“What that hair look like / Bet that hair look nice / Don’t that make you sweat? / Don’t that feel too tight? / Yo what yo hair look like / Bet yo hair look nice / How long your hair is / You need to get yo life.”
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These lyrics from Mona Haydar’s latest video, “Hijabi,” are just a few of the lines she and other women hear everyday in the street. Haydar, a Syrian-American Muslim poet and activist, wears a hijab. In the video – featuring her and other women wearing the headscarf – she raps, “So even if you hate it / I still wrap my hijab / Wrap my hijab / Wrap my hijab / Wrap, wrap my hijab.” And later: “Make a feminist planet / Women haters get banished / Covered up or not don’t ever take us for granted.”
Haydar, 28, was eight months pregnant when she released the video at the end of March. She is defying a lot of common prejudices and stereotypes about Muslim women. “Our world is dealing with so much pain and suffering right now, and I’m glad the video is giving people a chance to enjoy life and dance,” she tells Haaretz in an email interview.
She says she was inspired to make the video by what is currently happening in the United States. “So many girls and women have experienced discrimination and violence because of the way they choose to dress, from people who claim to be patriotic Americans,” she notes. “If they were really patriotic Americans, they would know that the foundation this country was built on was the freedom from religious persecution, and that their behavior is actually totally un-American.
“The Islam I was raised with and taught is an Islam that seeks to make the world more beautiful, more gentle and more kind for everyone,” she continues, “and that’s what I hope my art is doing – because for me, my Islam and my art could never be separate.”
Haydar grew up in Flint, Michigan, one of eight children of Syrian immigrants, and admits to being grateful for having a very loving and supportive family, especially her mom. “She raised me with the spirit of looking into my heart and following my dreams, while maintaining my connection to my Creator,” writes Haydar. “She raised me to be fearless and courageous in the world, and to always work to be making the world a more beautiful, kind and loving place for all – that was always the work of a truly religious person. Seeking justice and equality is the work of feminism and Islam, according to the way I was raised,” she adds.
After graduating in 2010, Haydar spent time living with relatives in Damascus. She says living in the Syrian capital gave her a chance “to really connect to my heritage, culture and, of course, my family. Being there was a magical time in my life,” she reflects. “I wanted to connect with my family that was living there. It was so beautiful to be around them and to be connected to my aunts and uncles. I still have lots of family there. It’s so, so sad.”
Haydar’s video is being seen at a time when the “hijab war” shows no signs of abating, with the Muslim headscarf a symbolic focus for the West’s anxiety over Islamic extremism. A number of European countries have banned, or are considering banning, women from wearing hijabs in public. In the United States, meanwhile, harassment of women wearing the hijab has increased since President Donald Trump came to power in January. And in Israel, where some 20 percent of the population is Arab, hijab-wearing women are familiar with attracting wary looks in the street, and often suffering job discrimination.
But with all due respect to political and cultural symbols, this is about women’s bodies and women’s choice. Many Muslim women counter the familiar argument which says the hijab denotes social, cultural or religious coercion with the assertion that it is a sign of identity. Some say, happily, that it characterizes them as Muslim. Others see it as a way of encouraging people to focus on their personality rather than their outward appearance.
These are just a few of the numerous reasons women cite for wearing the hijab. But why must they even justify it? It can just as easily be argued that Western dictates about how a woman is supposed to look and dress are oppressive and coercive. My own position is that the views of anyone who is not a Muslim woman are irrelevant on this issue.
‘Patriarchy is a worldwide problem’
Like many other women, Haydar believes the choice of whether to wear a hijab is just as feminist as any other choice made by women. “Any country that has a problem with a woman’s choice to do whatever she wants with her body has a problem with freedom and liberty, and that for me is more backward than anything else,” she says. “Patriarchy is a worldwide problem, and so many women have bought into it. Women everywhere should be free to express their personalities, individuality and faith with their bodies, however they wish. I think any controversy around [the] hijab stems from a place of patriarchy. As a human family, we have to stop trying to regulate women’s bodies – it’s time for a world that is more loving and more free for all people,” she observes.
Haydar now lives in New York. “I feel so lucky to be living in New York right now because this is such a diverse place. Just walking down the street, I see a Jewish woman in her tichel, a Sikh man in a turban and a woman in an African head wrap, and it’s all beautiful and normal here. Of course, that’s different in other parts of the country where there’s less diversity,” she notes.
Her video, which has racked up over 760,000 views on YouTube, features Muslim women from a variety of backgrounds. Some are her friends, while others, including several black women, answered a call that she put out on social media. Haydar says she has enormous respect for leaders like Malcolm X, and that she also grew up on the music of hip-hop artists like Mos Def and A Tribe Called Quest.
While Haydar has received lots of positive feedback from around the world, she admits to getting negative comments, too. “Of course there are lots of people who don’t like the video or the song for lots of different reasons,” she says. “I’ve gotten a lot of hate from people online who hate Islam and Muslims – some of that stuff is pretty scary, like certain people who send threats – but I’m trying to stay focused on the positivity. If I can help one young girl in the world feel like this song is HER song, that this song is for her, then I will have succeeded because this is all about bringing people joy.”
This isn’t Haydar’s first attempt to tackle Islamophobia. Last year, she and husband Sebastian Robins ran a campaign called “Ask a Muslim.” They were living in Massachusetts at the time, and once a week they stood outside the Cambridge public library with signs that said “Ask a Muslim” – encouraging passersby to ask them questions about Muslims and Islam.
Haydar came up with the idea after someone saw her and hissed “Murderer,” not long after the San Bernardino terror attack in December 2015. Her husband is white, half-Jewish and half-Christian, and he converted to Islam after meeting her.
He says he wasn’t particularly connected to either of his family’s religions, and that Haydar acted as his tour guide and muse when he became interested in Islam. “And practicing a religion is a lot like being married,” he says. “There is lots of joy and also lots of work and unexpected challenge. That’s where I am now! I’m on the path, praying, learning, stumbling, finding peaks and valleys. Following this one path but with deep love and reverence for the other paths up the same mountain,” he says.
Haydar frequently speaks of harmony, beauty, love, acceptance and diversity. In a world that can be so divided, racist and violent, she sounds very optimistic, possibly even naive. But people like her may embody the only hope that change will ultimately come.