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.
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.
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.
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.