Halloween Costumes, Gender, and Patriotism

Last week, as Halloween approached, searching for Halloween costumes online was interesting. Once more, like every year after 9/11, I was faced with the issue of hijabs, niqabs and burqas as Halloween attire.  As we’ve previously discussed on MMW, hijabs, niqabs, burqas and the like are not okay as Halloween costumes. More generally, cultural appropriation is not okay, even (especially) on Halloween.

Last week, Dr. Faheem Younus wrote an article titled “Hijab is Not a Halloween Costume.” Dr. Younus is not the only concerned Muslim who has asked fellow Westerners to respect the meaning that female Muslim garments have for Muslim practitioners. A number of concerned Muslims have challenged the issue of niqab and burqas as costumes, in many instances, on the grounds of Islamophobia.

The article gives us an overview of why hijab, specifically, should not be considered as a costume and it makes an interesting point on the fact that the issue of hijab as costume is not unique to Halloween. Some people seem to think of the garment as costume-like attire year round (such as some Disney’s executives).

Nonetheless, in his article, there is a phrase that caught my attention. Dr. Younus describes that while at a paediatrician’s office, his wife was pointed at by a kid who thought her “costume” was “cool.” Fortunately, he says, the kid’s mother managed to explain that a hijab is not a costume, but a religious dress. The interesting part comes when Dr. Younus expresses: “Now, that was truly American.”

Dr. Younus’ statement clearly shows the fact that discussions on hijab, niqab and burqas are not only issues of cultural appropriation but also of patriotic pride. Whether respect for women who wear the garment is “truly American” or not seems to be debatable, as Dr. Younus’ statement is contested by the other side of the spectrum.

If one types “burka” and “Halloween” in a search engine, one can see a number of websites that feature hateful content against Islam and what they consider to be its symbols (more commonly women’s clothing). In this case, they make exactly the opposite argument as Dr. Younus: that facial coverings are not only the symbol of “evil” Islam, but also a threat to American patriotic values. Acceptance of these garments implies the degradation of “American culture” and the rejection of freedom. Thus, in this line of thinking, a burqa is indeed an appropriate Halloween costume because it should not be an acceptable every-day attire.

Some of us have seen children and adults dressed in burqas and niqabs on Halloween. Yet these discussions on “Islamic” attire have become less about the cultural appropriation of symbols and more about issues of nationalism and patriotism. Such discussions on Muslim women’s clothing are being used to determine whether or not respect for these symbols and specific cultures is, or should be, patriotic.

Although articles like Dr. Younus’ may aspire to open up the floor for respectful and conscious debates on religious forms of dress and their meaning for religious practitioners, we continue to contest Islamophobia (and Westernization, on the other hand) through Muslim women and their attire (either “properly Islamic” or “Westernized”).

Muslim women continue to be equated with the nation in either side of the continuum. One side wants to show that being “truly American” is to respect women’s head and face coverings. The other one uses Muslim women’s images to evoke fear and appeal to the “Islamization of America.”  Both of these sides become part of a dynamic in which hijab, niqab and burqa become the center of nationalist feelings.


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  • glitzfrau

    Fascinating article. In Northern England, small children often combine hijab and costume to create a genuine hybridity – I had a little girl knock on my door in Leeds with a witch’s hat over her hijab. I’m not saying this is at all representative of the UK as a whole, but it’s good to see that hijab can be viewed as separate to costume, but not in opposition to it, for Muslim children.

  • Miss B.

    I’m a kindergarten teacher, my kids are 5-6 years old.
    When one day, a new student got picked up my a mother wearing a beautifully embroidered silk hijab, two girls were staring at her with eyes wide open at the gate, and finally they asked, “is your mother really a princess?” It was so innocent and cute that I didn’t want to go into any explanation about religion or anything, just asked something along the lines of “she’s really beautiful wearing that, isn’t she”.

  • http://muslimreverie.wordpress.com Jehanzeb

    I really like the points raised in this post. It’s interesting to read about the connections between hijab/niqab/burqa, cultural appropriation, and patriotic pride. I’m reminded of how Orientalist images of veiled Muslim women are used in political campaigns (like in Switzerland) to evoke fear, suspicion, and hate of Muslims and Islam in general.

    On the other side of the spectrum, I think there’s a lot to deconstruct in the comments Dr. Younis made, “That was truly American.” Respecting the way Muslim women dress is one thing, but to equate that respect with American patriotism shows that there is much more at work here than cultural appropriation. The fact that Muslim women are equated with what it means to be “truly American” makes me think a lot about heteropatriarchy that is foundational to the nation-state. That is, considering the fact that European patriarchal gender systems were imposed upon the indigenous populations during colonization of this land, it is no wonder that patriarchal logic and women’s bodies continue to be used to assert patriotism and nationalism.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Thank you for all your comments! The issue of hijab and other garments as costume is a sensitive topic, especially when it comes to children. We are not making a claim in here on the fact that Halloween costumes are in contradiction to a girl wearing her hijab. However, the problem may appear when we see those, who normally wouldn’t wear a hijab, using it as an Orientalist symbol or an Islamophobic comment. I completely agree with Jehanzeb in that gender and nationalism are closely connected and women remain the “symbolic” part of the puzzle! Important to note though, this is not unique of the Muslim experience in the West… nationalism uses gender to assert specific points anywhere in the world.