On September 21 the WRC’s weekly Feminist Forum featured Amanda Grant, a UH student as the discussant on the topic of Muslim Women and the Headscarf: Misunderstandings and Misconceptions. Amanda started the discussion by reading a recent article from the New York Times that identified some of the challenges and misconceptions Muslim women face in the United States. Amanda spoke of similar personal challenges she faces as many people are curious about her decision to wear a headscarf in accordance with her Muslim faith. For example, people ask many questions such as: “Does your father make you wear it? and “Does it get hot under there?” People often assume she is from another country, despite the fact that she was born and raised in the United States. People also question her patriotism. Ironically, Amanda notes that in America she stands out as a Muslim, but when traveling in the Middle East she stands out as an American.
The discussion set new records for attendance at the weekly (every Thursday) Feminist Forum discussion group as over forty people attended. The room and the discussion quickly turned warm! Many opinions were expressed showing the passion and controversy this topic raises, between Muslims and people of other faiths, and even within the Muslim community itself. A sampling of opinions included these points of view: Wearing a scarf is an expression of religious devotion, similar to Catholic nuns wearing a habit. Wearing a hijab is not oppressive, but libratory as women are freed from other distractions to focus on their faith and point them toward God. Wearing the hijab can free women from focusing on external appearance in order to focus on inner beauty and faith. Rather than constituting a double standard, Muslim men also have their conventions to follow just as women do. Some students believe that wearing the scarf was not a choice, but a requirement in order to be true to their faith, while others believed such edicts were open to interpretation based on one’s translation of Arabic in the Quran and other texts. For example, one interpretation of “hijab” is a physical barrier rather than just an item of clothing. Several participants were quick to note that one cannot judge the whole Islamic faith by the actions of a few just like no one should judge the Christian faith by the actions of a few. Extremism and fundamentalism of all faiths were questioned and largely denounced. One participant questioned if American women can claim liberation while wearing bikinis to advertise cars and conforming to rigid standards of beauty. It brought the notions of liberation and oppression into question for all women. Another participant noted that wearing the headscarf is not oppressive, in fact, it is the prohibition of wearing the scarf that is oppressive, such as is now legislated in France. Several participants noted that the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution is an important safeguard for Muslims living in the United States. Another participant noted that some of the disagreements and seeming inconsistencies among Muslim practices are due to differences in cultural and traditional practices rather than religious differences. The importance of intention rather than sole reliance on action was noted.
The discussion ended without agreement, but rather a call for mutual understanding for the religious beliefs of others without resorting to assumptions, generalizations, or stereotypes. Amanda ended the discussion by noting, “One should not judge any religion based on its followers, but based on the religion itself. Read encyclopedias and research the facts so that you can differentiate between culture and religion and have a more academic and open minded approach to the subject. This is the best way to promote peace—understanding, instead of fearing, what you don’t know.”
People lingered in the Women’s Resource Center long after the formal discussion ended with several non Muslim women trying on the hijab.