World Hijab Day: DoA

Nazma Khan, an Asian woman wearing a hijab, delivering a lectureEarlier this week, there was a so-called Day of Acceptance (of Disability), organised by a company called 3E Love, which markets a variety of merchandise, like T-shirts, stickers etc, bearing their logo of a wheelchair with a heart-shaped ‘wheel’. Some disabled people objected that the event was a marketing scheme for that company’s products, that they had already accepted their disability and wanted other people to accept them and their disabilities seven days a week rather than one day a year. Saturday week (1st Feb) is meant to be World Hijab Day, “an open invitation to Muslims & non-Muslims to wear Hijab for a day”, which has been leapt on by various media outlets including BBC London. Much as with the occasional bit of disability tourism, however, hijab tourism (or niqab tourism) doesn’t really give an accurate impression of the full-time experience. (The event has a website and a Facebook page. More: Muslim Matters, Ms Muslamic [1], [2].)

I’ve written about both types of tourism before, but it’s an idea that never quite goes away. Sometimes it has good intentions, such as when non-Muslim women wear hijab at times when Muslim women who wear it are being attacked, but other times it’s just a matter of them not being bothered to ask women for whom it’s their normal dress for going out in. When BBC London put out their tweet asking for women who’d “take up the challenge” of wearing hijab for the day on 1st Feb, I responded:

Among the other inspired responses to the event:

I’m quite disappinted by the manner of BBC London’s participation, as it’s a local radio station and can easily contact people who can tell them what it’s like to go out in hijab every day. For these women, it’s a matter of a religious commitment, something that they and others before them have fought to get accepted in schools and workplaces, and they have found a way of wearing it that they find most comfortable. This won’t be the case for someone who just wears it for a day; they’ll take an off-the-peg type such as an al-Amira, or they’ll awkwardly pin a scarf under their neck. In the same way, when women just “try on the niqab”, they’ll not have the religious commitment and they are unlikely to have shopped around for a well-made and comfortable one. In addition, most women who wear niqaab live in areas of substantial Muslim settlement such as east London; their numbers in other areas have become noticeably fewer, particularly since the hostility stirred up by Jack Straw in 2006.

Then again, perhaps getting a “just put it on” view makes the whole event a bit more dramatic; inviting people who wear it all the time to give their accounts might get boring; it’s just an account of normal life. (The same desire for novelty and drama is found in TV’s treatment of disability.) Furthermore, probably the majority of hijab-wearers in London are Asian women, and the sight of an Asian woman in hijab in London has become somewhat normalised, while a white woman would still attract stares, although perhaps less so where there is an established Arab population. However, someone just doing it for a day as a challenge, rather than an actual female convert who wears it because it is part of the religion, will not have to deal with hostile questions about why she wears a “garment of submission/oppression”, a terrorists’ uniform, “that rag”, or about where she’s from (as it would be assumed it would be anywhere but England, especially if she is in a rural town) or about her conversion itself.

What is most irritating about this stunt is that as is so often the case, non-Muslim (most likely white) women’s opinions are being sought on something that normally only affects Muslim women, whether it’s university lecture segregation or hijab and whether women (and girls) should wear it and where. (Occasionally they find a “Muslimoid”, someone who has the right colour and a Muslim-sounding name, but who is not in fact Muslim and is hostile to Muslims — Yasmin Alibhai-Brown being the usual suspect.) There are tens of thousands of women who wear hijab in London who could offer a variety of experiences of wearing it as a teenager, an adult, in various professions and at various times in history — if they want to invite one woman who tried it on for the day and include her among the other women, that’s fine, but we don’t want to hear a whole feature of trying-on experiences.

Image is a still from a lecture given by WHD founder Nazma Khan; you can watch it on their website or YouTube.

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