External markers of identity

Oct. 12, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

This November will mark a year since I stopped covering my hair. I decided that the cons of looking Muslim overwhelmed the pros and so succumbed to the external and internal pressure to abandon the hijab. There were many social consequences of this; I no longer received salaams from other Muslim women, people stopped stepping out of my way on crowded streets and people magically became willing to sit beside me on buses. By uncovering my hair, I ceased to be publicly Muslim. And because our society is largely non-Muslim, reverting to the norm removed that aspect of my identity from public dissection and discussion.

I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a relief, and the ability to choose whether or not my identity is in the public eye is very much a privilege. However, that privilege does highlight all the other ways that I can’t control the public’s perception of me. I can’t do that in regards to my gender identity or racial identity (or many other kinds of immutable identities), and neither can most people. I can decide whether or not to cover my hair when I go to career fair or job interviews, but I can’t really choose whether I present as male or female. And if I wanted to present as a competent female that they should hire, I (like all of the women who were at Stanford’s recent career fair) would have to wear a business suit (preferably a skirt suit), some kind of tasteful but understated jewelry, and closed-toed heels. However, that would also mean that I would have to join them in stumbling across the grass in said heels and walking barefoot, heels in hand, to lunch. It is not the necessity of wearing heels that vexes me; rather, it is the inability to choose whether or not larger society gets to project onto me and consume my identity that vexes me.

Boo-hoo, you might say. Everybody has to pander to John Q. Public in some way. There is no way to project no identity, and every possible visible identifier will have stereotypes attached to it.  And this is true. Earlier, I said that once I ceased to be publicly Muslim, that aspect of my identity became removed from public discussion. In fact, what I really did when I stopped covering my hair was replace one set of public assumptions with another.

Then there are people who may consider this a very minor issue that’s not worth complaining about or even discussing. After all, there are children starving in Africa! Having to wear heels to your job interview or your job implies that you have the privilege of being able to afford enough pairs of shoes that you can have a pair that’s completely impractical and fit for only one function. It also implies that you have the education and skills to apply for relatively higher-skilled jobs (the kinds that require heels), which implies more money, more social and economic stability, etc. All of which goes back to the first complaint: What you wear and how you present yourself say things about you, and instead of complaining about this oppressive facet of human nature, you should just put on the heels and deal with it.

Many people have deconstructed that second argument far better than I can, but let me try to sum it up. 1) People can focus on and try to solve more than one problem at a time. 2) Focusing on one problem does not in any way negate the existence of any other problem nor claim that the problem being focused on is the most important problem. 3) Having privilege doesn’t mean you don’t have problems.

The first argument is far more interesting to me because it’s true. I personally cannot envision a world in which stereotypes don’t exist. However, I can envision a world where someone decides that the damage caused to their joints by wearing heels isn’t worth it and they aren’t penalized for it by having to apply for lower-paying jobs or getting fired. I can imagine a world in which a person who thinks heels are the best invention ever and wears 6-inch heels every day isn’t penalized by being fired due to looking “unprofessional.” What I can envision is a world in which the way people choose to present themselves and their identity doesn’t cause them harm.

Contact Dabiyyah Agbere at bagbere ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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