Day 10: Final Thoughts on The Hijab Project

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“The girl is a media exhibitionist.” This is what the top comment said on the Ex Muslim Reddit board where my first day’s post from this experiment was put up for discussion hours after it had been written.  Comments below it were no more favourable.  I pictured a boardroom full of international Arab men agreeing that I was stupid, offensive and ridiculous.  I seemed to come across to this group of Ex Muslims as a clueless valley girl at best and a white supremacist at worst.  I moderated blog comments on that first post saying things like, “Just stop. – coming from an ex muslim.”  A full out battle between my conviction that this was a good idea and an orc-like army of insecurities raged inside me.

If I’m making a horrible mistake, I thought, its only ten days.  Unfortunately time is relative.  At the beginning those ten days seemed like ten days waiting in a hot car or ten days stuck in a tree with no way to get down.  I’m not exactly naturally good at receiving criticism but its something I’m working on.  This project helped thicken my skin.

I firmly believe that its important to talk about hard things.  We have racism in Canada.  We have prejudice.  We have white privilege.  Minorities are attacked verbally and physically  on our side of the border.  They are dehumanized and held to unfair standards.  It is as much a part of Canada as the cloudiness of the lake water we swim in.  You cannot change what you don’t acknowledge.  This project was my way of acknowledging it.  This project was my way of confronting these problems within myself.

Just as the father of the sick boy in the Bible in Mark 9 exclaims to Jesus, “I believe.  Help me overcome my unbelief!” My heart’s cry in this project has been this:

I am an ally.  Help me overcome my Islamophobia!

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Day 9: On Avoiding Being a Jerk

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When I was a kid I asked my Mom why she didn’t have a Jesus fish on her vehicle.  She said it put too much pressure on her to be a good driver.  An obvious, but not very well thought out aspect of this experiment for me was realizing the moral pressure of wearing a hijab.  With that scarf, you are representing a community that already has an unfairly poor reputation, and that is actually quite a bigly weight to bear.

“ISIS is killing Christians on my computer screen AND this Muslim lady is an exceptionally rude customer?  Next election, I’m going to vote that we disallow the burkini!” I imagine these small minds thinking.

You see, I had an incident.  I am in the midst of dealing with The Oven from Hell.  When we bought our house a couple months ago, it came with an obscurely branded oven.  Everything has gone wrong with this oven and we have already sunk a few hundred dollars into it.  Yesterday, we figured out that the identification numbers associated with our oven have mysteriously been ripped off so there is no way of knowing whether or not we can get the right parts to fix it.  All we can do is guess, and they are expensive, non-refundable guesses.  I learned the nature of this wager from the lady behind the counter at the appliance store.  This lady had already sent me home twice to try to figure out these identifying numbers.  And I was frustrated, oh so frustrated.  I was also oh so conscious of the fact that I was wearing a headscarf.  I made sure to let the ladies behind the counter know that I was angry with my oven and not them.  But God forbid a woman in a headscarf have a bad day in public.

It is exhausting representing a religion that already has a poor marketing campaign in the West.  Its worst than the  task of “protecting your witness” that Christians remind each other to do because chances are, should you have a public meltdown, nobody will know you are a person of faith.  Maybe that new person in your Bible study is nearby, and maybe they’ll see you acting badly and decide that Jesus isn’t for them, but probably not.  However, as a Muslim in a hijab, you are ALWAYS on, always scrutinized.  There isn’t a whole lot of room for grace there and that is a difficult way to live.

Day 8: Dinner with A New Muslim

I didn’t know how it would happen, but I really hoped that this project would somehow lead me to meeting up with a local member of the Islamic community.  My Black Lives Matter friend  EJ offered to make a connection for me with her friend Jasher.

I was excited to meet Jasher but my intestines bubbled, croaked and moaned as I prepared for this dinner date.  Would she think I was mocking her?  Would she judge me for using safety pins to hold everything in place?  I was really tempted to leave the scarf at home, but that would not have been faithful to the experiment and I had no good excuse to do so.  Me, my scarf and my safety pins met her at Shafiq’s Taste of India (which was delicious.  I’m so glad Jasher introduced me to Chicken Korma!)

Something I love about this blog project of meeting people from different walks of life is how life-giving it is.  Everyone has a story, and when you put yourself in a position of being willing to listen and understand that story, the telling of that story is a beautiful thing to behold.  Its a sacred time, set apart from the everyday; a chance to not only expand your own realm of experience but to get a tour of someone else’s heart.

