PRINT Summer 2017


Still from Zaineb “Zee” Abdulla’s instructional video on self-defense for Muslim women, 2016.

IN THE HOURS following the 2016 US presidential election, assaults targeting women in hijabs—and so many others whose vulnerabilities Trump promised to breach in his new order—spread like a contagion across the country.Triumphalist Trump supporters grabbed and tore off headscarves, yanked them to stop a woman short, or sometimes, to choke her. My Midwestern college town was no exception. A loose collective of feminist faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has held what we call Solidarity Hours for several years now in conjunction with local and national protests around police murders of black persons and other racist attacks on our campus (including sidewalk chalkings reading BUILD THE WALL and NO SHARIA LAW). The day after the election, almost eighty students attended our hastily announced open hours, and the tension and worry in the room were palpable. We invited those present to share their feelings (which, for the most part, were fears), and we listened as students told of being groped (“I can grab your pussy if I want now”), taunted (“We’re gonna deport you”), and otherwise threatened, as a young woman in a hijab had been just hours before by a passenger with a knife during her morning commute to campus on the bus.

The Trump administration has since attempted to fulfill its campaign promises to bear down on presumed “threats,” issuing multiple Muslim bans and a moratorium on refugee asylum. While these executive orders remain stalled in the courts, border-control agents are encouraged to use their discretionary powers to subject undocumented residents, Muslims, and “Muslim-looking” persons to increasingly harsh scrutiny, arbitrary detention, and swift deportation. Meanwhile, even as he remains silent in response to vigilante white-supremacist violence, the president pursues more (and more massive) military strikes across the Middle East, wielding sovereign power over life and death during the dessert course at Mar-a-Lago. We are in a prolonged moment in which war is not a remote geopolitical event but an ordinary presence, permeating conversations and encounters, and recruiting and weaponizing distinctions—skin, hair, clothes—between friends and enemies among us.

IN OUR EVERYDAY LIVES, clothes are often understood through an indexical relationship to the body that wears them, functioning as clues to that body’s existence in the world. Consider the uniform; any BuzzFeed quiz promising self-knowledge based on your multiple-choice answers about, say, Eileen Fisher’s flowing neutrals; or the hijab. The garment is too often perceived by non-Muslims as a signal of danger, just as other items of clothing perceived via a racial, colonial optic—the hoodie, the turban—are immediately deemed threatening. (It is no accident that Claudia Rankine chose an artwork by David Hammons of a severed sweatshirt hood, In the Hood, 1993—nonetheless alive with shadows—as the cover of Citizen [2014], her epic poem on blackness.) Constructs of race have long taught us how to “see” humanness through a series of instrumentalized abstractions, profiles reading the body as a continuous surface of legible information, including flesh and fabric that covers flesh. And so clothes, as surrogates or supplements, at times provide an alibi for racism, acting as the overdetermined object of deeper “truths”: criminality, deviancy, or alienability, those qualities that unfairly allow for dehumanization and dispossession.

This is the premise of the visual “shock” of artist Shepard Fairey’s hijabi poster, Greater Than Fear, one image from his “We the People” series, 2017, dotting the sea of signs and placards carried by hundreds of thousands of protesters at the Women’s March this past January around the globe. The image features a young woman, her makeup game strong, wearing an American-flag hijab. Such a performance of patriotism and benign respectability in order to appear recognizable as a person, to proclaim, “I am one of you,” is an unreliable defense against Islamophobia and its threats of violence or death;and yet, too often, personhood and therefore aliveness would seem to depend on such pledges of allegiance. Munira Ahmed, the thirty-two-year-old Bangladeshi American freelance interpreter from Queens who posed for the original image taken by Ridwan Adhami ten years ago, has observed, “It’s about saying, ‘I am American just as you are.’” The Stars and Stripes as head cover aims to revise surfaces of alienability through such intimacy, even as others protest the necessity of such gestures (and the hypocrisy of American multiculturalism in the country’s ongoing wars), and still others decry the imagined desecration of the flag worn on her Muslim body (without directing equal outrage against the sheer proliferation of flag-bedecked clothes—from bandannas to booty shorts—on other bodies).

This last accusation suggests that clothes do not just index knowledge about the other but also act (or are accused of acting) as camouflage or costume to enable false perceptions. Can we really know what it is we see? (Ahmed notes that her photograph was once used to illustrate a Zionist editorial arguing that Muslim Americans were “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” This is the accusation of fraud that haunts trans individuals, too, with retributive harm.) But far from delegitimizing such perceptions, this uncertainty—because while one threat might pass, another might not—comes to justify more violence. In this paranoid view, the hijab alienates the one who wears it from rights-bearing citizens because it is analogized alongside the so-called terrorist (who against all evidence is always brown and Muslim, never white and Christian) as an aggressive object, an object that predicts aggression to come. This threat renders both state and state-sanctioned violence against hijabis a reasonable response. This is the now-familiar logic of the preemptive strike. Clothes thought to aid invisibility and anonymity—by covering the hair, shadowing the face, eluding the eye—instead become hypervisible as objects of suspicion in and of themselves. Thus the perception of danger from blackness, from Islam, is existential. At the same time, the hijab is an expressly gendered form of a civilizational divide. Because the Islamophobe expectation of a hijabi is submission to her own “alien” order, she might be a terrorist, but she is also an easy target.

At Solidarity Hours, we asked our students, “What do you need?” Some wanted to know what to do to defend themselves, as well as friends and strangers, from harassment. One Palestinian hijabi wrote to ask me to teach her some self-defense moves. In response, we rapidly organized bystander intervention and de-escalation training, as well as self-defense training with Zaineb “Zee” Abdulla, whose videos featuring hijab-grab defense had gone viral, viewed more than a million times in just a week, launching hundreds of requests for similar courses all over the world. A social worker and the vice president of Deaf Planet Soul, a Chicago-based nonprofit advocating for the deaf and hard of hearing, Abdulla adapted her self-defense course for women with disabilities to respond to the spike in public violence against hijabis, developing a series of moves aimed at stopping or escaping an aggressor grabbing the headscarf. She posted training videos to Facebook in which, barefoot, dressed in black and a light-blue scarf, she demonstrates the actions on Misho Ceko, head instructor at Chicago Mixed Martial Arts. In the video, she instructs her viewers to “practice this move until it becomes muscle memory and teach your body to react before thinking.”

On a Thursday evening in December, Abdulla led a group of twenty-five students, including white women, women of color, queer persons, and hijabis, through the training at the Asian American Cultural Center at the university. As I watched my students giggle nervously or stare intently, testing out their muscles for possible memories, it occurred to me that most of them had grown up under the Obama administration, which held its wars at a distance (even while escalating both deportations and drone strikes),and that they were all learning how to adjust their bodies to war brought that much closer.

Mimi Thi Nguyen is an associate professor in gender and women’s studies and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.