Hijab Privilege

Pics with Students

So I’ve been thinking about writing this for about three months or probably more. Slowly over my service here in Indonesia many things have come to my attention about the privilege that comes with wearing a hijab. Coming from a place where I had very little privilege, the privilege I gained stood out to me immediately. When any Peace Corps Volunteer arrives in county you become a celebrity. You are new and amazing and people are interested in you. I experienced that but I also experienced a sense of relatability because I wear the hijab. Many of the people in our training community felt that we came from the same culture so they had an affinity towards me. For example, during training, if a trainee said they were going to visit someone their family wanted to know who they were, who they live with, etc. If they said they were going to visit me or going somewhere with me the family was relieved and less worried. Other volunteers began to tell me this as we went through training. Trainees’ families in other villages knew about me and would comment about how it was okay for them to visit me or hang out with me with no worry. When I heard these stories my first thought was about those stories told many times about how a Black person’s white friend’s family was concerned about them hanging out together but if they hung out with a white friend, even if they were bad influences, the family was less worried because they know that person. Really what that is, is institutional racism where you are more comfortable with people like you and are more concerned or suspicious of people who are not like you. I’ve been the Black friend in this scenario before but I’ve never been the white friend who, no matter if the family knows you or not, is the trusted and safe choice. It’s an odd thing being thrusted into privilege unexpectedly but it does give me an advantage over those who were born and raised with this kind of privilege since I was able to recognize it pretty quickly. To understand better what I mean about having hijab privilege in Indonesia, below are some tales of my hijab privilege.

Another early moment in which I realized my hijab privilege was during training and other volunteers being told by Peace Corps staff that they needed to change their clothes to be more conservative while that only happened to me once. We were told wearing jeans was not professional so we couldn’t wear it. I wore jeans and nothing was told to me while my friend wore long, loose pants and was told she had to change because they were hiking pants and that wasn’t professional. They were solid color and looked like slacks but apparently they looked to rugged to be worn in the classroom. Volunteers were told not to wear too form fitting clothes and were told they needed to change their clothes, I would wear a tight shirt, tight slacks with a hijab and they would never say anything to me. I was told to change once when I wore leggings. I would joke with my friends that they should just wear a hijab and then they could come out in whatever. I even joked that they should show up to school on their last day in a bikini and a hijab and it should be fine. Perhaps this is a very distasteful joke but it’s hyperbolic to point out the disparity between wearing a hijab and not. This reminded me of the many times when Black people, especially Black men, try to enter a club near college campuses or those that are frequented by college students where the clubs’ dress codes were specifically targeted towards young Black men. There are so many instances where white patrons can walk in with shorts and flip flops but a Black patron is told they have to wear slacks and closed toed shoes, but not sneakers. In many of the cases about dress code here in Indonesia the reality of being at permanent site varied significantly with each volunteer so during training they choose the most conservative requirements to prepare volunteers for this possibility when they arrive at site but it doesn’t excuse the disparity in how I was treated versus how other volunteers were treated. I spoke out the times other trainees gave me permission and encouraged them to talk about how I dress to staff as well.

Here is a time my hijab privilege protected me from sexual harassment. My friend invited me to her site to go biking to a waterfall with her counterpart and some of his friends whom we didn’t know. So I show up and her counterpart said he couldn’t make it but that we could still go with his friends. We decided to go with his friends and were the only women among like 20 guys. It was cool because part of my hijab privilege is that I rarely encounter sexual harassment and thus I rarely feel unsafe in Indonesia and besides I’m pretty sure I could take any of those guys since I am a giant at 5’ 7”. Anyways, so we were having a good time, the guys were really nice and helpful since we weren’t hardcore bikers like them and were struggling on the hills. Well, I started to get the hang of it and ended up in the front. About 10 or 20 minutes goes by and my friend is far behind me so I stop with the counterpart’s friend to drink some water and chat. His English was very good so he started asking me about taxes in the U.S (I have no idea why). We got into a long 20 minute conversation about taxes, comparing the two countries, and I learned quite a bit about the values of the Indonesian government based off of how it allocates its money. Well, my friend finally arrives and we continue on our ride. The final stretch is up this very steep hill so we have to walk most of the way. Apparently, I walk too fast since I got in front of her again and was practicing my Bahasa Indonesia with another guy while my friend talked to the taxes guy. I get up ahead and decide to rest and wait for my friend. When she arrives she tells me about their conversation. The same guy who was very serious and talked to me about taxes asked her if she liked big cock and whether she was a virgin. Needless to say, I was shocked and comforted my friend letting her know that guy was a douche bag and we shouldn’t deal with him again. I still wish I called this guy out on his inappropriate behavior.

