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I: Defining gender and human rights for arabs at home and throughout the diaspora

Hegemonic femininity and hijab as a human right

Louise Cuinkur

Bodies are never naked; they are always clothed with meaning. But the meanings may be reconstructed by imperialism and globalization.1


Few body-covering (or uncovering) behaviors have brought on more debate, legal restrictions, court cases, harassment, and assaults in the West over the past twenty years than the act of women covering their bodies.2 The scholarly literature on women’s right (or non-right) to freely wear hijab (Muslim hair covering and modest clothing) tends to focus on nation-states, laws, and court cases in which her right to do so has been denied (e.g., France, Turkey, and Switzerland). Such bans arc defended mainly on the premise that hijab violates national commitments to liberal secularism, although Christian rhythms and modes of comportment are the presumed norms hidden beneath this legislation.3 This chapter analyzes Western responses to hijab from a wholly different, human rights approach. By examining social practices in a country, the United States, where the right to wear hijab is not legally denied, it locates public actions that seek to discipline, demonize, discriminate against, harass, or otherwise harm women wearing hijab as human rights abuses. Similar to legal bans, these social control actions block the full equality of Muslim women; deny them equal protection, freedom of movement, and human dignity; and deter their social advancement.

Utilizing the lens of the scholarly literature on hegemonic masculinity, femininity, and gender-based violence, this chapter argues that public attacks on women in hijab should be seen as acts of gender policing. Women in hijab defy dominant notions of femininity and suppress hegemonic heterosexual male access to their bodies. Furthermore, as is the case with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (“LGBTQ”) persons, their gender nonconformity is challenged and policed by dominant groups—in many cases, white women. Citing intersectionality studies, this chapter argues that Western interpretations of hijab as an inferior practice that embodies women’s submission rather than their agency are not objective but rather laden with white supremacy. This chapter further maintains that the disciplining of Muslim women in hijab enforces global hierarchies of power.

Data to support my arguments are drawn from two sociological studies I conducted over the past fifteen years. One study was conducted between 2003 and 2006, and includes interviews with more than one hundred adult Arab and Muslim women and men living across the Chicago metropolitan area, as well as secondary data from across the United States. In that study, I found that Muslim women reported being harassed, followed, or assaulted at more than twice the rate of men and that nearly all of the female victims wore hijab. I also found that a woman in hijab was present in more than half of the cases where men reported hate acts. These findings were surprising, given that the dominant narratives of the day were of the relationship between Islam, terrorism, and male bodies, and because male subject were often the focus of state antiterror policies. Additionally, I found that the majority of perpetrators were white women, which signaled to me that matters of culture and gender hegemonies, not terrorism, played key roles in these attacks.

The second study was conducted in 2011 and was composed of interviews with ninety-three Arab American teenagers living transnational!}' in Palestine, Jordan, and Yemen. When describing their younger years in the United States, I found more accounts of verbal and physical assaults on women in hijab— this time, observed by children and, once again, mainly perpetrated by white women.4 In sum, these studies demonstrate that attacks on women in hijab must be explained intersectionally, at the juncture of anti-Muslim sentiments and intra-gender policing.

This chapter contains five sections. Section “Gender policing, gender-based violence, and hegemonic masculinity” reviews the literature on gender policing, gender-based violence, and hegemonic masculinity, and finds that the literature supports the proposition that Muslim women who cover their hair and bodies stand as affronts to hegemonic masculinity and femininity. Section “Race and women of color critique of dominant feminism’s erasures” examines hijab through the lens of intersectionality theory and shows that from the standpoint of white supremacy, hijab is interpreted as being representative of an inferior religion and way of life. Section “Cartographies of gender performance” discusses how the hijab can racialize women’s bodies and act as a form of cultural racism, as well as the ways in which attacks on women in hijab in changing social contexts are related to global hierarchies of masculinities. Section “Changes in domestic climate: 2008 to present” examines the experiences of women wearing hijab in the United States who were subject to hate incidents between 2001 and the present. This section focuses on two sociological studies I conducted over the past fifteen years and on more recent media stories related to hate crimes perpetrated against Muslim women, noting similarities and differences between post 9/11 hate acts and more recent ones. Section “International human rights and its instrument’s failure to address attacks on Muslim women in hijab as gender-based violence” analyzes how international human rights and its instrumentalities have failed to recognize and address attacks on Muslim women in hijab as gender-based violence.

Whether through law or acts of social control, Muslim women who wear hijab are placed into socially subordinate and vulnerable positions. In the context of

Hegemonic femininity and hijab 5 the United States, known to be a highly religious nation,5 which is significantly different from Europe, hostile actions against women in hijab are viewed as violations of religious freedom; when recorded as hate crimes, they are labeled anti-Muslim attacks. However, when viewed from the perspective of “gender policing” and gender-based violence, the difference between legal bans and social control through harassment, disciplining, and violence withers away, taking on a symmetry in meaning and outcome; as such, the secular versus religious context loses some of its meaning. In both contexts, women who do not conform to grounded notions of hegemonic femininity—gender performances that satisfy the desires and gaze of hegemonic masculinity or, in the case of the gender-based hate crimes I outline here, hegemonic femininity—they arc disciplined: one legally and one extralegally.

