Viewpoint: The hijab as a statement of faith

BY DANIELA EDWARDS

Published September 8, 2010

For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Imane Boudlal, let me provide some background information. According to an Aug. 18 Associated Press report, Boudlal is a Muslim woman who has worked for Disney the last two years. This year, she decided to wear a hijab — a type of women's head covering common in Arab countries — for Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and reflection. Her employer told her this violated dress code. Boudlal is insisting that Disney's attitude is anti-Islam and anti-Arab.

Her employers, however, are part of a vast entertainment industry known for its strident dress code policies. Though Boudlal worked as a hostess in a restaurant, these employees are treated as performers. Her head covering was not part of the accepted costume. In theory, yarmulkes and crucifixes would also be considered violations of the dress code. Boudlal was offered the alternative of working "behind the scenes" where she would not be seen by customers. She refused and the lawsuit is pending.

I’m not questioning Disney's right to dictate the dress of their employees, as long as the corporation rejects all ethnic dress. I also won’t intend to delve into some of the other details, like the fact that Boudlal asked her boss if she could wear her hijab and was told that Disney would design one for her. Disney never pulled through. However, it is evident that by refusing to compromise, Boudlal pushed herself into the spotlight as another so-called deviant, unreasonable Muslim.

Muslims didn't need this publicity. America doesn't need this publicity. Coming from small-town Michigan, I've heard plenty of people express prejudice against Islam. In many cases, Islam isn't understood on its own terms. Rather, it’s perceived based upon the minority of Muslims who make it onto the news in spectacular and negative fashion. In fact, the persistent drama over the "Ground Zero mosque" (which isn't at Ground Zero, by the way) just highlights a fact that certain Americans seem to have trouble grasping: not all Muslims are terrorists.

On a smaller scale, even the hijab is vastly misunderstood. An innocuous status update on Facebook exploded my notifications as two of my friends — one a Muslim, the other an atheist — butted heads not over Boudlal's right to wear her hijab in the workplace, but over a woman's right to decide to wear it at all. In America, this head covering seems strange to many. This isn't surprising, considering that our culture has long since stopped struggling against short shorts and tights worn with shirts and skimpy tank tops. An extra garment worn to defend modesty is an anomaly.

We don't understand the hijab except in extremist terms — like the defense that the hijab is a woman's protection against lustful glances and rape. My atheist friend believes that the hijab is sexist and anti-feminist in the worst way because of these prejudices. But my Muslim friend vehemently opposed this view. "It's not even about religion," she posted in response. "It's about non-Muslims suppressing these women by denying that they could ever have had a brain and made this choice on their own."

My Muslim friend didn’t wear a hijab on a daily basis as a student at the University. In Pakistan, however, she dons one. It's the cultural norm there, she explained to me. And, yes, there are stares and leers at women who choose not to wear the hijab. It's considered a cry for attention — just like wearing tight pants, revealing shirts and the like is for American girls.

The University prides itself on its diverse student body. And I've seen a fair handful of young women sporting jeans, t-shirts and hijab of all patterns. These girls are not forced to wear it. They wouldn’t be subject to lustful stares if they removed it. Instead, they choose to wear it as a statement of their faith. As an expression of modesty, it doesn't matter.

The fact is that wearing the hijab in America is a choice. Denying Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab on well-intentioned but ill-researched feminist motives is wrong. Some of these girls would feel naked without their head covered, just as most other students would feel a bit exposed if they walked outside without pants. Choosing to wear their hijab is, whether they intend it to be or not, an expression of their control over their sexuality. In this context, the hijab is just as feminist an item of clothing as Susan B. Anthony's bloomers. Perhaps we've learned enough by now to take it in stride.

Daniela Edwards is an LSA junior.