Recently, a local white clergywoman approached two colleagues and me while we were having lunch and invited us to participate in an activity that she called “hijab and donuts day.” She explained that she wanted to don the head covering as a sign of respect for and solidarity with local Muslim women who consistently experience macro and microaggressions related to religious dress as they maneuver through our small town. She asked that we join her and others in wearing hijab for the whole day while also meeting at a local eatery for desserts and conversation with a variety of women in the town. “I’m a feminist Christian theologian, and I believe in standing in solidarity with women – of all faiths – who are oppressed,” she said as we listened thoughtfully to her request.
What about cultural appropriation?
As she spoke, I thought about what kind of solidarity she was promoting. Does standing with require standing as? Does solidarity call for a shift in identity (or identity markers)? I am already an outsider experiencing macro and microaggressions in this place. I could show up in my own black skin and be in solidarity with these women. While she continued, I acknowledged my experience as a black queer woman in our politically, socially, and religiously conservative small town. On a regular basis, by virtue of apparent and hidden differences, and the ways that people here engage such difference, I am constantly reminded that I am other. I also recognized that what this white woman described as solidarity-in-action was actually a marker of her own distance from specific kinds of othering. That is, the donning of hijab, for her and likely for others, would be an act of shifting their own orientation – to oppression, diversity, and particularity – by way of opening the frameworks of identity that they regularly access.
What a potentially queer thing to do…
During the brief chat, I wondered if any of the women (all of whom identify as white) could put this invitation in conversation with Larycia Hawkins’ recent (and ongoing) experience at Wheaton College. In December 2015, Dr. Hawkins, who is the first African-American tenured professor at Wheaton, recently wore hijab and made the following statement on her Facebook page:
“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God. … As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church.”
In an immediate response to Hawkins’ actions, Wheaton College placed her on paid administrative leave (a euphemistic suspension); now they are pursuing termination possibilities.
All Wheaton College faculty members voluntarily commit to upholding the school’s Statement of Faith, which the schools administrators seem to interpret a singular, intractable theological proclamation. After Hawkins’ comments, school officials deemed it necessary that she clarify her theological position and willingness to maintain the Christian position proffered by the school’s statement. But Hawkins is having none of that. In fact, she is quite clear on what her theology suggests: solidarity that attends to particularity.
Some Christians might call Hawkins’ choice to wear hijab and claim the same god as Muslims heretical, unorthodox, or indecent. I think the indecency is actually where the rub is for most folks, since it begs the question: what is the relational aim of our theological convictions? That is, to whom does our Christian hospitality, service, and love extend? What Hawkins’ choice(s) force us to confront is the extent to which we are willing to be indecent and stand in non-normative, creative relation to the proscriptions that some religious institutions proscribe.
For me, this willingness toward indecency is an openness to queerness inasmuch as queerness confronts hegemonic notions of subjectivity and deconstructs the normativizing knowledge production that leads to those notions in the first place. The queer work of disentangling narratives of normativity is a means of developing and attending to more liberative understandings of human experience and subjectivity. In short, it is the work of opening possibilities for relational connections and love that subverts the normative structures and strictures that define them. In this way, queerness fosters investigations of human circumstance and human experience that have as their aim uninhibited self- and communal knowledge.
Hawkins illustrates what it means to develop solidarity-in-action from such self-knowledge. Her own theological convictions – those which call her to attend to the particularities of the other – instigate a subjective shift. The meaning-making that emerges from her faith produces a new, queerly indecent, set of logics: embodied theology transforms one’s moral subjectivity.
I remember when I first developed a queer ethic in relation to my own subjectivity. It was during a conversation I had with my oldest aunt the summer after I graduated from college. I had just introduced the family to my new girlfriend (after recently discontinuing an engagement to a man of whom my family was very fond), and my folks were trying to wrap their minds around my new orientation to life, love, and relationships. My aunt inquired a bit about the nature of my relationship, hit a few points about the danger of my soul and finally sighed. “This just isn’t the life I had planned for you,” she said with a kind of resignation that bespoke exasperation and hopelessness. I nodded and simply said, “I know.”
Before it was about my new “queer” sexuality, or my ability to relate to our family’s (queer-from-my-perspective) religion, my aunt’s concern for my life was about the loss of narrative coherence for our lives. That is, I was presenting a life and new set of possibilities that were situated outside of what she had imagined for me, outside of the story of our family’s collective self-understanding. By taking a detour from the family’s vision for my life, I had shifted my orientation, literally and figuratively, to a queer version of what was possible in divine and mundane spaces. Even more, I shifted my orientation to the cosmos and found new connections between religiosity and sexuality. For her, this was a source of pain and fear. Who might I become – especially as a black woman from the south – without the stability of long-established identity markers, without social scripts to guide my relationship with God?
I think there is a parallel concern coming from Wheaton, as they pursue Hawkins’ termination. They seem invested in a narrative of religious discourse and practice that situates one’s subjectivity in tandem, rather than in concert, with one’s embodied theology. And we are witnessing Hawkins’ resistance to that kind of disjointed subjective and theological positioning. Through a creative eschewal of subjective and theological policing, she is establishing something different for herself – a queer orientation to solidarity. It is not predicated upon sameness in terms of identity; rather, it is anchored by a recognition that embodied theology sometimes calls for something unorthodox, something odd, or something indecent. 1