Sociology and Anthropology

Unveiled Muslim Identity in the West: A Muslim Male Perspective

This paper focuses on the meaning and promise of hijab in the transnational contexts, specifically in the Muslim diasporas. I argue for broadening the national imaginary of citizenry in the “Western” milieu to incorporate its “Other,” Islam, through reconsideration of the prevailing perception of hijab, which has long symbolized Islam’s oppression of women to the “Western” eyes. To this end, I set out to situate hijab at the crossroads of the deep issues of Orientalism, multiculturalism, feminism, and notions of citizenship informed by a wider meaning of politics. Inspired mostly by the emphasis of Katherine Bullock’s seminal work on the multiple meanings of hijab, my perspective proposes the revision of the dominant so-called liberatory feminist attitude that in effect sustains the oppression of women in both Muslim and “Western” settings. In offering this, however, I am closer to a cosmopolitan outlook than a multiculturalist one. I specially suggest avoiding assimilationary policies that would miss the real possibilities of empowerment and liberation of Muslim (and) women globally. The solution, instead, lies in the de-Westernizing of the West. In another vein, my “male” perspective will pose a challenge to certain commonplace convictions of some feminists that essentialize women’s experience over any other subjectivities that women and men share in other contexts and that might prove indispensable in working out the broader questions I will handle in this paper.

My veiled1 activist friend was appalled at the reaction by feminists at an international conference she attended to raise international awareness about Turkey’s hijab ban. “They could not believe that a woman would struggle for her right to wear hijab in a secular Muslim country,” she related. So did most of the people here in the U.S. when I described how some of my friends were expelled from school, pressured by their parents, and even beaten up by the police or by their own family members since they insisted on covering themselves.2 Accordingly, I could not realize that when we, male students, tried to help our friends for their cause, we were not taken on the same terms as the white abolitionists struggling against the slavery, as we wished, but as male fundamentalists brainwashing or even coercing the women to cover. It was an instructive experience that taught me to avoid being so engaged in women’s affairs when doing so is doomed to be counterproductive.

In an academic world where “essentialism” has become the capital sin and where almost all binary oppositions are treated as ideological instruments , it is, surprisingly, not rare to find extensive use of the term “Western” to denote a monolithic entity that is constructed against its inferior “Other”, which is authoritarian, misogynist, and backward. Does it make any sense to talk about a Judeo-Christian West when a West European state feels the need to ban a cultural practice that belongs to an “outsider” religion? Was not it the stressful existence of blacks amongst whites that made segregation an enforceable policy? Does not the hijab ban in France prove that the “other” is too visible to be neglected as outsider?

Hijab is at the crossroads of an amalgamation of theoretical issues. What does hijab mean in gender relations? Does this meaning hold across boundaries, or is there something complicated when we introduce the colonial/postcolonial relations into picture? Finally in a global world, what does multiculturalism, if it is such a great thing, require in the case of the Muslim minorities who insist on their women’s wearing hijab in largely non-Muslim secular societies? My contention is that we will fail to answer any of these questions if we fail to address all of them together.

If what enabled the “Westerners” to construct their Western identity was the existence of Islam as the other, then ever-increasing populations of Muslim immigrants and converts at the heart of the West must be bad news. Having said that, is it really the case that France is aiming at liberating women from oppression, and instead not trying to save its own identity as a secular Western country? Is it just the veiled Muslim girl who was born and raised in the U.S. who is undergoing an identity crisis amongst national, ethnic, gender, and religious identities or is it the American citizenry itself that is in crisis?

Reality poses constant challenges to the constructs in our minds, yet we lag far behind in adapting our categories to it. What hijab, which is itself a borrowed term, means in a Western context will guide me through this paper as the key to discuss the boundaries of citizenship in the Western countries, in particular the U.S. I will embark upon my endeavor by delving into colonial-Orientalist construction of the West and Islam as inimical terms, and explore what it means today in understanding the prevalent perceptions of hijab. Thereafter, as I call the dominant perceptions of hijab into question I will propose alternative ways of perceiving hijab.Debates on multiculturalism will direct the course of my discussion in that section. Subsequently,I will seek to develop alternative strategies for putting hijab into action as a positive force to shape the future meaning of the citizenry, speaking from the position of an “alien” student of politics experiencing being a Muslim male in the U.S. I will conclude my reflections by pointing to some possible pitfalls involved in this hard task. As usual, it requires women to carry the burden to change the society, but in a world where most of the injustice and oppression have been inflicted on this segment of the humanity, and when history does not provide sufficient instances of oppressors giving up oppression on their own, this should come as no surprise.

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