We talked about how as an Irish Canadian, she found her faith in Islam this past January.  We talked about her initial curiosity and research into the religion.  She stressed to me how intertwined peace was with the very centre of what it is to be a Muslim and the way that her past anxieties melted away when she decided to surrender to this way of life.

And Jasher looks like peace.  Her countenance glows with an enviable serenity.  She looks relieved of a burden.  She looks healed.

We talked about the day she decided to make her commitment to Islam official and the ache of leaving one’s old self behind and the joy of embracing one’s new self.  She described this experience of giving up who she used to be as something to the effect of, “It was painful because I had this septic limb that I needed to sever off.”

For her, giving up her past to embrace Islam has been more than worth it.  She loves the rituals around praying five times a day, which include washing your mouth, face, hair, ears and feet before every prayer.  She described the act of cleaning these areas as helpful for being conscious of making sure that what you say, hear, taste and where go are pure.  What a beautiful thought.

She also spoke about her decision to wear her headscarf, and what hijab means for different Muslim women.  Only about a third of Muslim Canadian women wear headscarfs in public.  “Hijab” seems to refer more to a state of being similar to the concept of modesty rather than just a physical accessory.  She’s been wearing the scarf for less than a year but was already able to give half a dozen examples of various confrontations with strangers she’s experienced because of it.  She treats them as opportunities to correct misinformed people.

Her stories were a solid reminder that wearing a scarf on your head in our culture is an invitation to be treated poorly by bigots.  Doing so requires a tremendous amount of courage and grounding in who you are.  I must admit, I am a little jealous.

Day 5, 6 and 7: drive-by yelling

There have now been two incidents of drive-by yelling during this project.  The first time it happened I was eating ice-cream at a picnic table outside a Kawartha Dairy Ice-Cream Shop.  A man drove by in a pick-up truck with the window down and yelled something.  I didn’t hear what he said, and therefore I cannot say for sure that it was aimed at me.

The second time was yesterday.  The same thing happened, this time outside my house.  It was a man again, in a pick-up truck again.  He yelled something out.  I didn’t catch what he said so once again I cannot know for sure whether it was aimed at me.  It seems to me though that since this has now happened twice in three days, that’s there’s a strong possibility that its not a coincidence.

Who are these people that honk or yell out their windows at people on the street?!

Getting drive-by yelled or honked at used to happen to me regularly when I was in high school, living in Waterloo, usually while walking home from school.  Sometimes it would be accompanied by rude, suggestive hand gestures and many times screams of “You’re hot!” or, you know, less PG things.  One time a friend and I counted three separate incidents within 10 minutes of each other near Chapters and The Beat Goes On.  It was always unsettling, never appreciated, and especially early on in those teen years, shame and anxiety inducing.

One time in university a couple of friends and I had had enough.  We decided to ride around and honk and yell at random university men on the sidewalks.  The experience was delightful and cathartic, a symbol of taking back our power and a strike back for womankind.

It doesn’t happen very often to me anymore, which is why these recent incidents stuck out.  I wonder if this kind of thing happens more often to women in headscarves than it does to the rest of us bare-headed womenscreen-shot-2016-09-26-at-3-56-30-pm on the street.  Besides these two incidents though, I feel pretty normal with it while I walk around in public.  The vast majority of people do not care at all.  A handful of people might be extra courteous while a handful of people stare.  Overall I feel as though I could get pretty used to wearing it in public all the time, and have actually been grateful for it at times when the weather has been cold.

Day 4: Thin Places, Insecurity and Modesty

In Celtic spirituality, a thin place is where the proverbial veil between heaven and earth is a little thinner, and so it is an easier place to access the Divine.  I like to think that doing awkward things like wearing a head covering for 10 days helps to put me in a thin place, or at least a thin head space.  Though I find myself often wondering if I’ve done something completely inappropriate and culturally insensitive, this project has nevertheless forced me to meditate upon many things I normally wouldn’t take the time to do.

What is the role of modesty in spirituality, and in being taken seriously in the world, versus the role of modesty in making women feel ashamed of themselves?  There is something about the virtue of modesty that seems to suggest that the physicality of a woman is evil or disgusting or inherently sinful.

There is something bizarrely empowering about wearing a headscarf though.  While growing up, it felt like Focus-on-the-Family-approved modesty meant dressing exactly 28% frumpier than our secular counterparts (hooray for tankinis!), this takes it from an obligation to a choice.  Now I’m defying social norms to dress more modestly as opposed to trying to dress normally with a prudish twist.

