What it means to be a ‘free hair’ in a predominantly Muslim society

This is an edited version of a conference and seminar paper presented at the National University of Singapore in March 2016 and Australian National University in April 2016:

Women who decide to remain un-veiled or ‘free hair’ (colloquial, noun) are a significant minority within predominantly Muslim societies. Their sartorial decisions are often couched in a type of ethics that contrasts with the hegemonic interpretation of Islam particular to their society and community. We need to listen to women’s stories so that we can better understand the impact of Islamisation on women and their sense of self. Early findings of my UM-funded research project, “Silence and Consent: The Modern Social History of Non-veiling in Malaysia” constitute a praxis in listening to these women’s stories.

In countries other than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and provinces like Aceh where veiling and strict dress codes in public spaces are state imposed on women, Muslim women navigate a complex and frequently treacherous religious and social terrain in which the veil carries a multitude of potent meanings. Their negotiation with veiling suggests the dynamic push and pull factors of coercion and ‘free’ choice that reside within the limits of Muslim women’s agency. For Muslim women who do not wear the hijab in the context of Islamisation, their non-veiled status is held together by daily social tension and pressure as they very visibly deviate from the normative identification of Muslim femininity.

Women who do not veil in Malaysia, especially those outside the public limelight, are invisible in the literature and in the discursive landscape concerning women and Islam. All Muslim-Malay women and girls in Malaysia face varying levels of social and religious-based pressure to wear the tudung (hijab). Many have been subjected to public abuse for not wearing the hijab. Nonetheless, there are Muslim women who remain unveiled and those who have removed their hijab in recent years. Unlike the abundance of research on motivations behind veiling, the lived experiences and reasons why Muslim women do not veil and those who un-veil remain scarce. Reasons for the scarcity of research on Muslim women reflect the attention given to studies on the rise of Islamic symbols in the public sphere. Muslim women who veil have become the embodiment of such socio-political and cultural changes that disturb the gendered boundaries that separate the private from the public. The veil has become a sign that religion has not gone away from the public sphere and that secularism has not defeated public religious expression.

By contrast, Muslim women who remain unveiled are marked as ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ Muslims, antithetical to Islamic revivalism. In societies where Muslims are a minority population, Muslim women who do not veil are regarded as having been assimilated and integrated into secular society. Fadil (2011) remarks that rather than passive and indifferent to the significance of Islamic symbols, women who do not veil perform ethical and affective labour. Affective and ethical labour is called upon in the feeling of insecurity, and when rationalising a new spiritual ethics that occurs “in the supplanting of certain fully ingrained truth-claims (headscarf as essential for Muslim piety) by another set of truth-claims (not-veiling as essential to one’s liberal ethical agency)” (Fadil 2011: 23). To put it more simply, not wearing the hijab is not an easy decision for women.

Muslim women’s capacity to challenge the authority of masculinsed interpretations of Islam is relatively new in Malaysian history. The Muslim feminist organisation, Sisters in Islam, was established in the early 1990s during a period of Islamisation and had pioneered the feminist challenge to the authority of ulamas through their non-patriarchal readings of the Quran and hadith. The state project of Islamisation in Malaysia was characterised as an aggressive promotion of ‘moderate Islam’, an Islamic mode of institutionalised practices that serve a capitalist ethno-religious agenda. The introduction of moderate Islam by the state had, intentionally and less so, created “public conditions of possibility for women’s status to be problematised” (Ong 2006: 33). These conditions befit Anderson and Eickelmann’s definition of the Muslim public sphere in which religious authority is decentralised and members of the ‘rational’ public engage towards shared end goals.

Ong argues that this particular moment in Malaysian history had not been an accident but part of a wider process of the defeudalising of Islam in Malaysia (Ong 2006: 48) in that the Malaysian state sought to standardise the interpretation and implementation of Islamic law across several private and public-funded entities such as Islamic banks, Islamic universities, and several Islamic centres under the prime minister’s purview to better align Malaysians with knowledges and skills suited to the Malaysian Islamic modernity. The formation of the ‘Muslim public’ in Malaysia is, however, an incomplete one. Although there is some physical and discursive space to question orthodox Islamic practices, the mantle of ‘moderate Islam’ in Malaysia today is likely to be under threat under the new wave of Islamisation and state acquiescence to Islamist militant ideas.

This study was conducted after receiving a significant amount of public attention for my Malay Mail Online article on the social pressures to veil in Malaysia. A few women called in and written to thank me for speaking up about what had long been an under-discussed issue, repressed by the fear of being accused of questioning Islam itself. Later, formal interviews were conducted in person and via email. Face to face interviews were transcribed and followed-up with email conversations. More than half of the 40 interviews were with respondents who have answered my online invitation to participate in my research project. Some of their responses, first names and age are reproduced below with their consent and minimal grammatical edits.

