In my *spare* time (LOL), I edit the online literary magazine Union Station, which features fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and photo essays from emerging artists. One of my favorite essays is this one featuring Malaysian Muslim women with and without their hijabs by photographer Francisco Guerrero that we published in 2011.
In the portrait session a few years back, the women shared with Guerrero their feelings about the hijab. Guerrero wrote then, “Most of these women treated the Hijab as part of their wardrobe, as a garment both charged with symbolic meaning and as a garment with practical applications. Fizzy chose to bring her prayer hijab that she wears in the mosque. On a daily basis, Fizzy chooses to not wear the hijab at all, instead usually opting for more casual clothes. The t-shirt she is wearing in the photograph is her own design, a montage of American sexy-chic machine gun images and the hijab. What most of these women wanted to express is that wearing the Hijab was mostly their personal choice and this would vary depending on the social context. One of the women explained it by comparing it to wearing one’s ‘Sunday best’ when going to church of more formal family occasions.”
Our editors were dazzled by these portraits. The power and agency these women communicated in the images were compelling and a worthy of reminder to check our biases. In a culture that still stigmatizes anyone who doesn’t conform to Westernized conventions, the images insist that we recognize the full humanity of Muslim women, and their right to express their faith and their culture anywhere.
Some Western nations, like France, have codified their biases by banning the veil. France’s ban cites a “‘moral responsibility’ to uphold traditional European values in the face of an increasingly visible Muslim population,” and essentially mandates assimilation, which is a slick kind of xenophobia. Jos wrote back in 2011, “It seems to me we have a lot easier seeing -isms in a cultural context different from our own, and a lot harder time seeing agency. To veil or not to veil is a question to be navigated by Muslim women – what kind of feminism supports the imposition of values and behaviors on women by a government?”
Katie points out the cognitive dissonance in France’s selective protection of the rights of its citizens: “So, according to the Court, ‘living together’ requires being able to see people’s faces. And, according to the Court, covering ones face violates the rights of individuals who, ‘might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question.’” The court’s reasoning is incredibly convoluted, fearful at best and hypocritical at worst. It highlights a singularity in thinking and a lack of empathy and connection to women (or anyone) from different cultures.
When empathy wanes, I return to gazing at photographs. Susan Sontag once wrote, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” We’re living through incredible times, images are circulated at speeds we never before imagined, and while we’re overwhelmed with them as they often document a host of the world’s troubles, we need to sit still sometimes with images that remind us that we are human.
Syreeta McFadden lives in the County of Kings.