Wearing Hijab in Coburg

I’m not quite sure how to write this post.  I do want to write about the day I’ve spent, but I definitely don’t want to be the white, non-Muslim woman who puts on Hijab for a day and suddenly thinks she understands what it’s like living as a Muslim woman in Australia.  So I’m going to just treat this particular post (or posts, if I end up writing more than one) as a journal of sorts, and try my best to record without drawing conclusions.  Which means it will probably be rambling and unpolished, so apologies in advance!

After my last post, and after depressing myself thoroughly by reading the comments sections in news articles about women in Hijab or Niqab being abused or attacked (never, ever read the comments sections if you want to retain any faith in your fellow humans.  Here’s a handy Twitter feed to remind you of this.), I started looking around for ways to express solidarity and engage with the Muslim community.  I’m actually much more shy than I seem (people are *terrifying*), and also afraid of doing the wrong thing and making things worse, so this was sort of difficult.

I did find a group on Facebook called Women in Solidarity with Hijabi, and it’s fairly easy to lurk in a non-confrontational way on Facebook and see what people are doing, so this seemed like a good place to start.  The idea of this group is to encourage non-Muslim women to wear the Hijab for a day or a week, to show solidarity for their Muslim sisters.

I personally love this idea for many reasons, including the entirely vain one that I’ve always secretly thought that scarves look prettier than hair and have wanted to try wearing one… But more seriously, I do like the idea both of showing solidarity in this way, and of possibly confusing the bigots.  I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if so many people started wearing headscarves that they no longer became a marker of religion (and thus, evidently, a way for nasty-minded and cowardly folk to identify people to pick on)?  And… as a feminist, I get very nervous when people talk about banning the burqa or the niqab.  I mean, yes, part of me does worry that some women are being forced to wear a garment which certainly circumscribes their freedom of action (I can’t see cycling or doing labwork in a niquab, frankly), and which may also reduce their ability to participate socially in society – but I think that banning these garments is likely to further isolate women who may not have a choice about their covering, or who are deeply conscientious about it – like the girls in France who simply stopped going to school when the hijab was banned, because they did not feel that they could be uncovered in public.  But most of all, I really, really am not comfortable with the government telling women (and it’s always women) what they may or may not wear.  I wouldn’t like it if the government forced me to wear a burqa, and I wouldn’t like it if the government forced me to go topless.  What I wear should be nobody’s business but my own.

Of course, the obvious question that arises from this idea is – is wearing a hijab when I’m not Muslim offensive to Muslims?

To an extent, I suspect this is impossible to answer.  Contrary to popular (!) belief, not all Muslims hold identical opinions on all subjects (it’s like they are all individuals – oh, wait…), so I can’t be certain that wearing hijab would not offend anyone.  But there seemed to be a lot of Muslim women in the WISH group, who were very supportive of the idea, which seemed like a good start. On the other hand, I don’t actually know any of those women in real life.  One of the women in my lab is Muslim, so I asked her about it on Friday – again, not looking to her to represent all Muslims, but it’s probably best to start by not actively upsetting the ones I know.  She thought it was a nice idea.  So that was a second vote in its favour.

I work in a very large Institute, and, not to put too fine a point on it, I have been known to engage in comedy dressing at work – silly stockings, lairy outfits, the occasional wig.  As one does.  This being the case, I didn’t think I could wear the Hijab at work – with a workplace that size, I can’t control the message I’m sending, and I really don’t want the message to be ‘this is Catherine’s latest silly outfit’.  So I decided that I would try wearing the Hijab on the weekend, and see how that went.  (Having said that, I’m now wondering if there might be enough people at work who would wear the Hijab for a day in solidarity that we might actually be able to send the right message after all.  I will have to see what people think.)

Anyway, because I was still really, really worried about offending people I also decided, rather than figuring out the Hijab at home, to go to the Islamic Book Council, which is just down the road from where I live, and ask for help with the Hijab there – thus checking with a third sample group (hey, I work with scientists, these things rub off) whether I was being accidentally offensive or culturally appropriative.

So this morning, I put on a long skirt and a tunic top, and also my cross pendant (no false pretenses), and went to the IBC.  I told the girl behind the counter that I wanted to wear Hijab in solidarity with Muslim women, and asked if she could help me. She had heard of WISH, and thought it was awesome and fantastic and immediately came out to show me which headbands were best (“Not those lycra ones, they’re too slippery”), and which scarves to use (“Not the pashmina, it’s too bulky, and it’s going to be too hot in this weather”).  And then she got out a mirror and some pins and showed me two different ways to assemble my hijab.  Her colleague wandered past and grinned “Ooh, Hijab lesson?” in enthusiastic tones.