There are two parts to this story that I want to emphasize. First, I immediately took my friend’s side and didn’t try to question her about it by saying maybe he was joking. He was joking and that was the problem. He thought he could say an inappropriate joke to her because she isn’t Muslim. He just met her and didn’t know her, and he wouldn’t and didn’t ask me that because I wear a hijab. Understanding my privilege allows me to be more understanding of those who are experiencing things I have not experienced and maybe will never have to. I want to never be like the people who always question whether or not their Black friend experienced racism or if they are being “overly sensitive.” That is the worst feeling to have, the feeling of loneliness because the person you considered your friend, who knows you, turns out actually doesn’t understand you. You feel like no matter how long we’ve known each other that you don’t trust me to know what racism is and how to identify it and you never will. Whenever my friends tell me about the sexual harassment, sexual assault, discrimination, etc. they experience I immediately believe them and try to understand later because how they feel about the situation matters. For many people, unless they experience racism they won’t believe it exists but as a Black person knowing that I have some form of privilege I don’t want to act like that. I have empathy and I need to use it to understand people without actually having to experience what my friends or family experience.

The second part of the story is that he either doesn’t see me as the typical “Westerner” aka white person or he would never say that to a Muslim woman. Not being seen as a westerner has its privileges since people approach you differently but they also believe I am a part of their culture and those types of discussions would be inappropriate in Indonesian culture so I can say it to a non-Muslim woman without worry. My friends have told me that in some cases this is a positive because people feel comfortable telling or asking you things they would be too afraid to tell or ask someone in their culture for fear of being judged, it’s like going to a therapist. While, in this case, it can be very negative because they assume certain things about you, especially when it comes to women and their sexuality. I can’t tell you what that douche bag was thinking but all I know is that he treated me with more respect and consideration in our conversation than he did my friend and that is because of my hijab privilege. It’s kind of like those times when someone who has never been around a Black person before starts to so called “talk or act Black” and it’s really inappropriate. They feel like they have to talk to you differently because you are from a different culture. Just talk regular and don’t say anything racists, it shouldn’t be difficult unless you usually say racists things which means you are aware you shouldn’t be saying them.

Another instance of my hijab privilege is within the idea of beauty. In Indonesia if you wear a hijab you don’t just have privilege, it’s also seen as the best form of expressing your beauty. Crazy right! The hijab is supposed to be a way of being modest, a feminist affirmation that you should judge me by my intelligence and personality over my outer beauty but I have heard so many female volunteers tell me how people overwhelm them with compliments about how beautiful they are during the few instances when they are wearing a hijab. They have told me about how they have been told they should wear a hijab since they are so beautiful when they wear it. These volunteers receive a lot of compliments when they don’t wear hijab but it gets amped up when they do. Perhaps complimenting a woman on her looks while wearing a hijab is seen as a way to encourage women to wear hijabs more often, non-the-less it’s something that has been brought up to me numerous of times. Initially I was greatly offended by this because I see the hijab as a religious symbol and it felt like 1) my friends were being proselytized or 2) people were seeing the hijab as a fashion statement. Now to be fair, it is also a fashion statement and I do try to be fashionable with it and there are hundreds of blogs and YouTube channels dedicated to hijab chic, but in the context of being in a Muslim country that has people of other faiths, I thought it was unusual to encourage people who are non-Muslim to wear hijabs. Well, I talked to my friend, the same one from the bike story above, and she gave me some great perspective on the cultural understanding of Indonesia. The hijab is part of a religious symbol but like with any religion in any country, there are cultural adaptations to the religion that makes some practices apart of culture and for the hijab, in some cases, it is a cultural symbol as well. I should know this because 9 times out of 10 I can guess what country a hijabi is from based on how they wear their hijab. Every country has its own standard hijab wearing techniques. Perhaps I was feeling a sense of cultural appropriation but part of cultural appropriation is not understanding the historical and cultural understanding of certain things. For many Peace Corps volunteers, it is very different sense we live in these communities, a large part of our job is cultural exchange and understanding. Having that discussion with my friend made me feel better about volunteers wearing the hijab in general but I still felt they shouldn’t have to feel like they were being pressured into wearing a hijab.

