Does World Hijab Day Lead To Greater Understanding Of Muslim Women?

Friday, February 1 wasn’t just two days before the Super Bowl — it was also World Hijab Day, when non-Muslim women and Muslim women who don’t ordinarily cover themselves are encouraged to wear a head-covering hijab veil.

With slogans like “Before you judge, cover up … for a day” and “better awareness, greater understanding, peaceful world,” the event implores women to learn more about what it is like to be hijabi by experience.

According to the BBC, women from over 50 countries participate in World Hijab Day. I can only speak for Westernized countries where I’ve lived and whose media I’ve consumed, but women wearing any kind of veil is certainly controversial in both America and Europe. (Various types of veils include the niqab, the hijab, the chador, and the burqa — you can read a good, simple breakdown here.) One prevailing, at-times-misinformed theory is that Muslim women are all oppressed and wearing the veil is never a personal choice. In 2010, France passed a bill that would fine women nearly $200 for wearing a face-covering veil, such as a niqab or burqa, in public — predicated on the idea it’s wrong for women to cover their faces. Because wearing the veil is visual, women are subject to Islamophobic attitudes and even violence.  Muslim women and girls wearing veils have been subject to discrimination and assaults everywhere from Staten Island, New York, to London, to Scotland, to France (which was obnoxiously referred to as “burqa rage”).  Additionally, there’s been debates about safety concerns pertaining to whether Muslim women can wear the veils at the Olympics and in professional soccer, as well as security concerns.  Businesses like Disneyland have also struggled with how to handle women who want to wear a veil on the job. There’s also a great misunderstanding that anyone who wears a hijab must not in any way be modern — look no further than Lena Dunham’s facepalm moment this summer when she tweeted a picture of herself with a blanket wrapped around her head with the joke, “I had a real goth/fundamentalist attitude when I woke up from my nap.”

In this context, it’s easy to understand why women who wear the hijab want non-hijab wearers to acquire a greater understanding of the stigma they face. At the same time, I’m reluctant about immersive experiments. Donning blackface or wearing a fat suit for a day are both types of experiments that typically make people groan for their shortsightedness. It might certainly be eye-opening for a white person or a skinny person to be forced to examine their privilege through wearing a costume for a day — but at the end of that day, that’s all it’s been, a costume. It can’t compare, and should not be compared, to a lifetime of discriminatory experiences. I also question why we think people need to have immersive experiences in order to have empathy for others. Do you really have to wear a fat suit for a day in order to understand that bullying fat people is wrong? Do you really need to wear a hijab for one day to have empathy for why some women choose to wear it?

I realize that because I am not Muslim and don’t have any friends or family who are Muslim, I have a lot to learn about this subject. Any Frisky readers who wear any type of veil, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

[World Hijab Day]
[BBC Magazine]

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