Rediscovering “Undercover”: Cassidy Herrington and Hijab Tourism

Kentucky Kernel writer Cassidy Herrington wore the hijab for the entire month of October. She wrote about her experience in a column published on October 31, 2010. Many of us have seen the column make it rounds in our Facebook feeds, and so the ladies of MMW sat down to share their thoughts.

Azra: Hijabi tourism—it’s the easy, low-cost getaway to appear Muslim and “learn more about your place in the world.”  The problem here, though, is that Herrington fails to realize that the “gauze scarf” she needs “to identify with Muslims” fails to capture the entirety of an individual’s life experience with their faith.  Not all Muslim women wear it, and Muslim men certainly don’t wear it (here’s a handy guide to they myriad of ways Muslims dress).

Cassidy Herrington with a headscarf. Image via Kentucky Kernel; uncredited.

Krista: I do still find that there’s a significant difference between Cassidy Herrington and, say, Liz Jones or Danielle Crittenden.  The former made an effort to connect to a local Muslim community and to have their input, recognizing their help in the article she writes.  Jones and Crittenden, on the other hand, undertook their experiments largely for the purpose of confirming everything they already “knew” about Muslim women being oppressed, and it shows.  Herrington’s article was, at least, thoughtful and reflective, and added to the conversation in good faith (if arguably misguided.)

Saffiyah: I have been following these “I tried out hijab for a day/month/year” stories with much interest. Initially, my curiosity was piqued by the initiative: women of other faiths trying to understand what it feels like to be a Muslim woman. Recently, though, these stories are popping up by the week, and it begs to be asked – can wearing a headscarf really give one a perspective of how a Muslim woman feels? Is the total sum of a Muslim woman the piece of cloth on her head?

Wearing a headscarf for one day, one year or a lifetime will not give you perspective on what it “feels like to be a Muslim woman.” Being a Muslim woman is intrinsically linked to a woman’s relationship with God, not the piece of cloth on her head, and the idea that the more clothing one wears, the closer one is to God perpetuates the misconception that women who wear less are less Muslim. It is also interesting to note how none of these experimenters chose to wear a niqab.

Azra: Is “the best way to identify with Muslims” really to don a hijab for a month?  Would she go “undercover” as an African-American, gay, or Jewish person by dressing a certain way in order to identify with those groups?

Sara: What annoys me about stories like this is that they give hijab this Eat, Pray, Love element. It highlights a singular experience as a Muslim woman. On one hand, I applaud the interest; on the other, why do you have to take this visible and mainstream route to understand the lived realities of Muslim women? Why don’t these newspapers actually speak to Muslim women?

Nicole: I don’t understand why people think dressing up in a hijab, or in a burqa, can recreate the experience of a woman who wears hijab. Yes, in a day, or a month, in hijab, you might get the blank stares, the cutting remarks—but you don’t get the whole experience.

I also find it curious that these Muslim Garb experiments in Europe usually fall into the realm of “performance art” or “activism” (see my MMW post on one such experiment) but in the U.S., it is usually about misguided “Golly gee, let’s be multicultural and aware and sensitive to ‘the Other’” sentiments. You see it in hijab experiments and in articles like “I like your hijab, I hope that’s ok.”

I find it particularly American and smacking of white privilege, speaking as a white American, the way we feel the need to “explain” and or speak with authority on issues which really don’t concern us as individuals.

Krista: In the context of media stories about journalists who wear hijab for a short period and then write about it, this practice ends up eclipsing the experiences of actual Muslim women who do wear hijab, as the journalist’s own experience is what gets written about.  This kind of practice, even when done by journalists with good intentions, reinforces a common image that Muslim women cannot speak for themselves, and need someone else to speak for them.  If people really want to write about what it’s like to wear hijab, there are many hijab-wearing women out there they could ask.

Azra: If you want to learn more about Muslim women, seek them out and spend time with them—those that wear hijab and those that don’t.  Then, instead of speaking on behalf of Muslim women’s “unheard voice” by talking about your own hijab experiment (“my hijab silenced, but simultaneously, my hijab brought unforgettable words”), ask them to share their own experience as a Muslim woman.  As you can see, there are quite a few of us out here—both hijab-wearing and non-hijab-wearing Muslim women alike—who do have a voice.

