What's common between the following Halloween costumes? A guy who painted his neck red, pretending to be a redneck, his friend wearing a white T-shirt which has "wife beater" written on it, and his friend dressed like a Hasidic Jew keeping a tight grip (literally) over a pack of fake dollar bills.
All three of them represent ethnic or religious stereotyping.
Keeping that in mind, what should you say to someone using hijab, a Muslim woman's head cover, while going to "trick or treat" or a Halloween party? Bad idea.
For starters, hijab, a religious symbol of modesty for more than a billion Muslims, has already faced constitutional tricks. House bills in Oklahoma and Minnesota have attempted to pass legislation that would prohibit women from wearing a hijab for driver's license photos. And Oregon attempted to ban religious dress, including a hijab, for public school teachers.
Our cultural treatment to hijab is more vitriolic though. Here is an example: One of my close family members who wears an outer garment and a hijab was unloading groceries from her car when two kids from the neighborhood screamed "witch, witch, witch" while looking into her eye. Not just once. They repeated it during all three trips that it took for her to move all the groceries. She felt deeply hurt -- not by the kids, but by their mothers who were present but simply laughed at the incidence.
Don't think that a Muslim American women's chagrin is limited to Halloween. Ignorance about hijab is a year-around phenomenon in some segments of our society. How do I know that? I simply asked my female family members. And before I could blink, they shared not only their painful experiences but also the five commonly asked questions that they face about their hijab (including the answers they give). So here we go:
1. Aren't you hot in this dress?
Well yes, on hot days it's not easy to wear yet another layer of clothing. But then we are reminded of a famous saying, "Faith makes things possible ... not easy." Wearing a hijab is a part of my faith.
2. But isn't Muslim head cover a cultural practice?
A Muslim head cover is a religious commandment, not a cultural practice. The Quran exhorts believing women to "restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms" (24:32).
3. Do you sleep in it? Do you take a shower in it?
Hijab is a protective gear, just like a biking helmet. We wear helmets while riding bikes, not when we are sleeping or bathing. Similarly a hijab is worn primarily when a Muslim women is out of her house.
4. Will your five year old daughter also wear it when she grows up?
She will make her own choice.
5. You don't have to wear this symbol of oppression now that you are in America.
I wear it by my choice, not because someone coerced me into it. My hijab is a symbol of my faith commitment and I should proudly wear it precisely because I am in America -- the beacon of religious freedom.
This is not about celebrating or not celebrating Halloween, this is not about allowing or banning the cultural burqas forced upon women in the developing world, and this is most certainly not about condoning or condemning the remarks of two innocent children.
This is about the ignorance (at best) or bigotry (at worst) of adults toward a Muslim women's right to choose her dress, a phenomenon the President acknowledged when, in his 2009 Cairo address, he asked, "to avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear."
But for every ignorant or bigoted citizen, we find many who are aware and compassionate of the diversity in our nation. Just last week, as my wife was waiting in a pediatrician's office, another young boy looked at her dress and said, "Mommy, isn't that a cool Halloween costume!"
"That's a religious dress son, not a costume," his mother rebuked while exchanging a smile with my wife. Now, that was truly American.
So here is my request: if you see a woman dressed in a head cover and an outer garment, please, tell your children that she is not a witch and that hijab is not a Halloween costume.
Hijab has already won the constitutional tricks in Oklahoma, Minnesota and Oregon. Will cultural America reward it with the treat of acceptance now?
Faheem Younus is an adjunct faculty member for religion and history at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County and a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He can be reached at Faheem.Younus@Ahmadiyya.us