Stereotypes are hurtful, no doubt about it. They assume things about an entire group of people by those who have less than an iota of knowledge about the group. It shrinks each individual in the group to the lowest common denominator, or even to something unrelated entirely to the group. And it’s doubly sad when stereotypes are perpetuated not just externally but internally as well.
Today, perhaps no other group faces more stereotypes than the Muslim woman. The adjectives – I call them labels – used to define her range from the inaccurate to the offensive and even sometimes laughable. Submissive. Oppressed. Quiet. Homemaker. Religious. Devout. Covered.
And let’s face it, that last one is where most of the other labels come from. The common perception of the hijab in the U.S. is that a woman who covers herself regardless of fashion, weather and plain common sense must have been forced to do so by someone else. The other alternative, that of choice or individuality, doesn’t enter the equation for many onlookers. In practical terms, this stereotype plays out in a number of political and social venues. Women who cover themselves face discrimination on a number of levels, as reported by the ACLU in a recent report. Never mind that a range of laws and regulations protect religious freedom for women of all faiths, Muslim women are making the news these days by struggling against and winning their right to wear the hijab.
But should Muslim women stand alone in this struggle? When African Americans stood up for their civil rights, many influential white Americans stood with them. When white women struggled for equality and voting rights, men fought alongside them. Muslim women, it seems, won’t fight alone either. Women of all faiths are slowly standing up for the rights of their sisters in faith, not in a militant way, but by showing solidarity for the hijab as a civil right. By telling the world that sharing the experiences of others promotes important concepts of tolerance and peace in our society.
On February 1, women in more than a hundred countries will participate in the World Hijab Day. Women of all faiths, even Muslim women who don’t normally cover, will voluntarily wear this controversial piece of clothing for an entire day. The goal is not conversion, but to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – or in this case headscarf. Wearing a hijab for a day as they go about their daily lives allows women to find out what it’s like to be stereotyped. Even more importantly, it enables them to experience firsthand the challenges and joys of the hijab.
According to the event creator Nazma Khan, the goal of the World Hijab Day is simple yet tremendous in its potential:
At the end of the day we are all part of one big family called the human race. World Hijab Day gives us an opportunity to learn to be tolerant of each other, by accepting and respecting each other’s differences. It is only through tolerance and understanding can we coexist peacefully.
Here then is the challenge: I invite my female readers to wear any type of headscarf on World Hijab Day on February 1, 2014 and find out what life is really like for your Muslim neighbors, coworkers and friends. I promise that you will be surprised. You will learn many things, not just about Islam, but also about yourself. How people interact with you, and how you interact with the rest of the world, will be completely transformed in one day. You may find that you hate wearing the hijab, but you will still discover much about those who do it willingly and lovingly. If you do participate, don’t forget to leave a comment or video on their Facebook page.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and speaker on American Muslim issues. She is currently working on a collection of short stories about Pakistan. She is not in any way affiliated with World Hijab Day but does wear the hijab herself. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.