July 26, 2016

Overt to covert

What spending 18 days covered with a hijab taught me about racism and stereotyping

As a non-Muslim woman, Rawhani wasn’t sure what to expect, before she began conducting her social experiment.
As a non-Muslim woman, Rawhani wasn’t sure what to expect, before she began conducting her social experiment.
Credit: 
Photo Illustration by Charlotte Gagnier and Sam Koebrich

In January, I wore a hijab for 18 days. I’m a non-Muslim woman, but I wanted to conduct a social experiment to experience what it’s like to cover on a daily basis.

I suspected I wouldn’t be the target of racial slurs, threats or ill-treatment. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was for the opposite to happen.

It started with a conversation back in October when my housemate mentioned an American campaign where non-Muslim women would wear a hijab for a day to understand the experience.

A couple of days later, I had a realization: I could do that. My Iranian ethnicity gave me the complexion for it. I wanted to live in that space, even if it was just for a short while.

Yet I couldn’t imagine wearing a hijab would change my day-to-day experiences, as populations near universities like Queen’s tend to be well-educated and accepting.

On the evening of Oct. 6, as I spoke to my father about the potential experiment, I received a message on my phone about six Muslim students who had been victims of a hate crime in Kingston. If that wasn’t a sign, then I don’t know what is.

Beginning Jan. 6, I started what would be two-and-a-half weeks of covering at all times — to class, work, in malls, around the city and even in my home.

The first three days passed without incident. Professors, students and co-workers who I’d known for months or years, said nothing. It wasn’t as though it had escaped their notice. On several occasions I was confronted with wide eyes as minds attempted to internalize this foreign image of me.

Beyond the surprised looks, always closely followed by nonchalance, it seemed nothing was happening. When my housemates — who knew about my experiment — would ask me for updates the only unusual thing I could think to mention was, if anything, people were being nicer. Much nicer.

At first I thought I was just imagining things. So what if strangers smiled at me in the street? You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the friendlier-than

-usual interactions — with friends and strangers alike — were by no means unique episodes, but a common theme. I started to experience instances where I was treated in a noticeably different manner from others.

One Friday night, some friends and I went to a crowded pizza shop where the man on cash wasn’t in the best mood. When my friend asked for some ketchup, he grunted and tossed some packets to her.

When he turned to me, there was strange shift in his peeved expression. His eyes softened and he smiled broadly, as he gently passed me my slice of pizza, wishing me a good evening. I watched as he turned to the next customer with resumed vexation.

I just stood there for a moment, pizza in hand, taken aback.

***

Since the civil rights victories of the 1960s, racism is significantly less socially acceptable. However, this isn’t to say that discrimination has disappeared. Due to social pressures, racism has evolved from the overt to the covert, displaying itself in newer and subtler ways.

Leandre Fabrigar, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Queen’s, cited “impression management” as a possible explanation for my experience.

He explained that often individuals who harbour biases, but fear social disapproval, will publicly act respectfully towards minorities. “Impression management is when [someone] very strategically, and usually quite deliberatively, tries to manage the impressions that others have of [them],” he said.

Impression management is focused on manipulating others’ perception of the self, but there are more genuine reasons why someone would be kinder towards minorities. Fabrigar said that sometimes individuals realize that they harbour biases, or other unwanted influences on their behaviour. Then, when interacting with members of minority groups, they experience an internal conflict between their negative biases and the egalitarian values that they believe in.

These individuals then engage in behavioural correction processes, where they actively ensure they’re not allowing their biases to influence their interactions with minority members.

“But they’re not always correct in their judgement of how big the bias is, so they can engage in an overcorrection process, which, ironically, would then lead them to be more friendly to the minority member than others.”

In some ways, Fabrigar said, these correction processes aren’t always a bad thing: In some cases, it could be an indicator of progress that people feel the need to behave like this. Yet it’s still indicative of a continued problem. And this unwanted prejudice may also continue behind closed doors during non-public procedures, like job hiring.

“If we look at the overt behaviour we might be inclined to be lulled into complacency, and thinking that [prejudices] have gone away, when in reality they are, to some degree, still there,” Fabrigar said.

Whether correction processes are done for genuine reasons or not, issues can still arise. If someone self-corrects in a noticeable way, it could be hurtful to the minority member, as the kindness is due to that individual’s membership in a specific group, rather than personal merit, Fabrigar added.

***

The fear of appearing racist is a common social response.

While I was wearing the hijab in lecture, I raised my hand. The professor, who knew me by name, called on me, but by a different name — the name of the only other hijab-wearing student in the class, who happened to be absent that day.

Immediately realizing the mistake, my professor began apologizing. I quickly steered the conversation towards my question, because I realized the apology wasn’t the usual apology afforded by professors when they mix up students. Rather, they were genuinely upset by what happened.

I didn’t blame my professor. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a hand in the air that belongs to someone with a specific feature. It’s only natural that you’d mix people up.