I’m a little behind in the experiment because I’ve been ill the past couple of days but hopefully I can catch up this weekend.

Also, fun news!  I’m going to be having dinner with a Muslim woman who chooses to wear a hijab in a few days!

Day 3: Canadian Christian Privilege

While enacting this project, I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege.  When I was a Christian, I worried a lot about being persecuted.  When I left Christianity, it became significantly more apparent to me that Christians are among the last people in Canada that have to worry about getting their rights squashed.

Think about it: How many crosses, churches and Bible verses do you see posted up along the highway when you travel long distances in Canada?  Answer: A LOT.  I never noticed how many until I left the belief system.  When you’re part of it, seeing that is nothing.  Its normal.  Its comforting.  When you aren’t, the multitude of these occurrences reminds you just how dominant the Christian worldview is in Canada.

How many Christian songs play on the radio in public places?  Again, the answer is A LOT.  This is especially true at Christmas time, but it is also true throughout the year.  When I worked at Value Village, they had a few Christian songs by Owl City and Michael W. Smith as part of their audio repertoire playing multiple times a week – songs explicitly about worshipping God.  Thrift stores often play overtly Christian theological music.  Malls.  Mark’s Work Wear House.  Carrie Underwood’s hits “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “There Must Be Something in the Water”.  Christianity is a very normal part of our culture, even in secular spaces.

If another religion occupied even half of the space that Christianity did, people would be upset.  Imagine if we saw that many mosques or passages from the Koran out and about!

Sometimes Christians feel persecuted because things in secular spaces aren’t more Christianized.  Children no longer being obligated to say the Lord’s Prayer in school by the government got twisted into the common belief that Christians aren’t legally allowed to pray in school.  They are legally allowed to pray in school.  Its just that some people have decided its unfair to make everyone do it.  And would you even want to force someone to pray if they didn’t believe in it?

When you are used to being in charge, inclusivity feels like persecution.  As someone who is not a Christian though, I can tell you that all efforts made to include me and the way I look at the world are appreciated.

In the real world, the project continues!  I’m actually starting to enjoy wearing it.  I styled my scarf a little differently when I went to pottery class last night.  Muslim girls from my high school used to do all sorts of cool things with their head coverings so I figure its allowed.  It would have been really impractical to have all those tassels hanging while I stooped over a pottery wheel.  With the help of Youtube tutorials, I managed to do this:

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It was helpful for working with clay which otherwise got all over me.  Nobody treated me any differently although I’m pretty sure my teacher was a little frustrated with me.  I think that had more to do with the fact that I am not a natural on the pottery wheel, something I discovered for the first time last night, and less to do with my headgear.

Day 2: Canadians are not always nice

Nearly everyone who has been unkind to me has been Canadian.  Almost every racist, sexist, or threatening word that I have heard in person has come from Canadian minds.  Yet as a nation, we really love to look over our shoulder at America (or wherever) and dismiss all of our problems as “not as bad” as there’s while patting ourselves on the back for our cultural “niceness”.

That’s lazy, and its turning a blind eye to some real homegrown problems.  As Canadians, we can’t do very much to change the way Saudi Arabia or the US treats its minorities but we can do something about how our community treats ours.

According to the latest numbers from Statistics Canada, in 2014 the Canadian police forces recorded 99 religiously motivated hate crimes against Muslims — a 220% increase from 2012.  I’m only speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if those numbers have risen even further since 2014.

Here are some ways that my province has been cruel to its Muslim population within the last 10 months:
September 2016: Hamilton Man Attempts to Set Fire to Mosque
June 2016: London Muslim Woman is Attacked in a Grocery Store
November 2015: Peterborough Mosque is Set on Fire
November 2015: Toronto Muslim Woman Attacked on Her Way to Pick Up Her Kids
November 2015: Toronto Family Finds Anti-Muslim Graffiti Scrawled Outside Their Apartment

Hate in our own backyard is never okay.  And even if we may not be the ones enacting any of this stuff, how many of us have been in the room when someone has said something Islamophobic?  THESE are the situations where we can change something.  We can use our power by speaking up.

My project has gotten some international attention from an Ex Muslim Reddit group, which freaked me out a bit.  I was considering ending the project early but I’ve decided to stick with it.  Its valuable because its forcing me to meditate upon a group I normally wouldn’t.  Its forcing me to think about what it is like to be considered an outsider on Canadian soil.  Its forcing me to stand outside of my comfort zone and that is where growth begins.

