WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world. As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.
“Okay, I’m the boy now!” Eryn cheerfully drops to one knee and raises her hands, ready to catch me as I twirl towards her. I suppose in her imagination when her little hands grasp my leg, she’s gracefully lifting me up into a delightful twirl. Soon it’s my turn to be the boy and she giggles incessantly when I throw her into the air.
Recently, Eryn has become more and more interested in role play – and it’s interesting to see how she assigns gender roles to her various make-believe characters.
Boy ballerinas lift twirling girl ballerinas; girl farmers climb trees and drive the tractor while boy farmers remain untouched in the box; mamas have babies (sigh); babas have meetings (double sigh); and doctors, nurses, and faeries apparently have no gender.
Overall, we’re trying to be fluid about gender stereotypes in order to emphasise that she’s capable of doing and being anything she chooses. Especially since living in a community with strong cultural and religious ideas of women’s “divinely ordained” roles will one day impact her in ways I can’t yet imagine.
Sometimes I worry she’s going to start feeling that boys have all the fun.
My worries recently intensified after reading Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella ate my Daughter. I regaled my friends and family with examples of the Barbie, Disney and Bratz subtext selling “vapid beauty equals self-worth;” the gendered materialization of a single colour just to sell pink baseball bats; and the over-sexualisation of girls by marketing “Sexy” (but not slutty!) to five-year-old Hanna Montana fans.
Fearing little Eryn would want to paint her nails and wear hot pants tomorrow, I desperately ran off my checklist of parental tactics, hoping we’re prepared enough to offset this new “girlie” culture.
Then I sighed, and for one brief, relieving moment said: “Well, thank God for hijab.”
And in that second I bought into the argument that hijab creates a counter-culture to combat materialism, commercialism and the sexualisation of women in the media. It’s frequently used as an anti-commercialism selling point for Muslim women to take on hijab, while complimenting the slew of other reasons based on modesty and religious, political, and cultural mores. It’s an argument I believed in when I first put on hijab over a decade ago, crying out: When I cover my flesh, I reject “western” standards of beauty, fashion, and remove stereotypical gender barriers, allowing people to focus on my mind instead of my body!
So what better way to socialize Eryn into rejecting the values that beauty and inaction will magically win her a handsome, rich prince or that being popular and fashion-obsessed is a pinnacle life goal? Hijab will teach her that modesty can combat materialism, subvert advertising and emphasise that it’s better to develop one’s intellectual and physical skills, than buy into an institution convincing girls the best they can aspire to is fame and beauty.
But I can’t simply sell hijab as a magic pill.
Ten years ago I proudly stood up in an auditorium to offer my opinion – truly believing that my hijab forced the audience to concentrate on my words and intelligence and not how the cut of my blouse accentuated my breasts, how my salon-styled hair shone in the lights, or how my appearance fit some societal standard of beauty and therefore validated what I was saying.
As a rejection of beauty standards, my hijab liberated me.
Eventually, I also bought into the marketing telling me to get the latest hijab fashions. I yearned for a designer abaya that would make me look svelte, I fought to buy electric blue hijabs that accentuated my eyes and I wept over the latest dangling hijab pins made with real Swarovski crystals!
Today, skinny, light-skinned hijab models help pave the way for the new and modern hijabsitas, “fauxjabis” and sexy “hoe-jabis.”
Fashion aside, hijab also comes with its own stereotypes of constructed gender norms. According to some of Eryn’s Islamic picture books, the (overwhelmingly cis-gendered, heterosexual, female) Muslim must be pious, non-sexual, virginal, ready to please her family, and wearing a plain hijab. Which is certainly not an accurate portrayal of the many types of hijab styles or people who wear hijab.
One book in particular details all of the places a person can say the most common Islamic phrase, bismillah – in the name of God. Pictures illustrate boys holding books titled “Science,” boys running, jumping and skipping down the street, boys praying in the mosque, boys flying kites, boys painting pictures, playing with blocks, and boys swimming in the sea. The three hijab-clad girls hold books with no titles, prepare dinner for their family, and make tea.
It’s pretty clear this book tells children that girls don’t have to do anything of real value when compared to boys. Girls are only good for homemaking and boys seriously get to do a lot of fun, active and intelligent stuff. How is that any different from a blond, gorgeous princess saying her only goal in life is to “sparkle?”
When it comes to day-to-day public visuality, men perform the call to prayer, lead prayer, give the sermon, dominate scholarship, and usually are the model, active characters in children’s Islamic literature. It’s the male gaze that has sexualised hijab to the point that pre-menstrual girls are told to cover themselves because men find them alluring. It’s the same gaze that requires women in hijab to pray behind a screen – lest a swatch of modest black fabric causes a man to uncontrollably lust while in a mosque.
How on earth can I compete with both the limiting gender stereotypes and guilty hijab sexualizing coming internally from my community and the over-sexualizing, external material culture selling “fab fun and fashion” to my child?
Hijab can absolutely be used, and is used by many Muslim women as a rejection of materialism and the over-sexualisation of bodies in the media. Just because there’s a new hijab trend toward fashion, doesn’t mean I have to reject hijab as a subversive tool. The fashionable hijab subverts traditional stereotypes of “acceptable modesty” by giving women a platform to personalise and reclaim the hijab for themselves.
There are also a million amazing Muslim women who are supreme role models – saving lives, leading revolutions, kicking sporting ass. Activists, doctors, volunteers, scholars and thinkers, who just *happen* to wear hijab. And then there are those women – fantastic, brilliant, pious women – who are largely ignored by the Media and Muslim communities as “authentic Muslim women,” simply because they *don’t* wear the hijab, but who are also absolutely, role-model-worthy.
But unless I start writing and illustrating books myself, there are only a few Islamic children’s books that have positive female characters – The Swirling Hijab, The Jannah Jewels and Khadijah Goes to School immediately come to mind. There are so many wonderful female personalities in Islamic history who fought battles, taught our treasured male scholars, founded universities, and led the Empire – you’d think there would be volumes dedicated to celebrating their successes and telling their stories.
We’ll continue to dress Eryn in a variety of colours, emphasise charity, go volunteering, and encourage the “self-rescuing” princess theme. We’ll let her play with whatever she’s interested in playing with – blocks, hammers, kitchens, doctor kits, baby-dolls, skipping ropes, soccer balls and tea sets are all fair game. And we’ll introduce her to all sorts of strong women (non-Muslims, hijabis, and non-hijabis) – emphasizing that she can be whatever she wants to be. I’ll support her in anything.
Even when she throws on my pink hijab and runs around the house screaming, “I’m a princess! I’m a princess!”