What I found noteworthy was the discomfort they exhibited — something that I think many of us experience: a fear of either appearing racist, or making another feel marginalized or uncomfortable due to their race, or any other classification.

Sometimes this fear translates into what’s commonly known as “colour-blindness,” a racial ideology that promotes the equal treatment of individuals by disregarding race, culture or ethnicity.

According to Fabrigar, at one level, colour-blindness has its merits, because it indicates attempts to eliminate the differences that separate us. While colour-blindness is a seemingly good way to eliminate discrimination, it fails to acknowledge the differences between people.

By doing so, it suggests we’re all the same. And it’s true: we’re all human beings who deserve equal rights and opportunity. However, by stating that we’re all the same, it can be easy to overlook significant disadvantages that one group may have due to a history of discrimination.

There are also dangerous flaws in this generalization.

“Well, if we’re all the same, does that mean we’re all white people? Because if we’re all the same, what is that level of sameness that we all supposedly are?” Fabrigar asked.

“[Colour-blindness] means obliteration of important distinctions that matter to us — that’s the negative side,” he added.

After I stopped wearing the hijab, several friends and acquaintances asked me why I’d started then stopped. When I explained it was a social experiment, some said they’d been curious about it, but didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable by asking.

This struck me as odd. I see it; you see it. Why not ask?

Oftentimes it’s easier to ignore differences than to acknowledge them in a constructive manner. This is evident by how interfaith conversations have become taboo and tenuous, causing people to feel uncomfortable around the subject. However, religion can be one of the most important and profound things in a person’s life — something they’d probably be more than happy to discuss, and something that might even deepen friendship and understanding between people.

By the end of it all, I realized that my 18 days of covering, although insightful, were the least educational part of these past months. It was the conversations that followed — the ones that challenged my expectations and disassembled my generalizations — that were the most enlightening part of the experience.

People, culture and religion aren’t concepts you can understand on your own. Rather, it’s through dialogue that we generate understanding and respect between people.

***

My time with the hijab — after 20 years without — was educational, but the short experiment by no means gave me all the answers. In order to gain a better insight I interviewed three Queen’s students who cover: Fatma Abdullah, ArtSci ’14, Hind Marai, ArtSci ’16 and Zehra Ali, ArtSci ’15.

When did you start wearing the hijab?

FATMA: Must have been grade four. In the beginning I saw it as more of a cultural thing; I knew because my mom … and everyone else was wearing it that eventually I would. I didn’t really understand the religious implications until I was older.

HIND: Grade six. I knew I had to at some point, but at that time I had a lot of encouragement and support from my parents and my siblings.

ZEHRA: This is my second year wearing it. It started after I moved to Queen’s — I’m from Pakistan, so I’m an international student. My mom wears it, but culturally it’s not something that’s expected. It was more me becoming close to my religion. I don’t like calling it religion, because Islam isn’t just a religion, it’s termed under the Arabic name Deen which means more a way of life. So it was more me finding my place of where I wanted to belong.

Have you encountered misconceptions about why women cover?

HIND: Definitely, there’s the idea that you’re wearing it because you’re oppressed, or because your father, brother or family forced you … I’ve never met a Muslim girl who wears a hijab because she’s forced or oppressed. The first and foremost reason we wear it is because Allah, or God, told us to, and we’re obligated to by the Qur’an. It might sound cliché, but it’s liberating, just the whole concept of hijab — it’s so much more than just what we wear on our heads.

ZEHRA: People only take it for face value. The meaning of hijab is a lot more; it’s not just a veil, it’s the way you interact with people, it’s the way you carry yourself. And there’s a certain level of hijab for women in Islam, and then there’s a certain level of hijab for men in Islam too. A lot of people don’t know that … there’s much more to the term hijab that people are very ignorant of. And I think that’s where ideas of oppression come from.

Can you elaborate on how the hijab is liberating?

ZEHRA: When I walk out of my house, I know I’m obeying God, and that’s a big thing for me. And I’m pretty sure that’s the case for any other Muslim girl who is wearing the hijab for the right reason; it’s about that feeling of being able to please your Lord. That’s the most liberating part I get out of it.

There are also various benefits to the hijab. Socially, there’s this … respect. When I’m walking down the street, and somebody looks at me, or there’s a man who I don’t want to interact with in a certain way … [they’ll] understand that there’s this level of modesty.

HIND: A big part of the hijab is modesty, and the thing about modesty is it’s a big part of our faith. Modesty has been a concept in Islam, before even the hijab was revealed — modesty for men and women, they have it in their own respects.

It just protects you. It’s also [the way] the opposite gender thinks of you when you dress — and this is nothing new. We know that if you’re more revealed, or your chest is exposed — men are men. I know when my chest, legs and arms are covered and I’m interacting with a man, those thoughts aren’t going to run through his mind, because there’s nothing to think about. And it’s just that freedom that if he’s going to judge me in any way, it’s what’s coming out of my mouth; it has nothing to do with the size of anything on my body. Even interacting with other girls, because you know we do that to each other too.

