Sites of Racialization: Headscarves, Turbans, and “Brown Bodies” (@theTable: Intersecting Islamophobia)
By Kristin Garrity Şekerci.
This blog is in response to Tanisha Ramachandran’s piece “Racializing Religion.” In her blog, Ramachandran argues the importance of understanding the intersection of race and religion, and how power and privilege reinforces the othering and subordination of Muslims and those perceived to be. Ramachandran cites the work of contemporary scholar Leerom Medovoi and his academic work on “dogma-line” racism and “color-line” racism. This blog continues this conversation by exploring the implications of dogma-line racism in today’s climate of Islamophobia and through a gendered perspective of wearing the hijab.
Once I started to wear the hijab, strangers began to ask me the same question over and over. Suddenly, strangers become uncannily curious about “where I am from.” It was a question I was literally never asked before I began to wear the Islamic headscarf.
By way of background, I am the descendent of Western European immigrants who came to the United States in the mid-1800s. I am marked with “white” phenotypes. After converting to Islam in 2012, I began to wear the hijab.1 I was perplexed when I quickly realized that my family seemed more concerned not with my initial conversion, but with my decision to wear hijab. Why did my decision to wear hijab become more of a point of contention than the initial conversion itself? I would argue that this was the case because the hijab has become not only a site of “dogma-line racialization,” but a site of “color-line racialization” as well (Medovoi 2012, 45).
According to Leerom Medovoi, dogma-line racism defines individuals through their mind, ideology and according to theologies, creeds, beliefs, faiths and ideas. Color-line racism, on the other hand, marks individuals by their body, corporeality and according to color, face, hair, blood and origin. Étienne Balibar puts it another way, differentiating one’s “spiritual inheritance” from one’s “biological hereditary” – “bodily stigmata play a great role in its phantasmatics, but they do so more as signs of a deep psychology, as signs of a spiritual inheritance rather than a biological heredity” (2011, 24).
Medovoi traces the genealogy of the manifestations of dogma-line and color-line racism back to the Spanish Inquisition, when conversos (converts to Christianity) were tested, to put it euphemistically, to determine their loyalty to Christianity, which was then also a determination of their loyalty to the Spanish Crown. Additionally, the Inquisition established statutes of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) as requirements for holding political and ecclesiastical posts. In other words, individuals would need to prove a “pure” Christian bloodline. This religio-racial categorization of subjects also carried over into Spanish colonization of the Americas. Medovoi thus argues that the “origins of race can therefore be traced to the twin births of a color and a dogma line in the very ﬁrst two centuries of the world system’s existence” (2012, 58).
This phenomenon of a racialized, Christian blood purity provides interesting implications for today’s discussions of Islamophobia. In 15th century Spain, spiritual inheritance was tied to biological hereditary; today, in the United States as in other “Western” countries, there are startling similarities. For instance, when I began to wear the hijab, my Western European-American biological hereditary was not only neutralized but supplanted by an entirely separate biological hereditary. Off the top of my head I can remember being asked if I was Saudi, Afghani, Syrian, Iranian, Turkish, and Pakistani. My response that I am American to the unremitting “where are you from?” is almost always met with follow-ups of “but where are you really from?” and the inevitable “but where are your parents from?” In other words, my Western European-American inheritance seems completely incompatible with my wearing hijab.
I provide these examples to demonstrate that hijab has become, what I would call, a distinct “site of racialization.” Interestingly, however, this racialization is not only one of dogma, but one of color, too. In other words, wearing the hijab for many American women converts is not only a visible marker of her faith choice, but is also a racializing determination that reduces her ethnicity and nationality to a shortlist of Muslim-majority countries, predominantly Middle Eastern. It would be interesting to see if this is also the case with African American women converts and Latina American women converts. My suspicion would be yes.
Furthermore, the case of the hijab is a unique case in that it correctly attributes the religious garment to its corresponding faith tradition. It is also unique because it specifically affects women. Speaking to the latter, the racialization of the hijab has enormous implications for the women who wear it because it is perhaps the most easily identifiable Islamic marker. It has become a controversial symbol and a site of criminalization – such as in a U.S. military white paper that describes it as “passive terrorism” and in countries like, most notably, France and Belgium where certain manifestations of hijab have been debated, legislated, and even outright banned.
In light of these social hostiles, well-intentioned friends, family, and colleagues may ask why Muslim women continue to wear hijab since it is something that can be easily removed. This is a deeply limiting argument for two different reasons – on the one hand, it posits Muslim women who wear the hijab as co-authors of their own oppression; and on the other, it trivializes the deeply spiritual, psychological and emotional experience that wearing hijab represents for so many women. While hijab is not immutable in the same sense that skin color or other racializing markers are, it is for many a permanent extension of identity that Muslim women continue to choose, despite today’s accompanying threats of assault and discrimination.
Additionally, other religious (and/or cultural) garments are racialized by virtue of their non-Christian or non-white “otherness” and erroneously attributed to a faith tradition to which it does not belong. This, sadly, has become commonplace for South Asian Americans and Arab Americans, regardless of their Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, non-theist or other faith tradition backgrounds. In today’s climate of Islamophobia, for instance, the dastaar2 is too often incorrectly associated with Islam, instead of Sikhism, and often results in violent assault. While both men and women wear the dastaar, most victims of bias attack in this community seem to be men. The same can be said of Americans more generally who are marked with “brown” phenotypes, including Arabs, South Asians and even Latinos. In this case, these Americans’ biological hereditary is increasingly racialized along a color-line that appears strangely bound to an ever monolithic dogma-line – Islam. While both cases are extremely disturbing, the latter case is especially alarming because of the sheer number of individuals it ensnares.
Medovoi concludes by alluding to the parallels of Spanish Inquisition torture and round-ups with today’s profiling, detention and torture by the state against individuals deemed a threat to national security. In the latter example, I am left to wonder who exactly is included and excluded in today’s discussions of “national security.” Once we peel back a few layers, I think we’ll find something far more telling, and disquieting, about how we differentiate friends from enemies vis-à-vis threats to our founding values as a nation, and the particular religio-racial context within which it occurred.
1 For all intents and purposes, I refer to “hijab” here as the physical cloth wrapped around a Muslim woman’s hair. This in contrast to the more accurate description of the term in its abstract understanding – a code of behaviors and manners for modesty incumbent on both women and men.
2 The dastaar is the turban worn by initiated or baptized Sikhs.
Balibar, Étienne, and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein. “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism?’” Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso, 2011. 17-28.
Medovoi, Leerom. “Dogma-Line Racism Islamophobia and the Second Axis of Race.” Social Text 30, no. 2 111 (2012): 43-74.
Kristin Garrity Şekerci works at Georgetown University’s The Bridge Initiative, a multiyear research project on Islamophobia. She is active in the interfaith community in Washington, DC, and holds a Master’s degree from American University in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs.
For more information on this @theTable topic: Intersecting Islamophobia.
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