“Headscarf debates” – a never-ending story

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The first time I (left) ever wore the headscarf was in Cairo in spring 2012

This picture was taken in Egypt and it was the first time that I ever wore the headscarf. Since then, I have talked to many people about it, I have worn it again several times in several countries, with different people and facing different reactions. It is still always kind of an adventure for me to put it on, because I know that people react differently to women wearing the headscarf. Therefore this is a call to try to see the headscarf differently and unveil it from the whole political and religious assumptions with which it has been covered for at least the last 12 years!

The whole topic has been discussed tons of times and I’m not keen on repeating all of it here. Of course it’s a religious symbol, of course it stands for covering from men staring at you, and also for hiding away from a sexist society. And sadly enough, as far as I experienced it, it mostly helps achieving these goals. Thereby I mean that I mostly got less staring, whistling and harrassing wearing the headscarf. Many  women state, that it is this feature that makes them feel safer in the streets, that they experience finally to be treated like a human being when they wear the hijab. But, in my view, this only exposes the sexist structure of a society, where men impose a dresscode on women and only treat them respectfully if they follow this dresscode – and of course a bunch of other attached rules. Because are you really seen as an individual person, when the same people that greet you friendly in the streets on one day just decide to spit on you or harrass you the next day if you decide to change your style?  In this regard, the hijab covers not only the woman who’s wearing it, but also the inherint sexist structure of the society – thereby perpetuating it.

On the other hand, and also fairly well, (but also considerably less) discussed on- and offline is the discriminating structure of Western* society. You feel by no means safer when you wear the headscarf in an average “Western” country. On the contrary, I read and heard about many people, who are being discriminated. They experience being treated as “backwards”, “uneducated” or, worse: “terrorist”. So, again, society is imposing a dresscode on women: not to wear the headscarf. In my view this is by the same means a deprivation of rights. We (like the “modern”, “liberal”, “democratic” societies) shouldn’t fool ourselves and think, that we choose our clothing freely. This is never true. It is always the surroundings that make us dress following a certain style, that can still be individual, but will always in some way be adapted to the people around you.  As often as I change the places where I live I realize that I bring different clothes home, different assets to my style, different habits. And this is not a bad thing, it doesn’t mean that I abandon my individualism or that I try to change to please other people (we always do that anyway) – in my view different experiences not only enrich your character but also habits and styles. And being adaptive where it doesn’t mean to give up freedom is not the worst choice to make. And here again, I’m sure the “liberal” crew will agree with me. Nevertheless, everybody should just be able to choose how thoroughly and in which regards they want to adapt.

I have often been confronted with astonishment when I was wearing the headscarf. From the one side people where either trying to missionate me or call me hypocrite since I did not by wearing the hijab automatically apply to all the other rules that the different patriarchal societies had made up. From the other side I was called a fool to give up my rights like that. Again, this is what is automatically assumed, thereby showing the heavy political implications this garment stands for. Sometimes I was called an appeasement maker in a bad sense of the word, as it is used by certain people who are afraid of loosing their culture to a fictional overall imposing Islamist threat, which is also a weird thing to associate with a single piece of cloth.

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On a minaret in Samarqand, Usbekistan

In these reactions I started to see that this cloth just means to all people who perceive it something else. Something special. Something that plays a role in their life, be it as positive value, belief, or as a threat. It is always something that has a lot to do with values, politics and security (in the sense of personal security like I described it in the first two paragraphs as well as in the sense of national security and securitization or – whatever that may be – cultural security).

Following poststructuralist thoughts, to show roots of imperialism, patriarchy or other ways of power imbalance, means to deconstruct representations that are attached to certain highly controversally charged terms (like for example democracy, freedom etc.). While we still have a long way to go to achieve any of that, what could be easier to deconstruct the headscarf debate. After all, everything that remains is a piece of cloth, a textile with different patterns and colors. So, finally I came to see it as a fashionate thing that I decide to wear or not (in the boundaries of the above-mentioned free choice of dresscode) without letting other people judge and decide about the meaning that I attach to it. Of course it will still be political.
Maybe you could see it as a counterpart to “gendertrouble” (dressing opposed to your ascribed gender in order to make people reconsider the associations that are attached to gender roles). That could mean lots of different people with very different backgrounds wearing it but not following the common interpretation lines. Wouldn’t that kind of relativize the ascriptions, silent rules, prejudices and discriminations? I am not sure. Maybe it’s just one of those stupid ideas of a tolerant society. Maybe I’m just making up excuses to justify that I am wearing the headscarf. Because to be honest:

I like it, it suits me, it protects you from sun and rain, dust and wind, it can hide your hair when you didn’t have the time to style it properly. That’s the fashion side, lovely readers and this is where you can see that I’m still overly German because (attention: prejudice!) what are we known for if not for dressing practically above all!
No, seriously, this is my call not to forget that there are not only uncountable styles and possibilities to wear the headscarf but also uncountable individuals that wear it! Enjoy the show:

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*in this case I refer to countries of the Global North, which are mostly Christian and consider themselves “modern, liberal and democratic” societies.

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