Non-veiled women as resistant bodies

Through their dis-articulation with biopolitical production of Islam in Malaysia, ‘free hair’ women become by definition resistant bodies. As resistant bodies, they are open-ended processes articulations of performativity of Malay femininity constituted by the vicissitudes of new Islamisation and continuing struggles for women’s autonomy and religio-political legitimacy. They perform the affective labour of daily negotiations and rationalising their subjectivities against a religious-ethnic norm. So long as they live under the discursive regimes of Islamisation, their relationship with the hijab and reconciliation with not veiling remain open-ended. Zanariah, aged 35, embodies the open-ended quality of Butlerian performativity faced by Malay women who do not wear the hijab:

At first, I felt great wearing it but eventually didn’t like it because I felt like I was losing myself, not being true to myself and constantly needed to behave in certain ways expected by others […] Hijab can also be very uncomfortable in humid weather, leaving me questioning the practicability of it. I felt trapped and wasn’t happy.

I went through a breakdown when the family lost a lot of money & materials in business. Being more religious was my way to cope with the difficult situation. I went through a spiritual journey – attended religious classes & read many religious books as well as history of religions […] Studying the Quran gradually shifted my view towards Islam significantly to wider context, breaking away from shackles of society. Islam is far beyond the hijab.

Slowly hijab is seen as [a] cultural practice and one of many tools used by men to oppress women. Feeling liberated […] I found my courage to make conscious decision to remove my hijab in 2014. […] I feel closer to Allah, the Creator

I started taking care of my hair again. [The] judgmental behaviour I had when I was in hijab faded away. I become more open especially towards other races and religions. I feel at ease to mingle across religions without hijab. I found a new confidence to speak out & feel happier.

The context of Islamisation necessitates the Malay female subjectivity to cultivate a continuum of (non)-veiling; as decisions for veiling practices are always open-ended and subject to rupture i.e. re-veiling. But it is a futurity full of negotiations. Non-veiling allowed Zanariah to be an active participant in the construction of an ethics and authenticity. Arriving at her current ethical standpoint required heavy affective labour to negotiate and replace a one set of truth claims (the veil as obligatory in Islam) with another set of truth claims (the veil is not required in Islam, happiness is paramount).

‘Free hair’ as critical subjectivity

Narratives of ‘free hair’ Muslim women fully illuminate the definition of the subject and what Foucault calls the ‘modes of subjectivation’ defined as the “limits of a historically specific set of formative practices and moral injunctions that are delimited in advance” (Mahmood 2005: 28). In the context of a predominantly Muslim society, such modes of subjectivation include the daily discipline of modest dress and the spatially and temporally-defined cultural mores that women must contend with every day. A critical subjectivity is formed from the intensified tension created between the subject and the modes of subjectivation causing deep introspection, questioning and opposition. Anonymous, aged 23, represents this particular type of critical subjectivity:

I would say the moment when I decided to not wear hijab anymore is when I lost hope in it. It makes no difference whether you wear it or not. Hijab, instead of becoming an identity, it has become an excuse, a tool, and have been politicized by people. Of course, this is a dangerous statement, as wearing hijab is a requirement in being a Muslim. But for now, my faith in whatever message conveyed by wearing or not wearing hijab is still wavering.

Siti Hajar, 33

After a lot of soul searching, with a lot of world events as a catalyst, I stopped wearing my tudung. I stopped wearing it initially for one reason, continued not wearing it for other reasons as I kept learning/ rethinking my beliefs.

Aina, 21

Honestly I never felt so weird when I remove my hijab once I’m back home because that’s when I feel like I am being honest to myself. I never liked wearing the hijab. It feels like I’m bound to a set of rules and practice. It feels like I have to act in a certain ways like I can’t shake hands or give/receive hugs from anyone.

Copious amount of feminist research and commentary on the hijab focus on the role of women’s agency operating within decisions to wear the hijab. However, few have tended to focus on motivations behind women who choose to live without the hijab and removing it after a period of wearing it. As I have explained elsewhere, I am less interested in the construction of agency if it is understood as similar for all Muslim women living in a socially pressurised environment. What is more interesting to me is the orientation of the ‘free hair’ as a critical subject in relation to local mores, family relations, personal ambitions, and world geopolitics. It is a critical subjectivity with oppositional values and world-making practices while at the same under-articulated in the Muslim public sphere. The next phase of my research focuses on the critical subjectivity of non-veiling in smaller towns to examine other voicings, articulations, and world-making practices that rationalise non-veiling.

Conclusion

Non-veiling is a powerful, if invisible indicator of the effect of Islamisation on women. As the early findings above suggest, the decision to remove the veil is more than about changes in one’s religious belief but is part of a wider patchwork of life experiences and relations. Non-veiling complicates the boundaries that separate the religious from the secular, self and others, past, present and future.
Women are still approaching me to talk about their relationship with the hijab and how they have parted ways with it. But such conversations are sensitive because the topic of non-veiling and un-veiling is taboo. Based on my early observations, I’d like to argue that the silences and absences of experiences in the context of Islamisation tell us much more about the operations of agency and the “modes of subjectivation.”Although moderate Islam has created public conditions for feminist scrutiny of patriarchal bias within religious authority, new Islamisation is narrowing avenues for agency and ethical practices of being for women.

Reference:

Fadil, Nadia. 2011. Non-veiling as ethical practice. Feminist Review. 98: 83-109.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism As Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.

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