During the January 21st Women’s March in New York City, I was inspired and delighted by so many of the signs women and men had crafted to express their opposition to the current disastrous regime in the United States: “Grab America Back,” “Support Your Mom,” “Sad!,” “Miss Uterus Strikes Back.” But one image stood out, mesmerizing me: that of a woman proudly wearing an American flag as hijab, with a message below—“We The People Are Greater Than Fear.” For several blocks as we made our way up Fifth Avenue, I walked beside a woman carrying that sign, and it became, for me, the most powerful symbol of the resistance we must all wage during the dark time ahead.
The image, based on a photograph of Munira Ahmed by Ridwan Adhami, was created for the Women’s March by graphic artist Shepard Fairey (who also designed the iconic image of Barack Obama, “Hope”). It offers a striking visual challenge to a long-held orthodoxy, now brought to the fore by Donald Trump and his gang: that Western-style liberal democracy (epitomized by the United States) is incompatible with Islam. And, perhaps even more specifically, that Islam is incompatible with feminism.
Many Western women—including feminists—are still bound by the Orientalist worldview that encumbered our liberal feminist foremothers. In her 1798 Vindication of the Rights of Woman—the founding text of liberal feminism—Mary Wollstonecraft looks with horror at what she calls “the true style of Mahometanism,” arguing without much evidence that Islam regards women as “subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species.” Wollstonecraft grounds her call for women’s rights in the West in a plea that the West make itself more like itself—expunging “Mahometan” elements of despotism and misogyny. When U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump attempted to discredit Khizr Khan by pointing to his wife Ghazala’s silence, he was drawing on a similar set of assumptions. It is also part of what is behind efforts, like those in France, to ban the headscarf and the burkini.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s images and arguments, themselves grounded in widely held and largely uncriticized eighteenth-century views of Islam and the Middle East, came to pervade nineteenth-century Western feminist discourse. For example, in Charlotte Bronte’s feminist novel Jane Eyre, which so many of us read and loved as young girls, Jane compares the authoritarian Rochester to a sultan and vows to resist his “Mahometan” ways. Indeed, at the conclusion of the novel, Rochester undergoes a “conversion” before finally marrying Jane.
Despite decades of postcolonial feminist critique, too many twenty-first century Western women echo Bronte and Wollstonecraft when they are discomfited by their sisters in hijabs and niqabs and burkas, uncritically equating women’s freedom with a particular dress code. This is why, for me, the American flag as hijab seems an especially potent, transgressive symbol.
Of course it is true, as scholar and human rights activist Elham Manea argues in an important Huffington Post article, that
The headscarf (veil) is a controversial symbol. . . . Some consider it a religious symbol; others see it as a tool of patriarchal control and oppression; and yet others consider it a symbol of the march of political Islam.
Manea rightly reminds us that while some women choose to wear the headscarf as a sign of their faith, many others are forced to wear it “whether they wanted to or not.” She challenges the organizers of the Women’s March for selecting Shepard Fairey’s image as one of its eight official posters:
Why choose a symbol ― considered a tool of oppression for many women in different parts of the world ― as a symbol of a rich and diverse religion like Islam? It is not only misguided, it is an insult to all of these women, who have to wear it and bear the psychological scars of that imposition.
Nervana, an eloquent Egyptian Muslim blogger, takes Western feminists to task even more pointedly as she discusses the Women’s March:
As a liberal Muslim, I see today’s outrage as selective and biased. Women’s rights are universal values that face threats from many directions, not just from Trump.
For decades, headlines of discrimination against women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries have flooded media outlets. The abhorrent news of honor killings, child rape, underage marriage, torture of female prisoners, and forced veiling, even for children, are not unknown to the world. None of these events have triggered global marches.
. . .
My message to all social activists marching in America is simple: Feel our pain, and stand with our common values. One cannot stand against Trump’s misogyny while condoning or ignoring others’ misogyny as ‘cultural” or “religious.” Such selectivity is what led to the rise of Trump in the first place. Women’s rights are for all, not just for American and other Western women.
It is necessary, as Nervana and Manea argue (along with Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente right here on FAR) that Westerners develop a more nuanced understanding of Islam, refusing all forms of essentialism. As Nervana states in another post,
While defending freedom, it is crucial not to be an advocate of illiberal multiculturalism, in which Islamist Muslims can demand respect and understanding for their conservative, often illiberal attitudes, while non-Muslims’ illiberalism is damned as sick and unacceptable. . . .
The Western world needs a centrist approach to its Muslim communities that acknowledges and highlights their diversity, maintains the rights of conservative Muslims, and addresses the fears (even irrational ones) of local communities. The best way to fight Islamophobia is to show sympathy for local anxieties, celebrate and support Islamic diversity, and encourage liberal Muslims’ voices.
I fully agree with Nervana and Manea that Western feminists need to be more engaged with injustices against women throughout the world. And I recognize that the hijab is a multivalent symbol, representing coercion as well as choice. For that matter, so is the American flag: we can view it as a symbol of our highest ideals or as an instrument of oppression, too often displayed by xenophobic and misogynist “patriots” who would impose their will on others.
Yet I still cherish Shepard Fairey’s image of the American flag as hijab. I do not see it as representing all Muslims, nor do I see it as celebrating the hijab or illiberal Islam. Rather, I see it as a part of the larger effort to create multiple, more complex images of Muslims and of the United States. Like the New York Times photograph of Syrian refugees entering the U.S. after a judge blocked parts of Mr. Trump’s immigration ban, it gives me hope that we can indeed move toward a world with “liberty and justice for all.”
Joyce Zonana’s much-reprinted essay, “The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structure of Jane Eyre,” first appeared in Signs in 1993. An Egyptian-Jewish immigrant to the U.S., Joyce is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. Joyce has served as co-director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. A retired professor of English, she currently works as a literary translator and recently received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her work on Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble (This Land That Is Like You).