I speak on this issue from a global lens. I wore the hijab, long manteaus, long pants and closed shoes, under the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, since I was 6 years old all the way until I was 15, when I came to the U.S. My experience with the hijab was that of compulsion and force and started long before I started wearing it myself, in the images of my mother and the hijabi women I saw everywhere. The oppression I faced was in wearing the hijab regardless of choice, while the oppression many hijabi women in the “western” part of the world face is in their marginalization because of their choice. This is to clarify my stance on the oppression hijabi women face in comparison with my own background and imposed marginalization.
I want to start the conversation on the problematic nature of the hijab solidarity movement that took place on campus on March 1 by bringing up a dreaded discussion on cultural appropriation. I would like to pose a question that may encourage readers and participants of this act to think about this issue in a new light: when has it ever been custom to appropriate someone’s struggle in the name of solidarity?
If you’re having a hard time answering this question, keep in mind that appropriating the trauma, emotional burden or even physical characteristics of a survivor does not make you an activist. Neither does replicating the image of masses who have been victims of genocide. So why is it suddenly appropriate to take this approach when it comes to the hijab when as a general statement, appropriating or recreating someone’s struggle or source of marginalization has never been an acceptable way of standing in solidarity? Probably for the same reasons some folks think it’s okay to get henna tattoos: because people who appropriate despite being fully aware of the problematic nature of their actions do so under the impression that their non-oppressive intent will not have an oppressive impact. This impression could not be farther from the truth.
I am certain that there are people out there, who have had personal experiences with the hijab who will tell you it is not appropriation if you wear it regardless of your lack of personal, religious, or cultural connection to it just like there are Armenian people who will tell you it is okay with them if you wear Armenian diadems if you are not Armenian, but the input of a subgroup of a marginalized community in favor of your privileged actions does not, in any way, lessen the impact of your voice, speaking over people you are trying to stand in “solidarity” with.
Wearing a headscarf, calling it a hijab, walking around campus and trying to justify your appropriation to folks who explicitly tell you what you are doing is not okay, does not make you an activist. It makes you ignorant. And if you feel otherwise, take this column as an invitation to make your “activism” less prone to interpretations of ignorance.