Of course my 10 Day experiment does not equal the Muslim woman’s experience of Canada.  Nevertheless, an honest attempt at trying to get a better understanding, of thinking about what life might be like for someone else who lives in the same place I do but has a different experience, is probably better than doing nothing at all to understand.  A lack of understanding breeds fear.  And fear breeds hate.  And hate breeds the idiotic events that happened in Ontario this year.

I’ve decided to just not wear the headscarf while tending to my dog.  That seems like the easiest solution.  The last thing I want to do is offend anyone from the group I’m trying to advocate for and understand a little better.  And now I’ve learned to be more aware should we happen upon any Muslims with our dog in the future.

I wish I had a Canadian Muslim woman to dialogue with about these thoughts.  It is a Muslim woman who challenges the women of the internet to try life with a hijab to see what it is like but it would be lovely to do it without bumbling through the experience haphazardly.

Day 1: How to Cause a Stir (with one yard of fabric or less!)

The idea to wear a headscarf is actually something my pre-teen sister wanted to do back in 2002.  Her Muslim friends were getting hassled at school as part of the aftermath of 9/11 so she wanted to wear one to show her support to them.  I thought the idea was beautiful, and have spent 14 years building up the courage to try.

In the real world on Day 1, I’ve mostly noticed inconveniences.  I was feeling under the weather for the past few days so yesterday was my catch up day on all things domestic – laundry, baking, cleaning, and gardening.  I managed to squeeze in a trip to the local Catholic thrift store though.

I found digging around outside in a headscarf to be pretty sweaty business.  The tassels kept getting in the way.  As I would hope for in Canada, every person I encountered in the store was courteous.  I probably had 4-5 verbal interactions while I walked around for half an hour.  Maybe people were even extra courteous?  At one point, I realized that my scarf was coming off.  The strap from my purse had yanked it all out of place and hair was starting to spill everywhere!  I had to duck into a change room to re-pin everything.

Driving to and from the store was disconcerting because my scarf impeded my peripheral vision.  From now on I will be extra careful to pin the scarf back further.

So far my questions are, how close does a male family member have to be before they can see you without your headscarf?  What about cousins?  What about in-laws?  What happens when someone unexpected comes knocking on your door?

While in person things have been uneventful, online I’ve created a bit of controversy, mostly behind the scenes.  Two different sources have pointed out to me that often times, Muslims aren’t dog owners because it is a common interpretation of their Scriptures that dogs as pets are inappropriate.  I’m not pretending to be Muslim – just wearing a headscarf for 10 days – so I’m still trying to figure out what the most loving way of handling this situation is. This was a piece of the puzzle I wasn’t expecting.

Other comments have cropped up too.  It caused me to evaluate, what exactly am I saying when I take a stand like this?  This is what I have decided I am saying:

I support a woman’s right to dress as modestly or immodestly as she desires, from bikini to burkini.  I stand in solidarity with every innocent Muslim woman who has ever felt unsure or unsafe in a Western context.  I stand against hate and violence done to anyone, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. Lastly, and most importantly for the purposes of this experiment, I consider it an important task to try to understand a little better the life of the “other”.  I am hoping this experiment will help me do just that.

 

The Hijab Project: 10 Days in a Headscarf

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As a social experiment, I have decided to participate in The Hijab Project for the next 10 days.  This means I will be wearing a headscarf in all situations where a man I am not related to might see me.  I am doing this to commemorate 15 years since 9/11.

We live in an era where hate crimes against Muslims happen regularly in Canada and the US.  I would like to experience what it feels like to be such a visible member of such a loathed and targeted group.

Confession: I’m scared – like really nervous about deliberately giving up some of my privilege.  I’m comfortable with the level of privilege I have in my life as a fair skinned non-religious person.  However, it seems as though the fact that I am concerned about this is precisely why it would be a valuable exercise.

In the next ten days, I aspire to visit at least the following places while wearing an hijab:
1) A restaurant.
2) A mall.
3) A small town.
4) Pottery class.
5) The grocery store.
6) Sitting at the park and watching children play.
7) The gym.
8) Axe throwing.
9) Foster parenting training.
10) The passport renewal office.
11) Taking the dog out for walks and to do his business.
12) Reading Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong in a public place. I’m already reading this book and would feel no qualms about reading it in public without a headscarf on.

I don’t know many Muslims, but if you are Muslim, reading this and have some ideas, tips or advice, I’d love to hear from you so feel free to write me a comment.