It’s hard for us to say that the more we dress the more freedom we have, the more liberated we feel, when society is telling us that it’s the more you reveal. Where did we get this concept of revealing means having more freedom? Why are we letting society tell us what is going to make us feel free?

ZEHRA: This concept of telling Muslim women they’re oppressed is something that’s only surfacing now. Until the first wave of feminism, women weren’t allowed to vote. Islam had the recognition of women and their right to be a part of the state, own property and do businesses 1,400 years ago. [Now] they raise their fingers and say this part of Islam isn’t right and women are oppressed in this way. What about the oppression women were facing before the first wave of feminism came?

HIND: It just goes back to society, media, the fashion industry and Hollywood dictating this stuff for us. Once upon a time … the girls who would start revealing ... would be seen as bad. Until that became normal, and now if you do this you’re sexy and sexy has an image.

Can you elaborate more on how modesty isn’t something just for women, but for men as well?

ZEHRA: We have this concept of the veil for women, but we don’t have that for men. For men the concept of modesty has much more to do with personal desires, and women have that too, it’s just that men generally have higher sexual urges. For men, what it comes down to is being respectful.

HIND: And that’s whether they’re interacting with Muslim girls or non-Muslim girls too. They treat them respectfully. There’s no concept of hitting women. Islam is definitely against domestic violence. People don’t know it, but women are held very highly in Islam … the onus is on men to uphold that status.

Have you ever experienced, in Kingston, anything as a result of wearing the hijab — positive or negative?

FATMA: Oftentimes I get comments, not negative comments, but like, “you have a nice hijab,” or “why do you wear that?” And I find it’s a good opportunity to start discussion, and to understand each other. When I used to volunteer at the hospital, a lot of people were intrigued by the way I dressed, and they didn’t understand that it was because I was Muslim. That gave me an opportunity to explain.

HIND: When we wear the hijab we’re representing a set of values. And if anyone knows anything about Islam or anything they’ve heard about in the media, they know that this girl, that’s what she’s doing, she’s being a Muslim, she’s upholding something of Islam. And anything positive or negative [that we do is associated with that]. There are some services on campus that offer religious accommodations. Do you have experience with any of them?

HIND: We’ve been to the women-only workout room in the ARC, and it’s awesome that it’s there. We have the QUMSA, and we have our own prayer room.

There’s support, you don’t feel alone. Even if you don’t see as many hijabis on campus, there are still other Muslim girls who don’t wear the hijab and there are the guys too.

ZEHRA: When I came to Queen’s there were halal options at Lazy Scholar, the ARC and other places. That was a big thing for me, coming to Queen’s, knowing it was predominantly white, and that there weren’t many who would call for halal food.

On a personal note, you make your experience what it is. You’re always going to have people who aren’t going to like something you do, but it’s about going back to what your real intention was … because at the end of the day it’s how comfortable you are with yourself.

Queen’s has been good; there are supportive professors and others who respect you for what you do.

Queen’s is known as a party school. Have you found this fact has affected your social life at all?

ZEHRA: I was in residence first year [when I wasn’t wearing the hijab], and I witnessed the very heavy drinking culture. I just chose not to partake … then the way I socialized … didn’t involve the use of alcohol. It does socially constrict you … but you can still develop a bond outside of drinking. But on the other hand I had QUMSA, and I had people like Fatma and Hind, and lots of other girls — hijabis and non-hijabis.

HIND: The drinking culture can be very invasive, and it starts from first year. It’s mostly what students talk about, and what they use to socialize. And it’s human nature — you’re going to feel left out if that’s what people are talking about and you don’t know what to say, because in Islam we don’t drink. I just kind of got over it; I don’t need to hang out with these people if I don’t want to. I have these lovely girls, and QUMSA, and that’s another great thing, we have social events too, we have fun together too. People are going to talk about things that make me uncomfortable, or that I have nothing to do with, and I’ll let it be. It’s the culture, and it’s very hard to change that culture.

What should the Queen’s community know about the hijab?

HIND: A big part is education — don’t assume things. If you see us, don’t just think we’re oppressed, come up and ask us. Literally … ask me: “are you oppressed?” I will tell you the truth. It’s not like we’re reserved and we’re like, “don’t look at me and don’t ask me about my religion.” We’re very open about it, and if anything we want to educate and tell people about Islam. We may not always have the opportunity, so if you have the opportunity, [ask]. That’s why we have an Islam Awareness Week every year in the JDUC.

And you’re in university, that’s what you’re here to do, if you’re going to learn anything about other people and their religions and cultures, now is the time to do it.

ZEHRA: Don’t infer Islam from just a fringe minority that you see around, or what the media portrays, because there’s such a huge misconception of what Islam is. This comes from popular media … and people just accept [it]. Just because you hear some news happening in Afghanistan, and there’s a bunch of women who are being oppressed, that’s not necessarily the case with all Muslim women in the world. There’s fringe minorities, everybody has extremes, it’s present in every culture and every religion. It’s just about educating yourself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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