Nicole: My biggest question in these “Muslim Garb” (copyright Juan Williams) experiments is why can’t Muslim women speak for themselves? Why do we need non-Muslim women test-driving hijab to tell the world what hijab is like? And in whose right do these women think it is ok to do so?

Safiyyah: What many of these projects end up being is just another case of having other people speak for Muslim women. I appreciate women of other faiths wanting to commiserate with Muslim women, and I am sure it’s even quite exhilarating to wear a hijab. But what they can do to really help is to foster more dialogue with Muslim women and have open, frank discussions with a diverse range of Muslim women.

Nicole: As blogger Matthew Smith, who blogs on Muslim and disability issues, has mentioned, there is a parallel between girls who test drive hijab to recreate the “Muslim  experience” and people who test drive wheelchairs to try to recreate the “disabled experience.” In one post, he makes the point that people who aren’t disabled just aren’t going to have the same equipment.  Someone who test-drives niqab, for example, may not have shopped around enough and have ready access to
the best type of niqab for her lifestyle the way someone who has chosen and wants to wear niqab would.  Likewise, the person who test drives a wheelchair would likely have a bulky, uncomfortable push chair, whereas most people who use wheelchairs daily have specially-made chairs.  So obviously someone with some cheap nylon niqab picked up in the market is going to think it is hotter and more uncomfortable than the woman who has carefully picked out her niqab and wears it daily after a series of trial and error with the different models available.

Most importantly, I wholeheartedly second Smith’s post when he says, “There are many women around who do and many of them are more than willing to tell their stories, which will be so much more representative and meaningful than anything you would learn from a one-day experiment.”

Safiyyah: Hijab as a social experiment tries to normalize and make acceptable the concept of hair-covering and modest dressing, fine. Almost all the women who decided to “go undercover,” “take the veil,” or “get inside the hijab” go down the same route and are left feeling “free,” “liberated,” and “appreciated for their mind.”  While this may say something about modesty itself, it does not speak for all Muslim women, who may or may not feel that way, and who may or may not adopt the hijab for various different reasons. My own hijab is one of identity and activism.

Sara: The relationship with hijab is very complex, because it depends on your family, not just what you believe in. These complexities are never reflected in such stories, and they never push them far enough.

Azra: Herrington mistakenly identifies the hijab as “just a symbol.”  Those who wear hijab do not see it as “just a symbol”—their faith often underlies their decision to wear hijab, something that is clearly lacking from the author’s rendezvous with the scarf. 

The author racializes the wearing of the scarf—she uses her “affiliation with ‘white,’ non-Muslims to build rapport with the Islamic community…and show non-Muslims the truth from an unheard voice.”  Muslims, fortunately, come in a wide variety of colors (including “white”—why does she surround it with quotes?) and dressing habits.

Her oversimplification of categorizing whites as non-Muslims who don’t wear hijab and people of color as Muslims who do wear hijab is not quite up to snuff.  And don’t get me started on her oversimplification of how Muslims are seen as the “other” (indeed, it seemed to me that she sees in herself her own “otherness” with the Als quote at the beginning of the article…).

Readers, what are your thoughts about Herrington’s article?

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  • Hajar

    MasyaAllah sisters, I find this post in extremely interesting and thank you for sharing your conversation with us.

    Keep up the good work.

  • kat

    I think Cassie Herrington made a “confortable” attempt at seeing what it meant to be a hijabi, not necessarily what it meant to be Muslim. She doesn’t seem to have a significant relationship with Muslims so in my opinion, it’s harder for her to have a real worldview of Muslims and especially female Muslims. Maybe that should be part of her attempt at leaving the comfortableness of Mom’s lap.

    It would be very interesting if she attempted to be Muslim for 30 days. Praying, fasting, food restrictions, and relationship restrictions, Friday prayers, etc as well as “living” in the Muslim community.

    I was raised in Kentucky and now live in New England. Lexington and Lousiville have a pretty diverse Muslim population as do some of the smaller cities/towns. The New England Muslim population is diverse as well but there’s something special about Kentucky Muslims…

    Thanks for a great round table chat!

  • arwaa

    A (well-intentioned, I’m sure) white woman will test-drive being me to tell me (and others!) how it feels to be me? No, thank you.

