No need to go undercover to get to know Muslims

Salam alaikum, readers! I’m traveling for the next week, and your regularly scheduled Friday Links will be temporarily on hold. But I’ve scheduled some wonderful articles for you in my absence. Friday Links will be back in a few weeks; in the meantime, enjoy! –Fatemeh

This post was written by Shazia Kamal. An edited version of this essay was published at AltMuslimah.

I appreciate Cassidy Herrington stepping out of her comfort zone, or as she said it, “climbing out of [the placating, soothing] “lap” of safety to wear a hijab for a month. She gets credit for making a sincere effort to understand Islam and Muslims by going literally “under cover” for a month donning the hijab. I sincerely applaud this undertaking.

I am also elated that Herrington saw the hijab as more than a piece of cloth, and understanding that in wearing it, one propels themselves to the position of representation and high-level scrutiny. In fact, given this very climate of fear and phobia, Herrington deserves an honorable mention for this heroic feat.

If Herrington was simply interested in what it feels like for a Muslim person to be examined externally, then I would call this project complete. This experience is important to relate in light of the remarks made by Juan Williams about being nervous around people with Muslim garb—a remark that Herrington herself points to as a sign of misguided fear and irrationality.

When Herrington said, “I realized the best way to identify with Muslims was to take a walk in their shoes,” I wish she had walked a little further. I wish she had crossed over the picket fence in her account to tell us how she understands this headscarf as a representation of Islam and Muslims, and what principles this scarf was speaking to.

And I will most certainly not take away the pleasurable feelings associated with one of her favorite memories of wearing hijab, where she received a positive and uplifting compliment on her new look by the owner of a Mediterranean restaurant. I can understand what that compliment must have meant to her, considering that most of her beauty was veiled and vaulted away.

But this validation of physical beauty seems to be the culmination of that account, rather than a beginning to riveting dialogues between herself and this restaurant owner perhaps over two, three, or even ten more rounds of hummus and tabouleh. At one level, it may allow others to see how women in hijab struggle against the standard of beauty, which is an important note to make, but on another level, this story is no different from other portrayals (both positive and negative) that focus on the external representation of Muslims.

Going “under cover” as a Muslim to get to know Muslims implies that we are a closed, isolated group of individuals whose experiences cannot be known and understood unless an outsider comes in to examine us, like an American safari team traveling to Africa to study the behaviors exhibited by the Chacma Baboon.

It may appear that I am criticizing Herrington’s efforts; rather, I am using her example as a springboard for the ways in which Muslims should be approached. Meeting a Muslim person shouldn’t be an “encounter” or an “event,” but as ordinary a thing as Folgers coffee in the morning or checking email before going to work—all relieving kick-starts to the day.

I am asking America to return to the old ways of getting to know people; the methods that America was built on. You know, friendly “hellos” exchanged between neighbors, borrowing sugar or a beginner’s Arabic Calligraphy set, or bravely sampling the spicy samosa platter at a PTA meeting at your children’s school.

Whatever the method, rest assured that getting to know Muslims without going undercover (or constantly “unveiling the veil”) will be as equally a transformative and memorable experience, without playing dress-up.

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  • Ida Bakar

    Why is being muslim always have to do with the hijab? Is being a non-hijabi makes one less of a muslim? If Ms Herrington’s way of experiencing what it is like to be a muslim then narrowing it to wearing a hijab is only a small part of the exercise. What about understanding the greater ummah and why the muslim world is angry with the USA for a start.

    There is a website as a reaction against Juan Williams irrationality. It contains everyone from former president of Indonesia Magawati Sukarnoputri to Egyptian rock band Digla in their ‘Muslim garb’.

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  • Duff

    @Ida Baker

    I think on the other hand, you have to be careful and not use ‘muslim’ as a blanket term for everyone who hails from a muslim majority country or background, or even with a ‘muslim’ last name, as some people in these situations frankly do not believe in the Islamic religion or consider themselves muslim. As it is impossible to go out and ask every single person (hijabi & non-hijabi) whether they consider themselves ‘muslim’ or not, surely a better way of identifying (one with a higher accuracy rate, that is) muslim women is to look at those who choose to visibily show themselves as such to the outside world (through wearing signifiers such as hijab/abaya etc). If you are going to go around identifying all non-hijabi women from a ‘muslim background’ as being ‘muslim’ regardless of their own personal beliefs, I dare say that is a much more inaccurate method.

  • henna

    @Duff, so you are saying that majority of women who wear Islamic dresses are actually considering themselves as “Muslims”.

    I don’t think that generalisation is right.

    like Cassidy Herrington had to step out of her comfort zone to wear Hijab, many Muslim(contradictory word itself as per comments) women who may not like to wear Hijab still do so as they have no option to leave their comfort zone.

  • Duff

    @ henna

    @ henna

    The context I was thinking of was women in the west (whether immigrants or converts who may choose to cover vis a vis women who don’t). Obviously my point about most women covering identifying as ‘muslim’ may not hold as true in regions where the dress code is legislated by law for everybody, or there are clear societal pressures to dress a certain way. I’m not sure if that is what you meant by your comment? As for women (in the west and in many muslim-majority countries too lets not forget) not having an option to leave their comfort zone…surely they can exercise their own agency as to whether they really want to wear (or not) hijab/ugg boots/ponchos etc.