The hijab: Be careful what you WISH for…

| October 8, 2014

WISH is an online campaign and stands for Women in Solidarity with Hijabis. Polly Chester likes the solid intentions of the WISH campaign but doesn’t believe it’s so easy to rebuild societal perceptions with “slack-tivism”.

When I first happened upon the WISH – Women in Solidarity with Hijabis campaign on Facebook, I was energised by the feminist underpinnings of the movement, particularly in terms of the sisterhood standing together in order to foster peace, multiculturalism and to stand against racism in Australia.

Lawyer and activist Mariam Veiszadeh orchestrated the WISH movement in an attempt to counter anti-Muslim sentiments. The premise of the campaign is flawless in that regard and it’s great to see so many Australian women doing what they can to assist.

With some more time to think, particularly after I read an article by Zeynab Gamieldien, I am now not so sure about WISH. As Gamieldien explains, non-Muslims posing as Muslims might insinuate that the experience of posing as a Muslim woman and actually being one are parallel. She is wary that the campaign dismisses the voices of Muslim women who actually wear the hijab; reducing the experience to an exercise in fancy dress.

After considering this with as much objectivity and cultural sensitivity as I can muster, I can see how a Western woman dressing in hijab could be interpreted as a kind of nose thumbing to Muslim women:

“Look at me – an untouchable Caucasian chick wearing a hijab! If I can do it, anyone can!”

The first thought that struck me after reading Gamieldien’s article was, “Great. Just what we need – another campaign that champions chicks taking right-on selfies under the guise of activism.”

And I use the term activism very loosely, because what I actually mean is “slack-tivism.”

My second thought was about the inherent danger of appropriating parts of a culture that one only understands from an outsider’s perspective. I’d liken it to a non-Indigenous Australian attempting to create art in the same style as Indigenous Australians do. The aesthetics of the art might be reproduced easily enough, but the art is not just ochre; the art is a representation of Dreamtime. So it’s probably best for those of us who aren’t a part of that culture to admire, enjoy and respect it, but leave creating the art to the people who understand what it’s all about.

My third thought was anger, which sprang from the way that the WISH campaign smacks of cultural imperialism. Simply put, cultural imperialism forces a Western narrative into a space where it does not belong and effectively conquers smaller and less powerful cultures. I don’t think that this is the goal of the WISH campaign, but it may be an unintended consequence if it inadvertently continues to drown out the voices of the Muslim women it’s trying to empower.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t stand in solidarity with our Muslim sisters – quite the opposite in fact. The more support, the better. However, we need to break down any notions of being culturally competent regarding this matter.

What I am instead suggesting is that we acknowledge our ignorance, engage in further consultation and build a more culturally-responsive campaign that would seek to break down the oppressive structures that cause racism in the first place. It’s great to see high-profile celebrities such as Meshel Laurie and Jessica Rowe jumping on board with the WISH campaign. What I’d really like to see is their influence being used to directly lobby the Government ministers responsible for whipping the public into a terror-related frenzy.

If certain Parliamentarians were to check their prejudice at the door and set a better example, perhaps the Australian public would follow suit.

We need to initiate further discussions and ask more Muslim women how we can best assist them in this matter, rather than assuming we know what is best. While the WISH campaign has the potential to increase solidarity, we should be mindful of its potential to marginalise.

I won’t be donning a hijab in solidarity just yet.

For now, I’m just going to stick to smiling at people and flicking double peace signs while I await further instructions.


This article first appeared in The Big Smoke and is republished with the permission of the author.