Last week, Wheaton College Professor Larycia Hawkins was suspended for saying Muslims and Christians believed in the same God. She did that in a Facebook post in which she also wore a hijab to show solidarity with Muslims.
Several students at the college later boosted her message by wearing hijabs of their own during their flights home for winter break. This form of activism is only the most recent in which hijabs are worn in support of what Muslims are facing.
But in a powerful piece for the Washington Post, Asra Q. Nomani (you remember her) and Hala Arafa argue that putting on a hijab to show support for oppressed Muslims, while admirable in spirit, is precisely what we shouldn’t be doing.
It sends the wrong message, they say:
To us, the headscarf 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, we must cover ourselves. 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.
As Americans, we believe in freedom of religion. But we need to clarify to those in universities, the media and discussion forums that in exploring the “hijab,” they are not exploring Islam, but rather the ideology of political Islam as practiced by the mullahs, or clerics, of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State.
It’s a reasonable point. People are looking for a visible way to show their support for Muslims who are being ostracized and demonized, and a hijab seems like an easy way to do that. But if you believe that wearing a hijab, despite what some Muslim women say, isn’t really optional in certain families and countries, then what message is that gesture really sending?
(Maybe that point would be more obvious if, instead of a hijab, those Wheaton students wore full-body burqas. Suddenly, people would really start to question what they’re supporting…)
Dilshad Ali, a Muslim blogger here at Patheos who chooses to wear her hijab, disagrees completely. She welcomes the student protests:
Whatever your issues may be with the headscarf, whatever arguments you want to put forth regarding if it is something that Islam, the Quran and hadiths require of Muslim women, this is not the time for this discussion to happen. Whatever loathing you have for the headscarf or other forms of modest Muslim dress — turning on Muslim women who wear the headscarf and those who wish to show solidarity by wearing it is, as activist Linda Sarsour says, disingenuous.
But is there ever a good time for that discussion to happen? She’s using the same argument that Second Amendment fanatics use to stymie gun safety legislation following a tragedy. If now’s not a good time, I’d like to know when it’s okay.
I also disagree that Nomani and Arafa are somehow turning on women who choose to wear the hijab or who wear one in solidarity. This isn’t about “loathing” the hijab. This is about being honest about what the hijab represents. And there’s no universal answer to that. We’d be having a very different conversation if every Muslim woman really had a choice whether or not to wear one.
And let’s be clear: Nomani and Arafa support the student protesters; they’re just offering constructive criticism on the protest method. They’d rather see support for Muslims that doesn’t use what they see as a symbol of oppression.
The one thing I wish they had included in their piece is a better alternative. What would they like to see these well-intentioned students doing instead? We never get a clear answer.