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On the Politics of Being a “Hoejabi” – The Hypersexualisation of Black Women, Gendered Islamophobia and Misogynoir

by in Identity on 2nd November, 2018

Before The New York Times published another attempt at masquerading as a socially conscious outlet, Black Muslim women were exploring the constraints that both anti-Blackness and Orientalism placed upon their bodies. In “How to Be a Hoejabi”, the author discussed the sexuality of Muslim women and the plight of the modern Muslim women, who adopted the term hoejabi to escape pressure from the outside world. However, to have a full and honest discussion about hoejab, the article needs to return to basic steps. The basis of the term itself needs to be unpackaged, including not only the reasoning behind it but your reasoning for approaching it. In addition, it is fundamental for one to examine constructions of Western modernity, sexual liberation, and how these interact with race and gender. Who was originally targeted with this word? And what theories are being ripped from their context with its new application?

Coming into Islam, I learned the additional politics my body would be subjected to not from the falsely universal Muslim feminists, whose lack of nuance were unable to answer for woman beyond themselves, but from my peers. I learned from Black hijabis who detailed their experiences at concerts or riding transit at night; who articulated, bluntly, the ways in which Islamophobia and misogynoir collided. I learned from Black Muslims who navigated gender at a crossroads, where sexuality was equally as tumultuous and carved out the details of what it was to wear hijab and to be a hoe.

Gendered Islamophobia

To start, we need to acknowledge that the focus on hijab within the West is not a fixation that arose from nowhere, but a gendered extension of Islamophobia that has been building for generations. As the media rush to formalize the hijab’s commodification, that attention should not be confused with progress or recognition of humanity. This obsession with hijab, whatever angle it comes from, is simply another way for the West to articulate its own exceptionalism. The Western world depends on framing itself as extraordinary; it has done things the rest of the world is incapable of, not through the exploitation of other people and their resources, but by their own miraculous nature. In this Western fixation, the hijab and those who wear it are still foreign and so tokenization cannot be confused with gifted agency.

Examining this obsession with hijab, we need to do better than to focus our analysis on how non-Black Muslim women have been perceived. Because The New York Times is an American publication and the article is written by someone within the United States, I will use the United States as an example. The history of hijab with Black Muslim women is long and it is complicated. To fully understand how hijab has been perceived in the United States, it is absolutely necessary to take into account the gendered, anti-Black extension of Islamophobia that Black Muslim women have dealt with in this country for generations. It is also necessary to explore the constructions of gender itself in the United States.

As racial stratification created a binary where whiteness existed as everything good and pure, with Blackness as anti-human at the bottom, the same must be understood for gender. For Black women, hypersexualization was a dehumanizing tactic utilized throughout history. Early on, the Jezebel caricature became a representative of Black women’s “inherent” lascivious nature, and one that continues on today. It is the Jezebel caricature that has evolved to encompass hoeness, the type which targets Black girls with a harshness that varies based on intersections such as class, colour, etc.

Jezebel Trope

The Jezebel trope is important to keep in mind when discussing hijab and the politics of hoejabis, because it helps to show some of the nuances that need to be brought into the discussion. As noted by Sherronda J. Brown, “In order for white women to be upheld as pure, Black women are first defined as licentious and sexually deviant. This impacts how Black women and girls come into their sexual identities because there are expectations inscribed on us from the very beginning. The idea that we are inherently sexually irresponsible, but at the same time expected to always be sexually available…”.

This hypersexualisation, as a Black woman, does not disappear when you throw on a hijab, but simply takes on new expressions. When failing to understand this, hoejabi at its most shallow becomes another way to appeal to what the West is exploring as a new type of sexual “liberation”. Although the United States created the myth of the hypersexual Black woman, it still robs from that aesthetic, repackaging it to now be desirable. Black women can’t twerk without being dirty, but white women are cute when they try. As it stands now, the article around hoejabi’s opens up a discourse that threatens to do the same. Already, the conversation refuses to account for Black Muslim women who adopted the label, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, to articulate their own experiences. The article goes the extra mile of looking at the West and its idea of sexual liberation through the hypersexualization it forced upon Black women, repackaged and commodified, and then borrows that as the universal answer for all hijabis to regain agency. Muslim womanhood does not encompass only one experience, but a multitude of various life experiences and intersections of oppression. There is no universal solution to suggest.

“There is very little consent to be found, for example, in the fact that Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her.” Orientalism

And this, too, is where a problem lies: when we assume that hijabis have never been seen as sexual beings. To fix that, we must look to “Mike from your Politics of the Middle East class” to make sure that he knows we can have a crush on him and he can crush on us back. To be frank, nobody cares about Mike. The narrative that Muslim women have been denied attention from Western men is inherently false. In Orientalism, Edward Said writes of Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian woman, in which her narrative was determined by Flaubert’s projections. She was sexualized, as Muslim women in modern times have been. The article’s example, Nadia Ali, occasionally wears hijab or other clothing associated with Muslims in her videos.

Muslim women denied agency

Muslim women have not been universally denied sex but denied agency and humanity within it. For Black Muslim women, hypersexualization combined with gendered Islamophobia continues to be a factor. It is that distinction that needs to be kept in mind moving forward, especially if there are any further attempts to bring conversations around what it is to be a hoe into a broader context.

Lastly, when discussing the West’s Orientalism, it needs to be understood in its full scope. The Orient is not to be confused with a fixed location nor racial identity, but instead encompasses everything that the West decides it is not. The West articulates what the Orient is and, more importantly, has the agency to juxtapose itself against that. The West is granted the opportunity to decide what constitutes modernity. In short, the West is always better than the Orient because the West is writing the story. Operating with its love of false binaries, the West constructs an idea of the sexually liberated and the sexually oppressed; who those people are and what they look like changes depending on the time, context, and the message that the West needs to put out. But any attempts to appeal to the West are not granting further agency within conversations around gender and sexuality but instead reinforcing Orientalism. Instead, our narratives must focus on deconstructing the concept of the West and the Orient. And our conversations must be had where they are useful. The New York Times and other corporate media outlets are not inherently equipped to host a discussion because they have a legacy following.

For the West to exist, it relies on the Orient, as detailed by Edward Said in his book Orientalism. It is only by creating the Orient, by positioning itself within these binaries, that the West can exist. This means that our discussions around hijab cannot play into Western notions of liberation or norms, attitudes, and practices associated with modernity. or we are continuing the cycle that created the Orient. Moving forward, any discussion around how to be a hoejabi needs to remember this: who, regardless of self-identification or politics, has always been a hoe in hijab?

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor is a writer based out of Philadelphia. She's interested in using a multidisciplinary approach to social justice, from on-the-grounds activism like co-founding the Black Liberation Project to finding accessible ways to educate the community, with writing as a way to make sense of it all. She uses poetry, essays, and other types of written work to explore. Her work focuses on exploring cultural criticism and the intersections of identity.