I’ve always been fascinated by how certain symbols function as gender markers in the societies I’ve known. Little hijabs for little girls is one example, while a non-Muslim friend of mine dresses her also sparsely coiffed infant in frilly pink dresses because people keep thinking she’s a little boy. It can be so uncomfortable for parents to see their little girl babies be still bald for years that a little hijab or flower headpiece seems truly essential.
I’m not too bothered by what people think my son is. My first inklings of the gendering to come was when people would mistake his name for a girl’s name (it sounds like a popular Dutch name for girls) and then use the gender-appropriate pronouns. Some of my family members like to dress him in only blue (because he’s a boy, duh, and don’t you know boys wear only blue?) while I enjoy dressing him in cute purple kimono tops.
So I was quite surprised when – despite being bathed in blue – people still thought my son was a girl. Maybe it’s a Dutch thing of not falling for obvious stereotypes – at least those about gender (being a free-tolerant-egalitarian society and all that jazz).
Until I realised why they thought he was a girl: his curls. With nicknames like “curlyhead” (though I really prefer this to “darkie” or “half-blood”, but that’s another post for another day), it seems that long or curly hair makes a baby look feminine. (Though this does not explain the prevalence of curly mops among Dutch men.)
That brought me to thinking about how hijab serves as a marker of femininity. I believe that this is at the root of European anxieties over the niqab (or burka as they like to call it) and the calls to ban it. The fear is that a man could pass for a woman, because the identity of the person couldn’t be seen. The fact that the traditional white dress, the haik, was used in Algeria under occupation to hide “bombs and machine guns” does nothing to calm contemporary worries.
However, this all depends on socialisation and context. I once had a friend from Belgium visiting, and I’m pretty sure I was the first Muslim friend she had ever had. I brought her to attend a Malay wedding and I was surprised when she pointed to someone and asked, “Wow, so Muslim men also wear the hijab?” I looked over and realised it was a tall, dark women with a slight moustache – but still definitely a women. Feeling a mixture of embarrassment and indignation, I only managed a weak “That’s a woman”.
Cultural markers are very specific. Where I grew up, the hijab was 100% a marker of a woman. While in another social context like in Tuareg culture, veiling the face is for men who have reached puberty.
There are also many transgender women in Indonesia who start wearing hijab when transitioning. While for a cisgender woman in that context, hijab can signify a greater commitment to Islam, for a transgender women it takes on a double meaning: to be accepted as a woman, and a Muslim with serious faith. In this case, I feel it does help them not only gain legitimacy in their society (passing for a woman), but also avoid social stigma (the Muslim part).
As for my son, I wonder how things will be when he is older. Will I balk if he wants to wear pink shoes? Skirts? A sparkly tiara? I wouldn’t have a care in the world if my son was a little subversive girl in blue, but boys acting in feminine ways just isn’t as acceptable.
As I learn more, I’m constantly questioning my own assumptions as well. I wouldn’t know for sure how I would react if or until a situation came up that challenges gender norms for boys. All I know for sure is that no matter who he is and what he wants to wear, I think I could always find it in my heart to love him – in blue or pink.