Hijab: beyond the stereotype

“The hijab — the Muslim headscarf — is a simple item of clothing that has the power to represent complex and even contradictory ideas — from tradition and social conservatism to revolution and democracy (or the hope of democracy, e.g., via the Arab Spring). The symbolism of the hijab depends partly on in which country it is worn, its color or colors and design, and what clothing it is worn with.

Bijan ad, Vogue.

Bijan ad, Vogue.

There has been a tendency in the West to conflate the hijab with religious fundamentalism, terror, or the “oppression” of women. While our attitude has been shaped to a large degree in the post-9/11 world, stereotyping isn’t new. In 1992, Vogue and other fashion magazines published an advert for Bijan perfume, contrasting the hijab (and its wearer) to the woman who would wear a baseball cap and American clothing. The woman wearing the hijab looked, well… unhappy. A caption beside her reads: “women should be obedient, grateful, modest, respectful, submissive, and very, very serious.”

Next to the other woman — who is depicted as the “all-American” girl — is the caption: “women should be bright, wild, flirty, eccentric, tough, bold, and very, very Bijan,” along with a US flag.

As Faegheh Shirazi says in The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture, the Anti-Discrimination Committee complained to Bijan’s management, saying, “being Muslim and American are not a contradiction and should not be portrayed as such.” This was clearly the implication of the ad.

Egypt, Islamism, and the harassment of unveiled women

But the stereotyping of women — including Muslim women — isn’t exactly confined to the West or to non-Muslim societies.

Prior to the 1970s, the hijab had more or less disappeared in Egypt. During that decade it began making a comeback among female supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — usually considered to be a conservative, Islamist movement. And partly for this reason it has acquired the reputation as an Islamist garment.

Since the (Arab Spring) revolution in Egypt, harassment of, and sexual violence against, unveiled women has skyrocketed. Many in Egypt, as Middle Eastern news site Al Monitor reports, are referring to this phenomenon as “sharia harassment,” since the perpetrators are aiming to enforce sharia (Islamic law), as they see it, on unveiled women, removing their rights to choose their clothing, lifestyle, and so on. Egyptian newspaper El-Badil found that non-veiled women were being routinely threatened by veiled woman and men.

Graffiti, and the Phenomenology of the hijab

While there have been attempts to ban the burka or niqab, and while stereotyping of, and hostility to, the hijab certainly exists, in the West, among graffiti and street artists, it has been adopted as a symbol of shock — even if the message of the artist is, in many cases, entirely unclear. In France, a graffiti artist calling herself “Princess Hijab” (who may not be female at all, by the way), has gained a reputation and media attention for vandalizing adverts on the Paris metro. Princess Hijab’s art consists of dripped and brush stroked black paint that covers over the faces of models. In what some might see as a mockery of Islam, even male models are painted with niqabs and hijabs.

In an interview with a reporter from Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Princess Hijab explained, in cookie cutter art-speak, that, “the veil has many hidden meanings, it can be as profane as it is sacred, consumerist and sanctimonious. From Arabic Gothicism to the condition of man. The interpretations are numerous and of course it carries great symbolism on race, sexuality and real and imagined geography.” Yawn.

Graffitti by Princess Hijab.

Graffitti by Princess Hijab.

Boiled down, the artist seems to be saying that the hijab can mean anything you want it to, and that it is up to viewers to decide for themselves. But, in which case, why the hijab rather than any other face covering or, for that matter, any other symbol? Religions can be interpreted differently, and, as such, it is no surprise that the hijab has different meanings for different Muslim women (and Muslim men). Yet, the way in which Princess Hijab uses it betrays only solipsism. The hijab, for the Princess, is essentially a blank slate into which her own ideas can be poured — it is the erasing of identity, and the erasing of culture, to create a new, post-modern one.

Ironically, in Britain, although much less appreciated than the Princess, two young male Muslims have been convicted of spray painting a niqab over a scantily clad Kelly Brook, featured in a Lynx deodorant ad. For these two, less culturally-relative teens, the niqab and hijab had a very definite meaning. They told the police, who arrested them, that they covered the image of the model, since it was a “sin” for women to be uncovered.