Gender policing, gender-based violence, and hegemonic masculinity

According to anthropologist Sally Merry, gender policing is accomplished through narratives and actions that stigmatize and punish “people who fail to conform to normative expectations of male or female appearance.”6 Such persons face an “environment of danger and threat” and “high levels of violence,” usually delivered by strangers.7 In Merry’s treatment of the topic, discussions of gender policing center on performances of gender that do not conform to heteronormativity, thereby posing a threat to hegemonic masculinity, “the culturally idealized form of masculine character (in a given historical setting).”8 The foundation of hegemonic masculinity is the taken-for-granted right to experience heterosexual desire, which is built upon binary notions of male-female difference and the complementary character of femininity and masculinity.9 Assaults on persons who defy these norms are considered acts of gender-based violence.10 Muslim women who cover their hair and bodies stand as affronts to hegemonic masculinity and femininity. Their gender embodiment practices physically and symbolically refuse hegemonic men their claimed right to heterosexual desire by denying them gazing rights and their sense of free access to women. Therefore, it seems logical to consider the impediments placed upon, the harassment of, and the assaults perpetrated on women who cover their bodies and hair as punishments for gender nonconformity, in the same light as gender practices that violate heteronormativity.

As expressed in hegemonic femininity, the feminine ideal is a culturally specific social construction produced in relation to the hegemonic masculine. In American culture, this ideal is racialized as white, sexualized as heteronorma-tive, aged as young, and tempered as submissive to male desires. Female compliance with this hegemonic masculinity is demonstrated through the embodiment of “emphasized femininity”11: desired body shapes that are tightly or scantily clad, thus emphasizing biologically female body parts, fair skin, made-up faces, long and visibly straight hair, and the appearance of active hormones. The high social importance of these bodily traits cannot be denied; there is a vast,

multibillion dollar industry geared toward helping women and girls attain them. Indeed, when not naturally bequeathed, these physical traits can be realized through a range of commercial products and services, including weight loss and weight gain products, health club memberships, plastic surgery, liposuction, Botox, wigs, hair pieces, hair straighteners, wrinkle removers, concealer creams, push-up bras, and butt pads. Interestingly, Octavio Romero has called these bodily enhancements the “American woman’s burqa.”12 Similarly, there is a vast conforming clothing market for female sizes 2-14 (with less availability for larger sizes) and a complimentary market of shoes designed with emphasized femininity in mind.

By refusing to “embody the relationship between masculinity and femininity demanded by gender hegemony,” self-covering women in hijab are practicing a form of “pariah femininity.”13 They contaminate the accepted relationship between masculinity and femininity, and challenge hegemonic male dominance as it is understood in the United States and much of the West. The historical record is clear: persons who challenge hegemonic gender constructions are vulnerable to harassment, bullying, social ostracization, and physical attacks by those who conform to them. Merry argues, “From a performative perspective, doing violence is a way of doing gender.”14 As noted above, this sanctioning is usually demonstrated in the literature by the ways in which persons posing threats to heteronormativity have been harassed, faced discrimination, and been subjected to physical violence.1’’’ The narratives I present below demonstrate that such actions have also been taken against Muslim women in hijab. They are harassed, spat on, followed, and called “aliens” who need to leave the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a U.S. organization that defends individual rights under the Constitution, reports that women in hijab have been “fired from jobs, denied access to public places, and otherwise discriminated against because they wear hijab.”16 Both Muslim men and women understand that wearing hijab is an act that places women at risk of assault and even murder.

I propose that these experiences of Muslim women in hijab are mainly about performing gender and not backlash for acts of terrorism, and while racializcd bodies and anti-Muslim sentiments clearly play a role, as I discuss below, they take place at the intersection with hegemonic femininity, which is already constituted to render them inferior. I argue that these hostilities are about gender performance, not only because it makes sense theoretically but also because of what my study data say when the contexts of harassment and the deployed narratives are analyzed. First, the data illustrate that women in hijab were not random victims of persons with anti-Muslim sentiments; women were specifically targeted, since these encounters largely occurred in places with plenty of visible Muslim men to target. Second, most of the perpetrators were white women, the women with the most to gain from defending the feminine ideal. Third, most of the harassment occurred in majority-white areas, where whites are culturally hegemonic. Finally, Muslim women and men recognized that hijab made women vulnerable in public spaces and that surrendering hijab offered freedom of movement, even if their raced bodies were still visibly recognizable as brown-skinned, presumed Muslim

Arab women. These actions were largely women-on-women encounters—more precisely, encounters between white women and Muslim women who cover their bodies and hair. Race or religion alone mattered less than the fact of the material cover—that is, the clothing that violates hegemonic femininity.

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