On Identity Politics, and ‘Rapping Your Hijab’
In my daily browsing of social media feeds, I came across a video, via the medium of a celebratory NPR article about Syrian-American female rapper Mona Haydar, who “channels Beyonce” in her debut video about wearing the hijab, or the veil.
Unlike the author of the article, who was struck by the “diverse female cast, vibrant modern choreography and camera work that creates intimacy with the viewer,” I found the video jarring on several levels—aesthetic, political, cultural, and artistic, to name a few.
It wasn’t precisely seeing a veiled woman rap that bothered me, as the artist might claim, and I certainly have no issues with seeing a pregnant woman perform, as the artist did claim. Rather, it was that the video, to me, manifested the monumental disorientation of contemporary identity politics in a world where it is, increasingly, becoming infinitely more difficult to consistently align ideology, and therefore consistently align resistance.
What does it mean for a Syrian-American to “channel Beyonce” in a “resistance” video, as scores of her compatriots have had to resist either the scourge of Islamic State or the Assad regime forces? What does it mean for her to appear with a distinctly all-female, all-veiled ensemble of women of all-colors, as she denounces the viewer who “only see[s] Oriental” with an impervious poker-face? Is it because she can do this that she is “so liberated”, or is the veil the liberating factor?
The premise seems simple enough, but one finds oneself questioning who exactly she is representing, and whose rights she is attempting to champion, as she arguably appropriates a black-American lexicon and visual vocabulary to get her message across.
It is likely that, on some level, she grasps the irony of the entire act, but perhaps for much of her audience, this is not the case. Though she states that “women's bodies are under fire all over the world,” one must put an asterisk next to this all-too-facile acceptance of the veil as an entirely unproblematic addendum to the feminist cause.
As a “liberal” Egyptian woman from a Coptic background (albeit without any religious inclinations of my own), perhaps it is not my place to speak on this matter. Straight up, I’ll admit that part of me still views the veil as a symbol of male oppression and patriarchy, even as I uphold every woman’s right to make her own decision to wear one—in particular, in the face of Islamophobic and xenophobic fascism masquerading as an attempt to liberate the Oriental female from her brown male oppressors, while ignoring its own operative role in her oppression.
"What does it mean for a Syrian-American to “channel Beyonce” in a “resistance” video, as scores of her compatriots resist either Islamic State or the Assad regime?"
"I am tired of the empty platitudes to feminism evoked by women like Beyonce so they can add to their repertoires of catchy pop-tivism and their billions in assets."
And yet, I’ve never been able to overlook the distinction that requires a woman to recognize herself as a thing that can only be expressed in sexual terms, and therefore must be concealed under those terms. The double-standard never stopped getting under my skin. As a university student, I essentially equated the hijabi with the pole dancer—though one is asked to cover up while the other is asked to strip down, ultimately, both are a condemnation of women as sexualized objects with no agency. Their self-expression is determined only insofar as the male gaze demands it.
Though my stance has softened in time (in relation to both the hijabi and the pole dancer), I nonetheless have continued to view the issue of the veil within the context of identity politics, and in particular in terms of the role the veil plays as a very visual reinforcer of the dominance a very particular interpretation of Islam. In the context of this version of Islam, the veil becomes the only acceptable dress-code, and in turn becomes a visual marker, and an overwhelming symbol of social hegemony.
In this framework, those who dare to deviate from the pre-imposed norm (whether those who belong to a religious minority, or atheists, or Muslim women who choose not to veil) feel the consequences all too keenly. Though, admittedly, it is also an issue of social mobility—I come from privilege, but through a combination of personal choices and relatively unusual social status, I am perhaps exposed to a wider range of Egyptian society than most young women of my class would be. Young women of a similar, or slightly higher, economic background would likely not frequent certain neighborhoods or walk in the streets alone, and in this context, the lack of a veil becomes a status symbol—a luxury not afforded to women of lower socioeconomic standing.
But that is not exactly what I came here to talk about. Rather, what I find most striking about the video is something that is typical of much of contemporary politics—namely, the conflation of anti-imperialist rhetoric of liberation with a feminist rhetoric of liberation, and the logical inconsistencies born therewith.
Often, championing this Western left-wing, seemingly inclusive view of veiled women creates a stagnant paradigm where the hijab is equated with a liberal rhetoric. This arguably denies other Muslim women, and those of other denominational or non-denominational beliefs, the agency to break out of this rhetoric of hijab as an inextricable part of Arab or Middle Eastern female identity.
One must not forget that in countries like Egypt, as well as others, the hijab exploded in popularity via Saudi influence—that this too is a form of cultural imperialism, imposed from without by those with means. This phenomenon was exported by Egyptians who returned to Egypt from Saudi Arabia, as well as the growing monetary influence imposed by the oil-rich kingdom, without bearing into consideration the cultural differences of the context in which it was imposed. That is to say, a context in which the social segregation typical of the exporting culture, in Saudi Arabia, does not exist, for socioeconomic reasons as well as cultural ones.
Haydar says she is not interested in a conversation over whether music is haram (forbidden) in Islam, but in doing so, she seems to be willfully forgetting the millions of people who have no outlets for self-expression beyond those governed by such conversations.
Perhaps now is quite late in the game to point out that it is not my intention to condemn Mona Haydar or deny her whatever form of self-expression she deems fit. But in a generation where much of social mobilization comes, often ineffectually, in the form of memes, blogs, tweets, and YouTube videos, it is important to start a conversation about how far these small, digestible doses of activism can take us.
I am tired of the empty platitudes to feminism evoked by women like Beyonce so they can add to their repertoires of catchy pop-tivism and their billions in assets. I’m tired of a trend of lazy social resistance that refuses to ask itself the real questions about identity and nationhood, that refuses to see Trump as a natural extension of American identity politics and wants to maintain the myth of America as an inclusive haven for minorities. I am tired of Arab activists rushing to the gullible conclusion that the only legitimate form of resistance is through embracing Islamic identity.
The real hard work starts when we begin questioning the comfortable assumptions that we hold dear, and following these questions to their logical conclusions.