I asked about what I should wear with my Hijab – not wanting to cause offense, but also not wanting to wear long sleeves if I didn’t have to in this weather, and was told that this was pretty much up to me.  My new teacher was wearing one of those waist-length black veils that frames the face, with a black robe underneath it – very graceful – and explained that she likes to cover as much as possible but that people wear what they want – three quarter length sleeves are good, but short sleeves are fine.  We decided on suitable a Hijab colour scheme (hot pink headband, bright purple sparkly scarf – to my amusement, my Hijab teacher had already figured out enough about me to take one look at the scarf and say “Yes, that’s your personality!”), and then she un-pinned me and got me to assemble my Hijab myself.  Which was fairly entertaining, because clothing origami is not my strength, and I kept doing things like trying to pin my scarf to my hair (rookie mistake).  In the end, she had to help me again.  She offered to spend more time practicing with me, but I wanted to get to the solidarity picnic – so she saw me off with great warmth and encouraged me to come back if I needed help, or more lessons!  It was a really lovely experience.

The Melbourne branch of Women in Solidarity with Hijabi had organised a picnic – not a very well publicised one, I think because the organiser was worried about attracting abuse – so that was my next stop.  I got on the tram, feeling very conscious of my appearance.  Conscious twice, really, because while wearing the Hijab didn’t feel particularly weird, I felt far more visible than usual, and also, I realised that I was now representing a religion that was not my own, and that had enough publicity issues without me doing anything silly.  So I was very aware of making sure I validated my ticket properly, making sure I wasn’t trying to race anyone to a seat, and (later) offering assistance to a woman with a trolley.  I also wasn’t quite sure if my usual approach of smiling at anyone with whom I made eye contact was appropriate.  I’d better figure that one out, actually.  Smiling at women was probably fine, anyway.

But as I got off the tram, I heard a voice mutter behind me “That’s what’s wrong with this country.”

I don’t know if the comment had anything to do with me.  I suspect it did.  But I do know that if I hadn’t been wearing Hijab, the question of whether it was about me would never have crossed my mind.  I was definitely very conscious of other people’s responses to me in a way I would not normally be.

Also, wow.  That was almost too pat.  If I were writing a story, obviously that’s what would happen – and indeed, in the story I am always writing about myself in my head, I had anticipated this sort of thing, but then dismissed it as over-dramatising on my part.  One’s inner story is always more colourful than reality.  But evidently not in this case.  I really hope that this is not indicative of the frequency of Islamophobic remarks in my part of Melbourne.

I got to the picnic, where they were flatteringly delighted to see me, and did a good job of concealing their disappointment (I may be projecting, here) when it turned out that I was just a boringly un-Muslim Australian!  The picnic was small – people who did join us all said they had had difficulty finding us), and we were eventually joined by a Muslim woman without veil, and later by a lovely trio of young Muslim women in Hijab, who told me that I wear Hijab very well – they had thought I must be a Muslim, and had in fact joined us because they felt bad that I was there as the only covered woman.  In fact, they were wearing conservative black hijab with narrow jeans and windcheaters, and looked (to my eye) more Aussie than I did!  They were pretty excited about my Hijab, and we had to have a photo shoot, into which they dragged their Greek Orthodox friend (who they put into a more simple version of the veil), and a random woman in Niqab who was picnicking nearby with her family.  I’m looking forward to seeing this on Instagram later.

After they arrived, the conversation livened up in a big way and we learned a fair bit about Lebanese Australian Muslim culture, and talked a bit about the way definitions of family have changed, and the way families have become far more nuclear and less mutually-supportive in Western culture and the advantages and disadvantages of this.  And we talked about politics, a lot (strange to say, nobody at that table was a big fan of Tony Abbott – fancy that!), about the importance of education, and about being profiled at airports.  And we swapped contact details, and discussed plans for future picnics, with everyone bringing more of their friends.

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon.  I’m hoping that this might be the start of a regular group, in fact.  One thing we talked about a lot was that most of the non-Muslim Australians didn’t really have any Muslim friends, other than work colleagues.  The two Muslim girls who’d been to a local state school had heaps of friends who weren’t Muslim, but the one who had studied and taught at Muslim schools didn’t have so many – I think it’s not always easy to make new friends, and one thing the Hijab can say to non-Muslims is ‘there is at least one way in which you are not like me’.  I imagine the same applies in reverse, and it’s just easier to strike up a conversation with someone when you assume a shared background.  Which is ridiculous, now I think about it, because anyone you meet is going to be different to you in some way or other, so this is not a very good filter.

(I’m not sure what to do with that.  I mean, I’m all about finding common humanity, common ground with others, and honestly, I’m a Christian and I really should not have a knee-jerk reaction to someone else expressing her religion by means of dress – logically, a woman in Hijab is probably more like me than a random person on the street, because we each have a faith that is important to us – but evidently I do see it as a barrier to conversation at least on some level.  I suppose I can at least say I am conscious of it now!)

