In 1978, Edward Said defined Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’ He documented how orientalism framed Islam as Eastern and judged it inferior to the West, which in contrast was defined geographically as North America and Europe and philosophically by secularism and Christianity. Put differently, orientalism becomes the intellectual framework of hierarchy behind an enduring discourse that there exists some “us” versus a “them,” with Muslims framed as always already foreign.
Adopting hijab as a symbol of solidarity is orientalist in a way that is both gendered and romantic. During the colonial period, the veil became enmeshed in gendered orientalism, resulting in Muslim women being designated the bearers of Islamic tradition. Today, using gendered aesthetics to symbolize Islam in political movements relies on that same framing.
What is tricky about the orientalism of solidarity hijab is that it is not blatantly negative. In fact, even as protesters deployed hijab as a sign of Muslim difference and identity, they also insisted that they were interested in a positive portrayal of that symbol. Minh-Ha Pham, a scholar who has written about the exploitation of Asian design in the West, has a helpful term that applies here: romantic orientalism. Pham uses this term when discussing so-called positive presentations of Eastern aesthetics that are nevertheless orientalist insofar as they are justified by assumed Western superiority, entitlement, and a liberal political agenda. The anonymous author of Ms. Muslamic described solidarity hijab in terms that echo Pham’s concept of romantic orientalism: “Whether you’re upholding the veil as symbolic of oppression or purporting to ‘challenge assumptions’ about it,” the blog reads, “this is still a reductive, one-dimensional and over-simplistic view of how Muslim women experience their faith, their identity and their bodies.”
The cases of solidarity hijab discussed here were engaged in as forms of feminist action that tried to take intersectionality seriously. And yet, feminism is another form of structural injustice that contributes to the exploitation of this political gesture. Solidarity hijab failed because it assumed sisterhood was possible without taking difference—particularly in terms of religio-racialized experience—more seriously. This failure is an indication about how challenging it is to implement intersectionality in symbolic politics, which by nature depend on aesthetics that are often reductive and exclusionary. But it also points to a particular problem mainstream feminism has had: understanding how religious identities contribute not only to women’s marginalization and vulnerability, but also to their empowerment and flourishing.
The problem is not feminism per se, but the dominance of a type of feminism that women of color have increasingly named and critiqued publicly: white feminism. White feminism is not only about white women. It is an ideology that anyone can subscribe to. Rafia Zakaria, the author of Against White Feminism, defines a white feminist as “someone who refuses to consider the role of whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs as being those of all of feminism and all of feminists.” This may be unintentional, Zakaria continued. “A white feminist may be a woman who earnestly salutes the precepts of ‘intersectionality’ . . . but also fails to cede space to the feminists of color who have been ignored, erased, or excluded from the feminist movement.” Koa Beck, author of White Feminism, explains white feminism in terms of its tactics. “It’s a type of feminism,” she writes, “that takes up the politics of power without questioning them—by replicating patterns of white supremacy, capitalistic greed, corporate ascension, inhumane labor practices, and exploitation, and deeming it empowering for women to practice these tenets as men always have.” That is, white feminism is about increasing the power of particular women, through increased autonomy, wealth, and self-actualization, instead of redistributing power.It plays by the rules of patriarchy and white supremacy instead of dismantling them. In white feminism, women advocate for themselves to be treated like white men.