Hijab

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Audrey Hepburn

When I was in Greece this year, a well-intended young Greek woman told me that my adopted Muslim daughter, Nahid, should not wear a hijab if she wants to be accepted in Greece. I guess I wasn’t surprised at her comment but it gave me something to think about.

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Nahid looking gorgeous.

The hijab is a headscarf worn by many Muslim women and has become a controversial symbol for many who are not Muslim. In France, girls are prohibited from wearing a hijab in schools; burqas (which cover the face) are banned in all public places.  England’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, referred to the hijab as a “mark of separation.” Even London’s Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, suggested “there is a question to be asked as to what is going on in those homes” of Muslim women who wear veils.

Given our own president-elect’s expressions of bigotry toward Muslims, we can probably expect US politicians to make an issue out of how some women dress to distract us from real problems. Muslim American women wearing hijabs have already reported incidents of harassment and some express fears of intimidation.

It seems like a good time to share what I learned about hijabs working with Muslim refugees  this year in Greece.

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Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco

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Hey Tony Blair, this is your queen whose “marks of separation” are legendary

A hijab is a piece of clothing, not evidence of oppression or extremism.  Women in all cultures wear scarves on their heads.  Nuns wear them.  Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly  famously wore them.   Nahid and many other Muslim women wear a hijab for the same reason you wear a blouse — without one, you would probably feel vulnerable and exposed.  Many Muslim women wear long skirts for the same reason they wear hijabs — should those be suspicious as well?  Should Muslim women be prohibited from wearing headscarves to stay dry or warm?  Is a hoodie ok? We should ask ourselves whether we should honor the emotional comfort of some women but not others, and why the focus is on women’s dress but not men’s.

Muslim women do not wear hijabs because their husbands force them to wear them in order to oppress them.  Yes, there are Muslim men who oppress their wives, just as there are American, Asian, African, Christian and Hindu men who oppress women.  Some Muslim men expect their wives to wear a hijab just as some Christian men do not permit their wives to dance.  And yet I have never heard anyone say that women in rural Mississippi must be oppressed or extremist because they don’t dance.  Nahid does not wear a hijab because her husband Sayed requires it.  In fact, Sayed has encouraged Nahid to go out without a hijab but honors her decision to dress in whatever way is most comfortable for her. The issue comes down to respecting women and if that is what we care about, there are plenty of bigger issues, including domestic violence and sexual harassment which are related to the same kind of male oppression that either requires or prohibits women from wearing hijabs.

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Our friend on the right came to Greece with her three children and no husband. There is no one in Greece telling her how to dress.

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Jackie Kennedy Onassis

The hijab is only controversial where there is unfounded cultural prejudice, also called bigotry. To most of his English subjects, Tony Blair’s $2,000 Savile Row suit is “a mark of separation” but no one is questioning his decision to wear it. London’s mayor has not raised public concerns about what is going on in the homes of Mormon women who don’t cut their hair or orthodox Jewish women who don’t expose their arms.  The comments of these politicians are simply expressions of bigotry toward an identifiable group of people.  It would have been a sign of good leadership if these two had instead referred to one or two of the many things we have in common with the Muslim community.

Barack Obama recently said we now live in an interconnected world whether we like it or not.  I like it. I have been enriched learning about different traditions in my travels. Learning about other cultures has even made me more tolerant of my own community. I no longer roll my eyes when I see an American butt hanging out of a pair or blue jeans or a pair of Christian breasts pouring out of a tank top that is two sizes too small.

And I bet it won’t be long before headscarves are back in fashion because, well, they look cool.

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Hijab or just trying to stay dry in the rain?

 

9 comments

  1. A well presented and fair discussion of a very complicated matter full of cultural landmines.

    This is a very tricky subject and I have complicated feelings and beliefs. For instance, I notice that my own biases leave me still believing that there are places in the world (including the USA) where cultural pressures do indeed force people to wear clothing (or not wear clothing) they might not choose on their own or abstain from (or engage in) activities differing from what they might otherwise choose.

    Clothing is an outward manifestation of particular societies and economics. In terms of human interaction, it acts as a signal of community. Wearing clothing (or not wearing clothing) differing from the cultural norms in whatever land one is in seems to me to set one apart from others and often might be a barrier to interaction and mutual understanding. Yet I know how important it can be as a symbol of self-identification and expression.

    I am left confused and conflicted.

  2. Yes, it is a complicated issue. I guess my main point is that we should not judge Muslim women, or anyone else, for deciding they would rather stick with their traditions rather than dressing to fit in. It’s a personal choice.

  3. Love your stuff, Kim. You’re smart, observant, committed to the good fight, compassionate. Keep it coming!
    Best, Steve

  4. I was raised Catholic when nuns still wore full habits, covering all of their hair. It was normal to us Catholic kids. And a lot of Catholic orders still wear some kind of head covering. My Slovenian grandmother would seldom go outside without her babushka.

  5. Very insightful post.

    I also encountered a similar reaction toward Islam when I was traveling in Greece. I was given reproachful looks when people found out I was studying in a Muslim majority country. I come from a very conservative American state, but I have never witnessed such contempt so I was surprised when it happened in Athens.

    I agree with you that this is related with cultural prejudice.

    I have seen Amish women cover their heads and no one says anything reproachful. I have seen elderly Hispanic women use shawls to cover their heads and again nothing is said.

    In this interconnected world we still have much to learn.

    (Also, your comment on Tony Blair’s suit is amazing. )

    1. Thanks for your notes. The Greeks I have met are very generous and kind (and philosophical). I think it’s a minority in every country and culture who are fearful and bigoted.

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