Anyway.  I hope we do have more picnics like this.  I hope we do all bring our friends, and the picnics grow into something that can really establish a sense of community between Muslim Australians and non-Muslims.  This sort of personal connection is, I think, more powerful in fighting racism (or other nasty isms) than anything else – we stop seeing people as a scary mass of Different, and see them as individuals like ourselves.

8 thoughts on “Wearing Hijab in Coburg

  1. When I first shaved my head for Leukaemia Research, I was worried about sunburn, so I took to wearing a headscarf. It wasn’t properly pinned like a hijab, but it did draw both looks and comment. One of my students asked if I had converted to Islam. We had an interesting talk about that.

    Sadly, when I was in the Agora at La Trobe a couple of weeks later, the reception from a group of young men was less cordial. It was the first and (hopefully) only time I’ve been spat at.

    • Lovely. Yes, the Muslim women I’ve spoken with have all tended to imply that while it’s scarier right now, it’s always been fairly scary, socially speaking, to be out and about in Hijab. It makes you so visible. Which is ironic, really!

  2. What a wonderful group of women you found to hang with! Is the picture posted anywhere you can link to? I’d love to see it.

  3. Catherine, I think you’re amazing, both as a writer and a person. And I know you approached this with intelligence and compassion. But I think you made a mistake with this one. I was uneasy about it when I first read it, and today I’m seeing discussion on Twitter by Muslim women who really, really wish that non-Muslim women wouldn’t do this. They linked to an excellent article on the subject.

    https://www.salon.com/2014/11/16/you_and_your_scarf_have_no_place_here_partner/

    I know the Muslim women you asked at the time were supportive, but I also know what would happen if someone non-disabled tried out a wheelchair for a week to see what it was like. There would be some disabled people encouraging them, because damn, we all sometimes wish you knew what it was like. And because we are trained to be polite to non-disabled people, who usually have a lot of power over us, and we want to assume the best of them, we might smile and nod even if we weren’t happy about it. Disability politics vary, you’ll always get a few people espousing views that most of us strongly disagree with, and I see internalised ableism all the time, including in myself. Overall, the overwhelming consensus is that we don’t want people doing this, for much the same reasons given in that article.

    When there are many voices saying, “Don’t do this. It’s harmful to us,” they have to take priority.

    • Eve, I know that you, too, mean well. However, I think it’s actually a bit patronising for you to assume that every single Muslim woman I spoke with before and during my week in hijab – and even if we discount *many* online interactions, including comments on this series of posts, this would include at least twenty people – was lying to me because they were afraid of offending.

      There were the women at the Islamic bookshop who were excited to be giving ‘hijab lessons’ and who said that they had heard of the ‘solidarity with hijabi women’ movement online but that I was the first person to come into the shop and ask for help with it. There were the hijabi women at the friendship picnic who commented approvingly on my ‘covering’, provided advice on how to cover in hot weather, asked to take photos with me, and then pulled out a spare scarf to dress their Greek Orthodox friend in a makeshift hijab and invited the niqabi woman who was walking with her family nearby to join us in a group photo. There was my colleague to whom I spoke first – specifically saying, look, I’ve heard of this, and I’m not sure if it’s ok, or if it’s something I shouldn’t do, what do you think? – who was not only in favour of the idea, but was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t going to do this at work. Or the other colleague, who tut-tutted and fixed my hijab so that my neck wasn’t showing, just as her mother used to do when she wore hijab.

      Even last week, one of the activities advertised at the Melbourne Open Mosque Day was the opportunity to try on a hijab.

      There is, at least in Melbourne, a pretty high level of comfort and support – perhaps even an overwhelming consensus – for non-Muslim women wearing hijab.

      (I’d also note that New Zealand women were encouraged to wear hijab yesterday in solidarity, and the statements I read from mosques in New Zealand were absolutely supportive of this.)

      Are there better ways to show solidarity with the Muslim community? Probably. And I’ve been doing my best to find out what these are and do them, just as I did then.

      As I’m sure you know, the same action can have wildly different impacts and implications depending on context. The context in which I wore hijab and wrote about it was one in which hijabi women were specifically being targeted in my area for abuse, and it was worn in solidarity and with consent from as many Muslim women as I was able to speak to.

      So, while I agree that putting on hijab as some sort of performative thing and then claiming to know how it feels to be Muslim is obnoxious and destructive and alienating, and that yes, this can be a form of appropriation, I’m inclined to prioritise the opinions of the Muslim women I have actually met and spoke to, and to afford them the respect of believing that they were sincere in what they told me over those of people responding to, frankly, quite a different situation. They are, after all, the people who will be most closely affected by my actions.

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