Asking for a Friend: Can a Non-Muslim Woman Wear a Hijab for Fashion?

Asking for a Friend: Can a Non-Muslim Woman Wear a Hijab for Fashion?

Asking for a Friend: Can a Non-Muslim Woman Wear a Hijab for Fashion?

Plus: Dealing with allies that are bullies.


Dear Liza, 

I’m a US woman of Scandinavian heritage who finds hijabs beautiful and sexy. I love how they cover the entire head and neck and drape down the front. When I was younger, I often wore head scarves, and now I often wear hats. Head coverings save me from having to fuss with my hair, and I love how they make me feel more removed from the gaze and judgment of strangers. It’s as if head coverings are a privacy screen. 

So my question: Is it appropriate for a non-Muslim to wear hijab? I fear it might be offensive to Muslims. Also, would wearing hijab appear to be a political statement? I don’t necessarily want to make a political statement with my clothing. I just want to cover my head! —Seeking Cover

Dear Seeking,

Cultural appropriation is a hot topic these days. Think pieces on sites like Everyday Feminism fretting about the relative offensiveness of Westerners practicing the sun salutation or eating pad thai fuel conservative stereotypes about silly liberal political correctness. But unless the appropriation is deliberately racist or pointless—as when white college students dress up in a feathered headdress—most people aren’t inclined to get angry about what others are wearing, eating, or yogically greeting.

Since Muslims are a minority in the United States, some might be a little disappointed to discover that despite your hijab, you aren’t a fellow Muslim. That might be awkward, as it is when a gay man finds that a new acquaintance is straight despite his cutting-edge shoes and flawless grooming habits.

But since non-Muslim women are expected to cover when visiting religiously strict Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, there’s clearly no prohibition on nonbelievers donning the veil. And head coverings of various kinds have long been enjoyed by women all over the world. The Virgin Mary appears in nearly all paintings to be wearing hijab, as Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, laughingly pointed out to me in an interview. If you choose to wear hijab, he said, speaking as a religious Muslim, “there’s no offense on our end.”

But there are people who will likely react with hostility: white nationalists and Islamophobes. In November, a non-­Muslim California woman—who covered her head with a scarf after losing her hair because of lupus—found her car window broken and a note reading: “Hijab wearing bitch this is our nation get out.”

So if you choose to go ahead and wear hijab despite such risks, this climate of religious bigotry still affects the context of your question. You say you don’t want to make a political statement, Seeking, but why not? Some non-Muslim women and girls—­including some evangelical Christians—have been wearing it in solidarity with a group under attack. February 1 is World Hijab Day, when women who don’t normally wear hijab are invited to try it out. Excellent timing for the launch of your new look.

Dear Liza,

A woman I know uses politics as a form of bullying. She’ll find someone she hates and single them out, critiquing every mistake they make, and other people pile on. Her behavior is ruining friendships and has thrown at least one political organization into disarray. I’ve spoken to a few friends about her; it seems that many of us see her as a problem, but none of us have the courage to stand up to her. What can we do to stop her? She’s a person of public prominence.

—Walking on Eggshells

Dear Walking,

Sadly, political bullying is a huge problem in our movements right now. People on the left feel paralyzed and scared because right-wing parties are coming to power in so many countries, and progressives are blaming their political impotence on one another. Sectarian groups and personalities seem to thrive when the left is in disarray. In the 1960s, the FBI paid people to act like this in order to sow discord on the left. This strategy was pretty successful because, then as now, we respond predictably to certain provocations. In addition, social media rewards this behavior. Its neoliberal incentives favor those who come up with the most attention-getting insults; the users who are most popular—especially on Twitter—are those most adept at taking other people down. For some people, this cretinous conduct becomes a kind of political work in itself. All of these developments erode solidarity, nourish the type of asshole who has always caused problems on the left, and strengthen our enemies, from the hedge funders to Donald Trump.

Political bullies feel everyone is wrong except them, and they’re temperamentally disposed to thrive on pointless infighting. Left political bullies use a variety of hot-button emotional issues, all genuinely important—Syria, racism, sexism, the recent US election—to foment division and denounce others for not having exactly the right position. Socially and politically, such people are a scourge.

Continue to speak about your bully with trusted mutual friends and comrades, but always privately (either on the phone or in person; say nothing that could be screen-shot or forwarded). This person would relish a public battle, and you must not give her this satisfaction. The more people who know that they are not alone in feeling victimized by this person, the less powerful she will be. Even when they’re public figures, political bullies often become less influential as more people come to see them as the human toxins they are. If this bully dominates a political organization that’s important to you, try confronting her in person, with other concerned comrades, and ask her to change her behavior or leave the group. But keep in mind that this intervention may not work, as many political bullies are either sociopaths or hardened careerists (or paid government agents, though you’ll sound loopy and paranoid if you suggest this), and thus derive either psychological or professional benefits from their behavior.

If she doesn’t change her ways and remains a dominant force in the group, you’ll have to shun her. Consider abandoning your shared political project for another one; there is so much fruitful thinking and organizing going on. Stop engaging her, publicly or privately. (As kids, we hated when adults told us to ignore bullies; why not punch them in the nose? But punching is even less advisable for adults than for kids, for obvious reasons.) Bullies thrive on getting a reaction, especially a negative one. Block her on all social media, and if you’re still in any political groups together, do your best to ignore her baiting, even in public. We simply don’t have time for such people.

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