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Column: World Hijab Day communicates a relationship of privilege

Feb. 1 marked World Hijab Day, an annual event founded in 2013 to encourage women of all religious backgrounds to wear and experience the hijab. 

Nazma Khan, a Muslim social activist and Bangladeshi immigrant, founded the movement with the goal of fostering global religious tolerance. Khan aimed to provide a venue for thoughtful conversation on the hijab’s meaning and significance. In accordance with Khan’s vision, UNC’s Muslim Student Association and others worldwide held “hijab try-on booths,” where non-Muslim women were encouraged to try on hijabs and take photos in them, and even challenged to wear the hijab for the day’s duration.

While I appreciate the sentiment of solidarity behind the movement, I must also acknowledge the way World Hijab Day outlines the exploitative relationship that exists between western societies and their conditional support for Islamic practices. 

Hijab is accepted when embraced by mainstream audiences in a show of tolerance and inclusion, yet pop culture continues to perpetuate a double standard in relation to how Muslim vs. non-Muslim women are expected to behave.

Last month, for example, British Muslim Amena Khan became L’Oreal’s only hijab-wearing model to front their hair care campaign. Fashion and beauty bloggers were quick to express their praise for L’Oreal’s efforts towards inclusion. However, shortly afterwards, a right-wing US media outlet unearthed tweets by Khan in 2014, in which she’d expressed her condemnation of Israel’s war in Gaza. 

Days later, Khan announced her resignation, apologizing for the divisive content of her tweets. Journalist Areeb Ullah pointed out the double standard exemplified by the situation, citing how contrastingly, Israeli actress Gal Gadot was never forced to apologize for outwardly supporting the same war.

The word hijab is derived from the Arabic word for modesty, and women who choose to wear it do so to project an image of self-respect, and as a badge of religious identity. The hijab is a constant reminder of one’s commitment to Islam. 

Although it is sometimes seen and depicted as a tool for oppression, in my experience, it’s the exact opposite. The hijab empowers women like myself to unapologetically embrace their faith, and encourages society to value character, personality and thought before appearance.

World Hijab Day is idealistic in that it exposes wearers to the community-building potential of hijab, but does little to address the fact that these very communities are often dehumanized and misrepresented by mainstream media. 

Hijab does not exist to be made palatable to Western audiences. The idea of normalizing hijab by featuring everyday, college students donning the garment in an effort to make it unthreatening and relatable is offensive. I don’t feel empowered by this well-intentioned, yet poorly executed act of solidarity. Rather, I feel that my experience has been reduced to a superficial manifestation of diversity, to be imitated and embraced for show.

World Hijab Day communicates the relationship of privilege that exists within this realm of activism. Participants spend a day on the receiving end of the kind of public disapproval and judgement that many hijabi women undergo on a daily basis, and then get to carry on with their lives, enlightened. 

A one-day trial isn’t enough, because on some days, I’m frustrated with the way a woman I passed while running threw me an undeserved look of contempt. But on other days, I’m heartened by interactions with people who are compassionate in articulating their curiosity, and who’s to say which kind of day I’m having when?

I believe there are more effective ways to celebrate the experiences of Muslim women. Instead of try-on booths designed to put participants at the center of attention, we should be giving the mic to hijabis themselves and encouraging them to tell their stories in the form of organized panels or question-and-answer sessions. 

Hijab has allowed me to develop a sense of identity, and I’m thrilled and humbled to be able to share my experiences with someone who might have questions. However, I think that initiatives like try-on booths contribute to the erasure of female Muslim narratives, ones that need to be emphasized now more than ever. 

This scenario reminds me of a similarly well-publicized issue that happened last March, when model Gigi Hadid was featured wearing a hijab on the cover of Vogue Arabia. Hadid received considerable backlash for this photoshoot in particular, because viewers understood that it was problematic to allow a non-hijabi woman to be the face of hijab. 

Hijab isn’t worn for aesthetic appeal, and it certainly isn’t as simple as adding a few minutes to your morning routine to tie a scarf around your head. It’s the conscious decision to represent a faith that’s message is often misconstrued, and to accept the consequences, both good and bad. 

World Hijab Day provides the chance to uplift and validate Muslim women, and it’s crucial to keep in mind that these women deserve to be the face of their own movement.

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