    And on another note, I don’t want to ever be “integrated” or “assimilated”. I like sticking out and I hope I make people uncomfortable (heyyy, juan!). You don’t like Muslims? You don’t like immigrants? I’ll be as in-yer-face about our otherness as possible.

    And thanks for another great piece!

  • Emily

    At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, I wrote a post about why I, as a non-Muslim who engages in both research and activism on behalf of Arab & Muslim communities in the US, really, really dislikes these practices. And, short version, I agree with this post entirely.

    *continues sitting in cafe, wearing “Christian Garb”*

  • Yosra

    I like the exchange of thoughts on your part. I find all of your viewpoints enriching and thought provoking. I personally find the initiative good. You don’t expect them to try your faith for a week to get closer to you. I do agree that it is a bit theatrical and showy how it’s done. And why don’t they speak to us and actually try to go beyond impressions and reactions to the hijab. I liked the “eat pray love” comment too :)

  • SakuraPassion

    Personally as a non-Muslim I find these “projects” rather silly. While I think the effort to understand Muslims is good, adopting “Muslim garb” falls short. Also I understand why at the end of Herrington’s article she says to learn the truth about Islam talk to a Muslim. She could have very well done the same. Besides simply wearing the hijab for month won’t give a complete experience. Especially since you can simply remove it when it’s all over.

    I also give my opinion on the matter.

    When non-Muslims (try to) experience being Muslim


    Personally as a hijabi/niqabi I wouldn’t be offended if someone wanted to try wearing hijab for whatever reason. I see that the women mentioned above were wearing it for experimental purposes; I’ve also come across articles about women wearing it (or wanting to wear it) for other reasons like in trying to respect the local culture/customs of the country they’re assigned to work in and even some women wanting to wear it because they admire it.

    Here is a blog post by a CNN reporter assigned to work in Yemen and her experience with wearing niqab:

    I like that she was forthright and honest about her experience without demeaning the practice. I feel that whatever reason someone wishes to try on hijab I wouldn’t stop them and instead I would try having a more general discussion about Islam just so they get the big picture and all. Even though I know they can never fully experience what it’s like to be a Muslim woman I admire them for trying to understand it at least.

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  • Rochelle

    I’m surprised nobody here mentioned the ‘Wear Hijab For a Day’ Campaign that a lot of Muslim Student Associations are organizing this month. At least here at UC Berkeley, the MSA has an “Experience Islam” month with a lot of events, one of which being a ‘wear hijab day’. They actually tie the scarves on women on campus, so this seems to be sending a pretty signal that Muslim women want non-Muslim women to try it out.

  • Najma

    Well reported and analysed. I like the comment, try being a muslim for 30 days. I’d amend it to 40 days. There’s a hadith to the effect if you are in a someone’s company for 40 days, that company grows on you. It applies to trying to say your salaah for 40 days. It then becomes a habit!
    Well done – putting in perspective.

  • Nabila Usman

    I’d like to point out a minor correction towards the end of second last paragraph, “(here’s a handy guide to they myriad of ways Muslims dress).” Instead of “the”, it says “they”.

  • Sumera

    Maybe they should refer to these events as “Dress like Muslim women” rather than “wear hijaab for one day”.

  • Azra

    Thanks for your comments, everyone! In response to some of your comments:

    @kat and Najma-When you say: “It would be very interesting if she attempted to be Muslim for 30 days” what kind of Muslim would she be? Muslims do not necessarily all share the same facets of “Praying, fasting, food restrictions, and relationship restrictions, Friday prayers, etc as well as “living” in the Muslim community.”–Muslims’ level of observance differs from individual to individual. What kind of Muslim would she be? Also, the idea of trying to be Muslim for 30 days comes across as somewhat superficial–faith is a state of being, not a one-time experiment.

    @Rochelle-the “Wear Hijab for a Day” campaigns are not without contention, as you mention. I didn’t bring it up, here, and instead focused on what Herrington discusses in her article. It does further stigmatize Muslim women who choose not to wear hijab, as the MSAs tout donning the scarf as the true “Muslim Woman Experience” (Trademark).

  • j1

    This article discusses lingerie and other measures that women should take to, essentially, keep their husbands from straying.Some of the comments prioritise a husband’s desires over those of a wife’s feelings.