Famous for his “Obey” sticker campaign, and for his Obama Hope image, American graffiti artist Shepard Fairey has also adopted the image of the veiled or wearing the hijab into his guerilla art. In his Manifesto, Fairey says that, “The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger,” he notes, “describes Phenomenology as ‘the process of letting things manifest themselves.’ ”

"TYRANNY HAS A WITNESS" by Shepard Fairey

“TYRANNY HAS A WITNESS” by Shepard Fairey

For Fairy, “The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment.” But that environment is, to a large extent, the world and world events. In one image, an homage to the Arab Spring, ”TYRANNY HAS A WITNESS,” Fairey depicts a woman in a hijab, with a crowd in the background, some of which are waving red flags. Presumably these are symbolic of Revolution, but the color of Islam is green (red is associated with Western Left-wing ideology, such as Marxism). In another image, “PEACE WOMAN,” we see another woman in a hijab. Then there’s “ARAB WOMAN,” in which we see the OBEY logo on cloth draped around her front. Fairey, in other words, inverts the image of “the Muslim Other” in the aftermath of 9/11, when many Westerners first learned of the religion of Islam through al-Qaeda’s act of terror, and, consequently, came to associate the religion with the image of the male, bearded, Mujahideen.

For Fairey, the Muslim woman is a symbol of the oppressed — e.g., via the Israel-Palestine conflict, and under tyrannical regimes, such as that of Mubarak in Egypt. I like his images, but the Muslim woman here nevertheless strikes me as something of an exotic fetish.

In one print, a Muslim or Arab woman wearing a white veil and black abaya carries a gun — probably an AK47 — with a flower emerging from the barrel. The viewer is reminded of the Hippy generation who, protesting the Vietnam War, placed flowers in the barrels of US soldiers. One can find figures in the history of Islam in the modern era who also challenge the stereotype — from Muhammad Abduh to Rene Guenon — yet, from what I have seen, the Muslim male is missing from Fairey’s art.

Tesnim Sayar

Tesnim Sayar

Hijabi Punk

The image of the Muslim as unconventional is not confined to graffiti artists. In 2003 Michael Muhammed Knight self-published his first book, The Taqwacores, in a “zine” format. Knight gave most of the copies away. The title comes from the Arabic word Taqwa (meaning fear and love for Allah) and the english word “hardcore.” But, in regard to the translation of Taqwa, think “Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas.” Knights book describes a fictional gang of Punk kids living in a house in Buffalo, upstate New York. Not exactly a realistic scenario at the time. A few years later and the book was being published by “real publishers,” and this fictional work was inspiring the birth of a Muslim Punk movement in the USA and abroad.

One of the better-known Muslim Punks is Tesnim Sayar. An art student in Denmark, she mixed Goth, Punk, and Muslim dress, creating, for example, her Mohawk hijab. Sayar says she “can not see an obstacle in why I should not be able to combine being both punk and Muslim.” ”I’m tired of people’s generalizations and stereotypes about Muslim girls,” Sayar says, “Therefore, I am punk.”

Hijab High Fashion

Probably like you, I’ve seen young Muslim women wearing the hijab with latest in Western fashion. On the one hand, there is something “Punk” about this combination of clothing which signals both that the wearer sees herself as being just as Western, American, or French (etc.) as anyone else in those societies, but also as somehow as voluntarily different to it. Really, this is the message of Punk, and of any other radical fashion. But, there is something more going on here. Perhaps the only other example would be Goth, but this kind of hijab and high fashion look is also concerned with the idea of beauty — as a transcendental value that has both an outer expression and an inner reality.

ala_newWe’ve seen that the hijab can have numerous meanings, but, to some extent, hijab high fashion is concerned with modesty, and with the rejection of modern, Western norms. Unlike some of the images we’ve seen already, it is also about avoiding extremes, I think. When Burak Birer, 31, saw transexuals in a fashion magazine he decided to found his own fashion magazine for Muslim women. The result was Ala, a hijab fashion magazine, based in Istanbul, which aims to contest the “diktat of nudity,” Spiegel International reports.

Birer says with “Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue, Marie Claire, it’s all about sex and naked skin. The motto is that sex sells. But we [Ala], and millions of women around the world, believe that fashion can also be different.”

After only a few months, circulation had reached 30,000, with about 1,500 being shipped to Germany.

But, hijab fashion also has other outlets, from several blogs dedicated to it — such as Hijab Republc, Hijab Chic, and The Hijab Diaries — . to an increasing number of fashion shows in the USA, Indonesia, and elsewhere. many of these also double as charitable events.

From indicating a conservative outlook, to representing the revolutionary, and even the avoidance of extremes, the hijab is a complicated, and, at times, a contradictory symbol. Personally, what interests me most about it, is the attempt — by some of its wearers and designers — to have it represent an inner beauty that, yet, transcends the individual — to, in other words, combine fashion and the integral, the modern and the classical.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.