On Wearing Hijab in Public for the First Time, and Why
02-01 was World Hijab Day. A friend of ours invited us to protest Trump’s travel ban by standing with signs at the corner of the Dartmouth Green, wearing hijab.
Which we did.
Before I go further, it’s important to acknowledge certain things.
The question of whether and when and how to wear hijab is hotly debated even in communities where it is common. It means different things to different people in those communities. World Hijab Day is debated within those communities. And that’s all before we start to consider the meaning of wearing hijab in a country like the United States, where, regardless of what the wearer or community might want, people attach additional meanings to the practice. Some well-intentioned by naive women from cultures where it is not common to wear hijab have tried to experience what it is like to do so by wearing hijab. Some of them have had eye-opening experiences as they received the side-eye and abuse which some people feel it’s appropriate to bestow upon a woman wearing hijab. However, they have the freedom to walk away from it in a way that is not possible for people for whom wearing hijab can be bound up in cultural and religious identity. Because of those disparate backgrounds, a Western and non-Muslim woman wearing hijab does not, and cannot, experience it in the same way.
I have read only a tiny fraction of this debate. I have the impression that it’s rather like the debate among many Western feminists about the use of makeup. Some women object that makeup reinforces an artificial beauty standard, is expensive and time-consuming. Other women argue that they use makeup to enhance their appearance, and that they like it, and as adults capable of making their own decisions about their own bodies, they should be able to wear makeup. The center of the argument always seems to me to pivot around whether it’s a choice, and to what extent, in that it may technically be optional, but if, for instance, it’s expected in a competitive workplace, it become mandatory for those who want to get ahead. “Optional” is not a binary switch; it is a continuum of coercion.
Which is also true of the bit of debate I have seen around wearing hijab.
So, my wife and I were under no illusions that what we were doing in wearing hijab was equivalent to one of our Muslim friends wearing hijab.
Not wanting to offend those who matter to us personally because we know them, we checked with a friend of ours who is Muslim to ask if she, personally, would not be offended. She said she would not, and showed us different ways to wear it. (And, learning from her, it became clear to me that wearing hijab is a learned skill, rather like tying your shoes. Her movements were deft, and her hijab stayed in place. Our hands were clumsy, and ours unraveled easily.)
And then, armed with that crumb of knowledge, we wore hijab as a political statement, in solidarity with the women and men who were targeted by Trump’s ban.
Did the protest accomplish anything with our statement? I don’t know. After we arrived, several more people joined us, native-born Americans and immigrant Americans, both. A group of three Dartmouth students came and interviewed us on videotape. By the end of the interview they revealed themselves to be somewhat inclined to defend the current administration. The apparent head of the group objected to one of us characterizing Steve Bannon as a white supremacist. At the end, in response to something the leader said, one of my fellow protesters made what sounded like a nuanced and thoughtful statement about the state of Israeli politics, and the leader reduced that statement to a brief rhetorical question which baldly mischaracterized what my friend had just said. It was so nakedly twisted that I laughed out loud, and at that point the leader apparently thought better of it and they decamped.
I was glad my friend was there to tackle that topic; it’s certainly not one I feel qualified to speak on.
In the end, we got plenty of waves, and some honks.
And we stood up. Which is the first, and most important, thing.