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Unveiling the Blackness of Hijab

The history of Muslim identity in the US has always been closely tied to Black identity.

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“In school, my teacher made me remove my hijab. She told me I couldn’t really be Muslim — I was Black. It was the last time I tried to wear it.”

Over one hundred youths, who moments before had been alive with energy from the home stretch of a four-day workshop, fell into a still silence. We were packed into a small, overheated church on a hill and the air around us was a heavy blanket as the room processed what had been said. She went on, explaining her mother was Muslim and wore the face veil known as niqab. Islam, and hijab, had been a regular part of her life until she switched homes and schools. “I wanted to try wearing it again,” she explained. “My teacher was white; she told me I was offending the real Muslim girls in my class.”

A young Black Muslim woman at a protest.
Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

It’s a common theme that hijab discourse prioritizes the experiences and history of Arab Muslims. Orientalism, a term popularized around 1978 and used to describe biases projected onto the Middle East, is regarded as the sole driving factor behind America’s perception of hijab. In an effort to prove allyship, people associate hijab with women from specific regions and shift all authority on the topic to them. While it’s true that Orientalism shaped American perceptions and interactions with hijab, from the sexualization of veiled women to the oversimplification that paints Muslim women as passive objects within co-opted narratives, it’s neither the sole nor the original driving force.

In the past, American media focused on criminalizing proto-Islamic institutions and Black Muslims, such as Muhammad Ali. To the greater public, Ali not only became a representation of their fears of the unknown and the uncontained, but he also challenged them directly: “I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

Post 9/11, the media underwent a major shift, turning to the production of fear of brown, foreign Muslims, specifically those from the Middle East. When women began to wear hijab in increasing numbers, demonstrating a common reaction to hold onto religious and cultural identifiers in response to persecution, hijab was thrown into new focus as a hypervisible symbol. However, the concept of hijab is not new to this country. In order to propel the discourse surrounding hijab out of its downward spiral, key aspects of current discourse must be changed.

First, the discussion needs to return to its point of origin. The obsession with hijab is a gendered extension of Islamophobia, so discussions cannot be removed from American Islam’s roots. We cannot continue placing the point of origin as post-9/11 culture — nor is it traceable to 1965, during the influx of Muslim immigrants after the repeal of the National Origins Act and the Asiatic Barred Zone. Islam was originally introduced to this country by enslaved African Muslims, who made up between 15 to 30 percent (or 600,000 to 1.2 million) of the total population.

While it’s assumed that these Muslims were all successfully converted to Christianity, not only does that notion ignore the complicated reality of forced conversion, where every Muslim wasn’t converted and many carried on Islamic traditions, but it also ignores that conversion would have been forced by the system of chattel slavery. Islamophobia, as it needs to be understood, is not just personal prejudice against Muslims, but also a systemic issue. The enslavement of African Muslims alone counts as persecution, but the targeting of Islam and forced conversion marks the beginning of Islamophobia in the United States.

Most importantly, we need to understand where the fascination with hijab comes from. It is easy to argue that we focus on hijab because it is such a visible article and, while that is partially true, the kufi, a rounded cap, is another example of an easily identifiable clothing item commonly associated with Islam. The thobe and keffiyeh are also easily identifiable and assumed to be Islamic. What sets these clothing items apart is their association with men and, beyond that, masculinity.

Women in hijab in Harlem, circa 1980s.
Photo: John van Hasselt - Corbis/Getty Images

In our conversations around hijab, in which people often characterize the garment as a symbol of patriarchy, we must remember that the foundation of patriarchy is to set itself as superior to femininity. What we understand as feminine is most attacked within a patriarchal society, because femininity is most at odds with patriarchy. To understand hijab means to understand that patriarchy’s obsession with controlling womanhood and femininity makes it a topic of focus. Within the American context, this means we must examine where our conception of womanhood and femininity began.

Many contemporary critiques of the gender binary and sexism are rooted in understandings of gender that lack nuance and prioritize white experiences. A common example is the critique of the “damsel in distress” trope in media, which falsely imagines the trope as a primary concern for all women. Pushback points out that this trope is largely nonexistent for Black women, especially those who are dark skinned, because there was never an opportunity for these people to be recognized and emotionally valued as distressed. Either way, the trope is ultimately rooted in sexism, but it illustrates how the concerns of white women are not universal.

Western gender expressions — and expectations — are heavily racialized and rooted in the dehumanization of Blackness. A gender binary existed before American colonization, but with the introduction of a new society and the notion of race as a category of assigning humanity, the binary was forced to account for these new identities. Within race, Blackness has always been positioned as the antithesis of whiteness. It’s everything that is dirty, toxic, and evil within the world; any constructions within this dichotomy (including gender) have to build themselves to co-exist with the understanding of whiteness as the pinnacle of high achievement — and Blackness firmly rooted at the bottom.

