Marwa was eight-years-old when her parents began covering her head. She was 23 years-old when she stopped, soon after arriving in the United States. She recently began the Ex-Hijabi Photo Fashion Journal to tell the stories of women who have also uncovered. The self-described “ex-Muslim Atheist” runs the site, along with her blog Between a Veil and a Dark Place.
I spoke to Marwa about what gave her the idea, what she hopes to accomplish, and the themes the submissions share.
Marwa got the idea for the Photo Fashion Journal while talking about her first summer without the hijab. She and a fellow ex-Muslim and asylum seeker discussed the beauty of being “able to be out and feel the sun and the sand and the wind all over your body.” Yet that bliss was also marked by new pains. She found “easing into” displaying her body for the first time difficult, as well as dealing with the self-consciousness of bikini season.
But, eventually she grew more comfortable with her newfound freedom. “We started taking selfies of ourselves in our bikinis,” Marwa said. Which led her to an idea.
“Wouldn’t it be great if there were a space for everyone to do this? A space to celebrate?” And so the fashion journal was born.
Marwa clearly tries to be fair when discussing the hijab. When discussing some of the cultural baggage, issues surrounding it include modesty requirements, objectification, female agency, she is careful to note there’s more to the story. “A lot of the modesty doctrines and the limitations on interactions, I do believe that these things are evolving,” she states. “I actually know a lot of people who wear the hijab that they consciously claim has nothing to do with the male gaze and has nothing to do with modesty.”
“I do believe that more and more women who choose to wear the veil or even were socialized to wear the veil, it’s acceptable for them to interact and to get an education and to have jobs and to be public speakers and doctors and authority figures,” she says. “And so they’re moving away from the traditional understanding of what modesty ought to be. But unfortunately, in many places in the world, it’s still a big thing. You can’t have lunch with your male colleagues because that’s considered sinful. You can’t have friendships with men. You can’t go to places where there will be a lot of mixing and gender segregation is still a radically enforced norm.”
For her, being uncovered wasn’t really a choice. She grew up in Lebanon, which she describes as “arguable the most liberal Arab country.”
“When people think of Beirut, my hometown, they often think of sex and booze and nightclubs,” she says. “And that’s one subsection of it. But I grew up in Hezbollah culture. And over there it was just as unthinkable. Even though there was no legal apparatus, it was just as unthinkable to try to do that as if I had been in Saudi Arabia. And I was, I grew up there, before moving back to Lebanon.”
People often say, ‘It’s not like you live in Saudi Arabia. There are very few countries that actually enforce the veil by law.’ That tends to be a cop-out because in so many Muslim-majority countries and societies, even insular communities within the West, you face a lot of stigma and ostracization, you’ll become poor if you try to defy these norms. It’s not as simple and as clear cut as it might seem.”
The thing about a choice is, you look at, even people who say, ‘I choose to wear the veil,’ you have to ask, “Well what would happen if you chose otherwise?’
And there are implications of covering eight year old girls beyond just the choice argument which disturb her. “What are you saying about their bodies?” with the veil, she asks. “You’re saying their bodies are sexual objects. And sexual objects of discord that need to be covered up. That’s really where a lot of the stigma and shame set in for me. Before I even knew what sex was, I knew that it was dangerous and harmful for people to look at certain part of my body.”
What bothers her in addition is that “attempts to avoid objectification end up reinforcing it,” she says. “Like, we see all the rhetoric surrounding the hijab often couches it in terms of protecting, and then there are all these dehumanizing analogies used. Like a woman is a pearl that’s protected by her oyster. Or, a piece of candy. Would you prefer a piece of candy that was unwrapped and passed around or one that was wrapped? And they are literally comparing women to objects! And objects that you own and consume!”
“Fundamentally what that is it’s viewing women and their bodies as for other people rather than for themselves. It’s considered that you as a woman are even oppressing men by exposing them to your body. There are arguments along these lines. And all of them are dehumanizing. And speaking of trying to prevent sexual objectification in particular, they end up tending to hypersexualize the body instead. If the cloth would slip from my wrist there would be moral outrage.“
Having come through this, Marwa sees the journal as a place for people with a common experience to find healing. Where, “not only are their words welcome, but they’re understood.”
She describes the journal as “a space of healing,” the focus is on inclusivity. Marwa wants the project to be a welcoming place for people of all sizes, genders, and backgrounds. The project doesn’t even require that participants wore the hijab. Anyone who’s thrown off “modesty requirements” is welcome to participate. She welcomes women who have been “shamed and stigmatized” for showing their arms or legs. “It’s really about acceptance.”
Survivors speak about how their oppression and restriction affected them. How their families reacted. They describe shame and denigration. “I don’t think that focusing on that is a bad thing,” she says. “I think it helps dealing with it.”
Throughout this project, however, Marwa is concerned that none of her work feed into anti-Muslim bigotry. The focus, she says, is on bodily autonomy.
“Even if we believe that the veil plays into patriarchal values, people are allowed to make bad choices with their bodies,” she says. “By talking about the very real detriment that forced hijab poses, and how it happens to real people, real people who you know and whose stories you can become intimate with, real people you aren’t othering as some foreign culture that’s stuck in the Middle Ages as if we don’t have Enlightenment and modernities, as if the Middle East is stuck in a marsh of backwards values, and you give voice to the women who actually have experience with these things, I think that serves to humanize it. And once it’s humanized, it’s very hard for it to be misused in bigoted ways.”
“Because it’s personal, because it happened to us, we have the right to talk about it,” she says. “Because it’s our bodies and our bodily history.”
Interestingly for a project seemingly about the hijab, with “hijab” in the name even, that’s not actually the point for Marwa. It doesn’t matter if you choose to wear the hijab or not,” she says. “The focus is on bodily autonomy.” And a beautiful focus it is.