To further explore this subject, as a Black volunteer in Indonesia it is difficult because being in an Asian culture you know the standard of beauty is white skin. There is a particular word for when people think you are pretty (cantik) and there is a separate phrase for when you have dark skin and “despite that are actually pretty” (hitam manis: Black sweet). That phrase is specifically for people with dark skin and cantik is not used. Many of my Black friends have experiences being called hitam manis instead of cantik. While for me, having my hijab privilege, I have been called both. I know Black volunteers who wore a hijab for a special occasion and noticed the change in language when people saw them. Now, with a hijab on, they were cantik, while without they are hitam manis. It’s these small micro-aggressions that wear on you over time. Many of my friends have experienced this and every time I empathized and listened to them, but because I am Muslim and wear a hijab I don’t have those direct experiences. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I don’t say they are being “sensitive” because it is their reality and I don’t have to directly experience it to sympathize. Often it is really hard for people to admit their privilege and even harder to give it up but coming from a meritocracy ideal that is not and has never been realized in America, the idea that you haven’t earned your place is difficult for many people with privilege to accept.

My final example is of my hijab privilege that I tend to enjoy way too much. I went to visit my friend at her site. We live on opposite sides of the island, so I was happy to visit her. Near her, there are volunteers, a married couple, that lives about two hours away so we went to visit them. I got to meet their host family and they were wonderful and so sweet. Every time I meet someone here they are so happy to see I am Muslim and to know there are Muslim Americans. We only got to stay for about an hour, but before we left their host mother handed me a gift. It had beautiful batik fabric (traditional Indonesian fabric that is used to make clothes) and a hijab. My friend was so shocked. She said she had been to their house a bunch of times and never received a gift. Pretty much everywhere I go I receive gifts like this. Batik shops I frequent always give me free hijabs and when I visit people for the first time they give me gifts because I am Muslim. All my life being Muslim has met me with suspicion, concern, worry, curiosity, confusion, otherness, you name it. This is the first time it has been met with gifts!

To go from having very little privilege, being a racial and religious minority, to all of a sudden being within the majority has given me so much more perspective on life. It has made me a more compassionate person, a much more patient person, and much more aware of the temptation that exists within people with privilege to resist that privilege being taken away in order to even the playing field for the rest of humanity. Since I don’t come from having this type of privilege my entire life, I do see the need to give up my privilege and to be an advocate for those without it because with great power comes great responsibility (RIP Uncle Ben). And with great privilege comes great responsibility. Back in the States I would call people on their white privilege and so I must practice what I preach and understand the necessity of having someone within a majority group be a true ally by listening, changing, and speaking out when they see or hear injustice. It’s not enough to know you have privilege, you have to do something about the lack of privilege others have. There is no such thing as a silent ally.

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5 responses »

  1. rebecca says:

    Excellent post Fis, I really liked how you explained your privilege through stories, some shocking but making great points.

  2. great post fisa, maybe its good to experience privilege at some point in life but great to have empathy for those who don’t

  3. Rebecca H says:

    Fis, I hope you don’t mind me replying again. There is so much about this post that is excellent. I think the way you dissect the word for pretty is so important. Too often people don’t understand the distinctions. Great post!

  4. Tanim says:

    I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to be a Muslim American in a Muslim majority country as a pcv. Though slightly different (but no doubt you feel this too), I found that my time serving in Kenya brought me repeatedly up with opportunities of Muslim privilege.
    My host family during pst only took me because they knew I wouldn’t come home drunk (stereotype of volunteers).
    I had a Yemeni Kenyan give me the keys to his house when I needed a place to stay, and an Indian Kenyan family invite me to their house at all times because they trusted my skin and faith.
    It made me think of Malcom X’s travels before the Haj, finding a common connection beyond cultures based on a faith.

    • That’s so amazing. Yeah it’s really different and I’m not used to it and I don’t think I will be. I’m not even sure if I like it or not but it does give you perspective on privilege and the way it works in America.

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