Why Are Non-Muslims Wearing the Hijab?

Wheaton College associate professor Larycia Hawkins talks to reporters during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Hawkins, a Christian teaching political science at the private evangelical school west of Chicago, was put on leave Tuesday. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)
Wheaton College associate professor Larycia Hawkins talks to reporters during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Hawkins, a Christian teaching political science at the private evangelical school west of Chicago, was put on leave Tuesday. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)

A professor who posted photos of herself in a headscarf in a show of solidarity with Muslim women was placed on administrative leave. Other non-Muslims are also donning the hijab. Some applaud the gesture, others say it appears reductionist or antifeminist.

A Wheaton College professor who has been placed on administrative leave after posting photos of herself in a traditional Muslim headscarf has become the latest non-Muslim to publicly wear the hijab to convey solidarity with those who practice Islam.

The gesture reflects a growing drive to don the hijab in a show of support for the Muslim community. And while the act may have its limitations – some say it is reductionist, others that it could appear antifeminist – many say the practice is encouraging in a time of growing anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I’m finding a lot of people are outraged by what they see as very bigoted rhetoric on the national scene. So I think people [do this] as their sense of defending the American ideal of religious pluralism, and the ethic of being welcoming to foreigners and people in need,” says Celene Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar and educator and member of the chaplaincy team at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass.

“It’s a beautiful act of solidarity,” she adds. “I see this very much in that context of wider community embrace.”

On Dec. 10, Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton, posted photos of herself in a headscarf with a message saying that she stands at one with Muslims, adding that they “worship the same God” as Christians. The school took issue with her remarks, which it felt were at odds with the college’s evangelical Christian mission.

It is the photos, however, that make Professor Hawkins part of a growing cohort of women and girls in the United States and elsewhere who, over the past few years, have used the headscarf as a means of identifying with the challenges hijabi women face.

“It’s a really great interfaith activity,” says Faryal Khatri, communications assistant for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Plainfield, Ind. “It’s a great way to open dialogue, a way to understand how really deeply it represents faith” to some Muslims.

Anti-feminist or a show of sisterhood?

Hijab, an Arabic word that means “barrier” or “partition,” has long been misunderstood in Western cultures as a symbol of oppression – a way for Muslim men to express control over women’s bodies, says Professor Ibrahim at Tufts.

But the idea, she says, is less about male domination than the value of modesty; a perception of the body as something to be revered and protected.

“The hijab as it’s classically understood is not simply about covering the hair,” she says. “It’s about a particular type of presence that a woman carries into the public spaces that she occupies. It’s a way in which you try not to oversexualize your body in your forms of dress.”

For contemporary feminists – especially in the West – the concept can be difficult to accept, says Cynthia Eller, a professor of women and religion at Claremont Graduate University in California.

“[The headscarf] is a very tormented issue for American feminists,” she says. “You want to support women who want to wear this as well as women who don’t. But the politics of the headscarf, especially in an American context … pushes the problem of male predatory sexuality back on women, [as though] women are supposed to dress in such way so as not to make themselves enticing to men.”

“We shouldn’t have to dress in a particular way,” she says.

Still, she notes, if done in the name of tolerance and understanding, non-Muslims who choose to wear a headscarf can have a positive impact.

“It would be very unfortunate if we decided as a society that the way to deal with predatory male sexuality would be to wear a hijab,” Professor Eller says. But in the context of fighting anti-Muslim sentiment, she says, “it’s a wonderful showing of sisterhood. It would be great if men did the same thing.”

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SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor
Jessica Mendoza

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