Recently a friend shared a Washington Post opinion article on facebook titled As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity. I was so glad to read this very well-researched article and hope it sheds some light on the history and meaning of what many of us know as the hijab. Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa write:
Born in the 1960s into conservative but open-minded families (Hala in Egypt and Asra in India), we grew up without an edict that we had to cover our hair. But, starting in the 1980s, following the 1979 Iranian revolution of the minority Shiite sect and the rise of well-funded Saudi clerics from the majority Sunni sect, we have been bullied in an attempt to get us to cover our hair from men and boys. Women and girls, who are sometimes called “enforce-hers” and “Muslim mean girls,” take it a step further by even making fun of women whom they perceive as wearing the hijab inappropriately, referring to “hijabis” in skinny jeans as “ho-jabis,” using the indelicate term for “whores.”
To us, the “hijab”is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject that believes that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair. We don’t buy it. This ideology promotes a social attitude that absolves men of sexually harassing women and puts the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up.
I understand Asra and Hala’s stance completely, in fact it is something I thought about most when deciding whether or not to wear a hijab recently: the fact that it is often enforced as a patriarchal, women-are-sex-objects-we-must-keep-them-hidden-and-protected idea. Furthermore, I am aware and agree that the religious texts – verses in the Koran – have been interpreted in many ways to suit particular agendas, as is the case with almost any religion. I fully support the efforts by so many to continue to make all religions fit into today’s time, including efforts by many Muslims and non-Muslims to educate people that the interpretation of the need to wear the hijab is a subject of hot debate.
Immediately below Asra and Hala’s article, my facebook feed showed a rebuttal piece by Dilshad Ali titled Please Do (If You Want) Wear the Headscarf in the Name of Interfaith Solidarity. Before I even began reading Ali’s article I was reminded how polarizing movements can become when people group themselves across aisles to fuel to a divisive subject. Here’s a short excerpt from Dilshad’s article, but it is by no means a summary:
My hijab is not born of a so-called “political Islam.”
It’s born of my heart and mind.
My dear friends – if you want to place a piece of cloth on your head as show of solidarity with Muslims, by all means, do so. I welcome it and appreciate it. It’s not the only thing you can do – there are many ways to show solidarity (because there are many Muslims who don’t wear headscarves): Cultivate friendships with Muslims, have conversations, smile, reject anti-Muslim rhetoric, ask genuine questions. Disagree with respect if you wish. Listen. Learn.
And if you want, wear a headscarf.
At the risk of sounding like a privileged wannabe-do-gooder Christian, I realized I should make a decision about what to do based on my own thoughts on the matter. Here I was presented with two equally well-worded and valid opposing arguments; what should I do? My awareness of the subject tells me that there will be women wearing hijabs for a long time to come, and regardless of the reason any woman covers her head with a scarf she will probably continue to be a victim of prejudice by many ignorant non-Muslims.
I decided the widespread hate attacks against Muslims should not keep me from stepping outside my comfort zone and into a perception (or reality) of danger for the purpose of solidarity with people who live a far scarier reality than I ever will as a Christian. Before I wrapped a scarf around my head I understood the experiences resulting from my decision would push me even farther into my lifelong work to achieve a more loving world, a world where ‘other’ doesn’t fit appropriately in any conversation or setting. This was more than an aesthetic decision, this was a spiritual journey – my own Christian pilgrimage – into the realm of understanding the other by walking a similar path for a short while.
For many women who are Muslim, wearing the headscarf is the product of thoughtful, deep prayer. It is their choice. The hijab debate will continue, but when it comes to standing in solidarity, the hijab is the only outward way I can do it when I’m going about my day-to-day life in public (when I’m not hanging out with friends who are Muslim). It’s the only way I can do all I can to place myself into the shoes of others, many of whom live with a considerable amount of fear that they will be targets of hatred by those who are ignorant and angry. What is happening in our world right now is that people are being bullied, harassed, assaulted, murdered, and their houses of worship vandalized or destroyed because of a false belief that Muslim somehow means terrorist. I choose my battles and right now I will continue to support the battle for people to understand the political and religious context of the hijab while I outwardly show my support and love for a religion that has a lot in common with my own.
I go to peace rallies, solidarity gatherings, and I invite friends who look different and believe different things to my home for potlucks; I also feel strongly that presenting myself as ‘other’ is an undeniably visible show of solidarity. To be absolutely clear, there is no way, unless I became a fully practicing Muslim and maybe darkened my skin and wore a hijab daily, that I could understand what it is like to live in fear every day because of my religion. I am privileged as a seemingly white, Christian woman. I do know what it is like to be marginalized and harassed because of my appearance because I am female; but I can’t, and won’t, claim I know what it is like to live as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab daily.
My decision to wrap my head with a scarf is not for show. I do not want acknowledgment for doing something good or bold or dangerous, even though it is obvious I am wanting to tell people about it by writing this. The point, to me, is not to don a hijab and then go running through the streets screaming through a megaphone, “Look! I’m a Christian and I’m wearing a hijab!!!”
One of my favorite passages during the season of Lent – when Christians traditionally A) adopt a practice that allows us to gain a deeper connection with our spirituality, or B) let go of a burden that keeps us from reaching deeper into ourselves to create a better spiritual relationship within ourselves and in the world – is from the gospel of Matthew (6: 5-6), and summarized best in these two verses:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Creator, who is unseen. Then your Creator, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Like other religious texts, this has been interpreted in many ways by many people. Perhaps it is encouraging good Christians to be meek and lowly, to hide away in prayer, to close the door to the outside world while praying alone. Or perhaps, my favorite interpretation, it means that as a Christian I am called to live a life of peace, love, and servitude in a way that welcomes my neighbor, the stranger, without calling attention to what I am doing in attempt to earn my reward. There is no need for me to force my particular way of praying or believing onto others – because it is how I treat my neighbor that is a direct representation of what I truly believe. I can stand on a street corner on my Jesus Pedestal and preach my Biblical beliefs at people or I can open myself and walk with people on their journeys, and we can learn from each other’s stories. Actions speak louder than words. What would Jesus do?
I’m proud of being a Christian, but especially an Episcopalian, during these rapidly changing, fearful times in the world. With the leadership of the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, our Presiding Bishop, we are embarking on a Jesus Movement. We are learning how to evangelize in the way Jesus did it. Jesus walked a path not of judgment; but of peace, servitude, love, and forgiveness, and he didn’t do it so meekly all the time. He often did it in ways that were revolutionary and daring. He converted people not to run through the streets screaming at people of their Christian God, but to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. Jesus loved peace, and I’m just doing my best to follow his footsteps.