The discussion of hijab needs to be tied back to womanhood, but because of Islam’s beginnings with enslaved African Muslims and the continued tradition of Black Americans who developed the original American Muslim identity, it must specifically account for the construction of womanhood and femininity as rooted in anti-Blackness.

The essentialism of attempting to separate Islamophobia from other -isms, and the erasure of the complicated history of Black women within white-centric constructions of womanhood, is commonplace. Even discussions started by Black Muslim women risk separating the history of head coverings from present perceptions and reactions. On February 25th, 2017, for example, a student at George Bush High School in Richmond, Texas, tweeted about a new policy requiring Muslims to receive permission slips from imams in order to wear hijab. The tweets were quickly picked up by human-rights advocates on Twitter, who criticized the policy as Islamophobic. However, as one Twitter user pointed out, the majority of critiques failed to account for the racialized aspects of the policy.

While there is Islamophobia in requiring Muslims to receive permission slips in order to follow a part of their faith, the reality is that non-Black students are not typically the targets. Policies directed at students who wrap their hair usually target Black girls — as seen last year when a police officer told a Florida high schooler to remove her headwrap under the guidelines of a similar policy. In response to the incident, students at Gibbs High School organized “Black Girls Wrap Wednesday,” explaining that their reasons for wrapping their hair were rooted in cultural expression that should not require permission. It is a trend within American schools that Black girls are targeted for cultural expressions of womanhood and femininity that exist outside of society’s approved boundaries. From punishments aimed at Black girls who wear afro puffs, braids, locs, and other natural hair styles to the policing of Black girls who wear headscarves, these measures represent a clear removal of their autonomy — and are especially ironic in their mimicry of earlier laws.

Women seated with Malcolm X at the trail of 14 fellow Black Muslims in Los Angeles.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1786, Louisiana governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró passed a series of sumptuary laws known as Tignon Laws. During this time, white women in Louisiana were jealous of women of African descent and the ways in which they could wear their hair. Often elaborate and ornate, their versatile styles not only threatened the white-supremicist construction of femininity, but also threatened class structure. Ultimately, the attempt at policing Black women failed: They began to wear colorful headwraps with complex patterns and wrapped their scarves in imaginative fashions.

Current policies that target Black girls showcase the ways in which the definition of what is appropriately feminine has always shifted to lift up white women. Taking into account this history, it is not a reach to point out that these policies uniquely target Black Muslim girls who are subjected to misogynoir and the full breadth of its history. Black American Muslims, who are presumed to not “really” be Muslim because of their erasure within current narratives, are particularly vulnerable to these policies. This erasure leads people to believe that hijab “belongs” to non-Black Muslims, positing the garment as a recent development in America.

There is a half truth in understanding hijab as a modern phenomenon. As indicated in the poem “Elegy for the Khimar,” the word “hijab” is a recent introduction to America’s vocabulary. Most people track the popularization of the word to the 1970s, associating it with the increase of Arab Muslims and their clash with Black American communities undertaken in an effort to become the Muslim “voice.” But the concept of veiling in accordance with Islam had been practiced by Black American Muslims for generations. In January of 1923, the Moslem Sunrise featured the first known photo of visibly identifiable Muslim women in the United States. The Moslem Sunrise was the newsletter for the Ahmadiyya Movement of Islam, one of the earliest Islamic movements noted in America. The photo, captioned “FOUR AMERICAN MOSLEM LADIES,” features four Black women named Sister Khairat, Sister Zeineb, Sister Ahmadia, and Sister Ayehsa.

A 1928 photo of the Moorish Science Temple of America shows women wearing their own interpretation of the veil, which bears similarity to the head coverings that the Nation of Islam (NOI) wore. The NOI, which saw the height of its movement in the 1950s through the 1970s, is often noted for the suits worn by its men, but women also had their own code of dress and often wore head covers, referred to as drapes.

These documentations of Muslim women are often dismissed because of theological debates surrounding the validity of proto-Islamic institutions. However, because these organizations were considered Muslim by the very government that developed and sanctioned systemic Islamophobia, their histories need to be taken into account. Along with that, these institutions did not exist in a vacuum, and there is a long history of other Black American Muslims that existed alongside of them.

Even if the current face of the modest fashion industry suggests otherwise, it was Black American women who first learned how to adapt Western clothing to modern dress; the same women first cleverly tied drapes and re-appropriated church hats to function as hijab. As long as we exist in a patriarchy that obsesses over femininity, there will always be a market to discuss hijab. But the erasure of Blackness in Islam is tired, played out on a global scale; it is well past time that we reorient our understandings. Hijab, in America, will always be rooted in levels of misogynoir. Recognize the women who struggled to conceive a Muslim identity, who were targets of Islamophobia long before it was ever of political concern; our payment is long past due.

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