing movements against Islamophobia, or is it simply being used as a symbol of inclusion without challenging nationalist violence?
Before supporting these initiatives that are supposedly pro-Muslim, let’s think about whether such projects help to dismantle Islamophobia and racism as they put on a show of Muslim inclusion. Let’s think about their complicity in violence against people of color. Let’s think about the effect they have—not on the token Muslim Woman featured in ads or on placards, but on the most vulnerable of Muslim women, trans folks, and transgender non-conforming people. Only then will we be able to look past their brands and images and focus on what is being left out.