Hijab, Gendered Islamophobia, and the Lived Experiences of Muslim Women
Islamophobia as a gendered experience
Many women of color ...are burdened by poverty, child-care responsibilities, and the lack of job skills. These burdens, largely the consequence of gender and class oppression, are then compounded by the racially discriminatory employment and housing practices women of color often face. Women of color are burdened as well by the disproportionately high unemployment among people of color that make battered women of color less able to depend on the support of friends and relatives for temporary shelter.7
Experiences with Islamophobia in society
Noor: They would sometimes insult you and say ‘go back to your country’ and stuff like that. Like, I could have answered, I am in my country, but I didn’t used to answer anything when things like that happened. But it wasn’t nice. I didn’t like to take the subway but I used to take it all the time.
Naved: So in some places where you were living you felt that there was some kind of negative impression of Muslims?
Noor: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Once someone started throwing eggs at me from a window in an apartment building.
[it is] a place both physical and also imagined, one that is produced and perpetually reproduced by a community of citizens who collectively imagine that they share a deep, horizontal kinship…The collectively imagined affiliations among citizens—and the corresponding imagined separation from people outside the nation’s borders (as well as outsiders within), the perpetually appealing notion of “us” versus “them” sustain the imagined community of the nation…13
Experiences in school
You know, when you’re a teenager you feel the world is always staring at you. And you know there were random things that happened here and there but overall it was smooth, except for the fact that I felt that I had to be a spokesperson for the entire Muslim ummah of the world. Like every time there would be a debate that would happen in class everyone would just sort of look to me and I was 14, I was supposed to justify everything!
I didn’t really have that many weird experiences in high school but after I started wearing hijab in secondary two, mostly people were still respectful but there were a lot of questions that were asked. So I think it was a very big shock for me… they would ask me a lot about all those stereotypical things in our religion. So they always needed clarifications. That happens even now.
Some of the students, I think back then they would call me—just to make fun of me…that was actually pretty rough, they would call me Saddam. So stupid things like that, like Kaddafi, so stupid things like that, but as a joke, I never took it seriously.
There was one incident after 9/11 that I recall very strongly. There was this girl that I was pretty good friends with. We used to take the bus together and pretty much right after, the day after [the 9/11 attacks], she just completely stopped talking to me. She actually posted something really derogatory [about Islam] in her locker and a teacher had reprimanded her for that and had her remove it. And after that she never spoke to me, after 9/11. And before that we used to take the bus to and from the school together and we were pretty good friends.
One of my friends, she was the only hijabi in the grade, the only Arab besides me, so people just started surrounding her. And they weren’t trying to bully her, but they were just very curious, right, because they saw her people—she’s Lebanese—but they saw hijabis on TV and they said, you know, did your people do the 9/11? And she’s like, those weren’t Arabs, those were Afghans. She was in grade seven so she just, she automatically, like swallowed what the news said as well but she like carefully pinpointed it to Afghans. She didn’t mention anything about it being Muslims or non-Muslims.
Noor: I have a friend who stopped going to school for some time because her parents were scared for her safety when she took the bus going to school. So she stopped. A few of them stopped I think. But because they didn’t want to take off their hijab, so they just stayed home. My parents told me to take off my hijab right after 9/11 but as soon as I got out of the house I would wear it without them knowing. So I did wear it to school but I don’t remember anything that happened.
Naved: So there were a lot of concerns for safety?
Noor: Yeah, the parents, mostly the parents were scared for their kids. You did hear about things that happened in the subway. Some people had their hijab taken off by other people, stuff like that.
That’s something that young people are most exposed to; TV, movies, you know, these are the type of things that they watch. Especially like movies, that’s where, you know, a lot of kids spend a lot of their extra free time, watching movies and their ideas do come from this type of medium. It’s not just something they’re reading about, it’s something they’re seeing. It’s a visual clip. Kind of a snapshot of what Muslims are.
They’re pretty much typecast [i.e., Muslims in the media]. I don’t really see them in American media besides things like terrorist plots or movies about terrorism. So they’re represented very one-dimensionally. And I never see Muslim families in everyday life going to school or things like that.
Eroticizing the Muslim female subject
I was at the kids’ school for Grandparents Day. That is when we invite all the grandparents of the kids from the school to come and experience a day in their grandchildren’s school. The kids put on performances and shows. I was in the music room and we were having a book fair. All the grandparents were waiting in line with their grandchildren to buy them books from the book fair. There [were] a lot of people, about 100 people in a long line out the door. One of the male grandparents was with his wife and approaches me and says, “Do you have hair under that thing?” I smiled and said, “Yes I do.” So he reaches behind me and grabs my scarf and my ponytail and yanks it. And he says, “Oh yeah, I can feel the ponytail back there.” Then he turns to his wife and says, “Oh yeah she has hair under there.” He says to me, “Why don’t you just take it off,” and motions with his hands, pointing up and down my body, “Why don’t you take it all off?”
One day, a boy walked over to me in school and said, “Can I ask you a question?” and I said, “Sure.” At that point, he asked me to do something I’d rather not repeat. It was a sexual act. It was sexually explicit. He said it right in front of a teacher and the teacher did nothing at all.
Muslim women are very sexualized to the rest of the world. Because of media outlets, there is this perception of Muslim women being oppressed with no one to help them. At the same time there is this overly sexualized perception of women. The boys who were harassing me really relied on these two stereotypes. They hurled a lot of verbal abuse at me, phrases like b*****, whore; she’s got a bomb; she’s a terrorist. One day, while I was walking down the hallway…the boys spread their legs across the hallway. I normally wear skirts and dresses with jeans underneath; one of the boys laid across the hallway and tried to look up my skirt.
...there is also in the European the crystallization of an aggressiveness, the strain of a kind of violence before the Algerian woman. Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is baring her secret, breaking her resistance, making her available for adventure...In a confused way, the European experiences his relation with the Algerian woman at a highly complex level. There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession. This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer. There is no reciprocity. She does not yield herself, does not offer herself.36
Muslim modesty is taken to be sexually aberrant by French observers, who condemn it not only as different but as somehow excessive, even perverse...It was not the absence of sexuality but presence that was being remarked—a presence underlined by the girls’ refusal to engage in what were taken to be the ‘normal’ protocols of interaction with members of the opposite sex.37