Hijab Scenes: Muslim Women, Migration, and Hijab in Immigrant Muslim Literature

Article excerpt

A great deal of literature by and about Muslim immigrants has been written during the last decade; these texts constitute a growing field of interest and inquiry. This is undoubtedly a result of a cultural climate that hungers for insight into Muslim communities and Islam. Because Islam is currently still considered foreign to America, much of the literature can be considered immigrant fiction. It is no surprise, then, that Muslim fiction tends to adhere to the general narrative trends of other immigrant writings: to establish a coherent identity characters must negotiate the difference between the "old" world and the "new" one. Generally, authors choose between depictions of assimilation, acculturation, or cultural hybridity. This negotiation is of course influenced by cultural climate. Narratives that espouse retaining difference and cultural exchange do not work well when the cultural climate requires that the audience be unified against a common enemy. In these situations, narratives that present a trajectory of assimilation are more acceptable because assimilation, in these situations, is related to allegiances.

The current anti-Islam/anti-Muslim political and cultural climate in America complicates the choice between expressing Muslim otherness and assimilating. Furthermore, since Islam is considered foreign, Muslim writers are left with very few choices in terms of content. The current trends in fiction about immigrant Muslims seem to fall into two categories: fiction that focuses on culture and assimilation, rather than religion, and fiction that focuses on the oppressive nature of religion and assimilation. (1) In either case, readers witness the opposition of the old world and the new. When the literature focuses on religion, religion is treated as a culture that needs to be left behind because it does not correlate with being American. When Islam is considered solely a cultural affiliation, narratives of immigration become bifurcated along gender lines.

Immigrant narratives that focus on religion have the potential to follow the same patterns as normative immigration novels. However, when Muslim women are placed at the center of these oppositions, the patterns are revised. The oppositions become stauncher--and the divisions between "us and them" are relied upon more heavily. Islam becomes the religion of the "other" and the culture from which women need to be liberated. In these narratives, women are held accountable for both religious and cultural traditions of the old country. This trend correlates with many immigrant stories (fictional and real) because women are often "assigned the role of bearers of cultural values, carriers of traditions, and symbols of the community" (Moghadam 4), meaning that women are often "compelled to assume the burden of the reproduction of the group" (Moghadam, qtd. in Kopp 69). But when Islam is conflated with cultural practices and is seen as oppressive, the female protagonists must consider compromising both religion and culture to incorporate themselves into American society.

However, immigrant narratives by Muslim women who choose to veil fall in a different category because their bodies cannot escape being marked as other and they, therefore, cannot reach the endpoint of being fully incorporated into American society. In these texts, women who wear hijab, by virtue of their adherence to a practice that is clearly not American, can never construct a narrative in which comfortable assimilation is the denouement. As a result, immigrant Muslim women who veil must create a new genre that defies the demands American culture places on conformity.

This article focuses on the image of the veil as the "most visible marker of [difference]" (Ahmed 152) between veiled Muslim women and the "Western" world. As Leila Ahmed writes, "Veiling--to Western eyes ... became the symbol now of both the oppression of women (or, in the language of the day, Islam's degradation of women) and the backwardness of Islam" (152). …