By Tom Krattenmaker
If something is threatening enough to ban from our public schools in Oregon, it’s probably worth understanding. Yet of all the lessons from this summer’s commotion about the new religious-freedom-in-the-workplace law — and the Mack Truck-sized exception that prevents public schoolteachers from wearing religious garb — none stands out as much as this: We have a lot to learn about the purpose and meaning of the head covering worn by many Muslim women, the hijab.
It’s important to note that the public school prohibition against the hijab and other religious dress is not new; such a ban has been on the books since the 1920s. But the new law comes as a fresh reminder of the flashpoint qualities of the Muslim head scarf and the larger issues it evokes in a time of post-9/11 anxiety about and within the Muslim community.
The meanings that people ascribe to the hijab vary as much as the multitudinous styles and colors in which the garment comes. Is the hijab a laudable expression of Quranic humbleness and piety? A symbol of male-enforced female inferiority? An icon of Muslim conservatism and aggression? A guard against the sexual objectification of women’s bodies?
“You can sometimes feel like you’re in a zoo, locked in the cage of other people’s stereotypes, prejudices and judgments.” That’s how one Muslim woman, Randa Abdel-Fattah, describes the experience of wearing the hijab in a Western country. Abdel-Fattah, an Australian of Middle Eastern descent and the author of three young-adult novels exploring Muslim identity issues, told CNN that wearing the hijab is like being “on parade to be analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed.”
Maybe such scrutiny is inevitable. Let’s just hope that it can be done with a measure of respect, open-mindedness and correct information.
You’ve probably seen women wearing the hijab in public settings in and around Portland, the home of a sizable Muslim population. One of those wearers is Fatima Albar, a Portland State University graduate student who comes from Saudi Arabia.
For Albar, who is completing her Ph.D. in engineering, the hijab is only part of the clothing ensemble that expresses her commitment to the modesty mandated by the Quran. She wears loose-fitting tunics and covers her arms and legs. Albar says people often assume, incorrectly, that her family forces her to wear the hijab.
“I’ve heard the comment, ‘You’re in the U.S now. You don’t need to wear it,’” Albar says. “I tell them it’s my choice. It’s not about the culture where I live. It’s my religion. I will wear the hijab wherever I go.”
Albar is no apologist for the mistreatment of women in some parts of the Middle East, which she attributes to cultural factors, not Islam. While critics see the hijab as an expression of a misogynist current that plagues parts of the Islamic world, Albar says modest dress actually empowers women.
“For me, the idea of the hijab is that it causes people to look at a woman in a different way,” Albar says, “to look at her as more than a body — as someone with a mind, heart and soul.” In professional and academic settings, she adds, the modest dress forces “people to focus less on women’s [physical] attractiveness” and more on the business at hand.
“The hijab,” Albar sums up, “doesn’t stop us from doing what we want to do.”
Few make that point as emphatically as basketball sensation Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir. The Massachusetts girl defied seemingly every stereotype in the book while wearing an athletic version of Muslim dress on the court en route to smashing that state’s high school basketball scoring record. Abdul-Qaadir, who will begin playing this year at the University of Memphis, competes in a tight-fitting head covering and Under Armour arm and leg coverings beneath her basketball uniform.
Some devout Muslim women in the United States do not feel compelled to cover their heads. (The Quran requires modest appearance in public — for men and women alike — but does not specify what form that will take.) One such person is Laila Al-Marayati, a medical school professor at the University of Southern California and spokeswoman for the Muslim Women’s League.
Al-Marayati used to wear the scarf before deciding she no longer wanted the scrutiny it attracted. Yet she is quick to defend Muslim women who do wear the hijab. “It’s important to understand that the hijab is just one aspect of Muslim identity,” she says. “People tend to focus disproportionately on the head covering, forgetting all the other aspects of Islam that many Muslim women feel is liberating. … I would urge people to look beneath the surface and find out more about Muslim women in their community.”
One of the hijab’s fiercest critics is journalist and activist Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who has been challenging what she considers sexist practices at her mosque in West Virginia. To Nomani, the hijab does not represent Muslim piety so much as a certain form of Islamic ideology.
“The talking point of the hijab police is that it desexualizes women,” Nomani says. “I believe that with the hijab we actually hypersexualize women.” The solution to the problem of men viewing women as sex objects is not to conceal the female form, she says. It’s for men to change their views and behavior.
That said, Nomani says it’s a bad idea to legislatively stigmatize the hijab, as Oregon law appears to do. That, she says, only elevates the culture-war status of the hijab and stiffens the resolve of its defenders. “I don’t think we’re going to win this war over the interpretation of the Islamic faith,” she says, “by isolating people who hold to a more traditional view.”
So what purpose is supposed to be served by the 85-year-old law that effectively keeps hijab-wearing Muslims from teaching in public schools?
In a statement this summer, the Oregon Department of Education argued that public schools are obligated to maintain religious neutrality: “The underlying policy reflects the unique position that teachers occupy,” spokesman Jake Weigler told The Oregonian. “In this case, the concern that a public schoolteacher would be imparting religious values to their students outweighs that teacher’s right to free expression.”
How convenient for those of the dominant Christian traditions that their religion does not oblige them to wear conspicuous religious clothing items (not in 2009, anyway).
Yes, the hijab and turban do stand out, but that does not automatically place them on the wrong side of the line that separates legitimate religious expression from the unconstitutional promotion of religion. It’s probably more than mere coincidence that the legal remedy falls hardest on religious minorities — a point that becomes especially poignant when you consider the genesis of Oregon’s prohibition against public schoolteachers’ religious garb.
Catholic nuns and their habits were the target in the 1920s when Oregon originally adopted the measure at the urging of the notoriously anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan. As anti-Catholic bigotry played a role back then, might anti-Muslim sentiment be part of what’s sustained the ban through to the new century?
The good news is that the architects of the new religious-freedom law in Oregon say they’re committed to addressing the public school exception next. If they’re serious and successful, the prohibition against the hijab will recede into history.
Let’s hope that the lessons learned do not likewise fade. For if American history is a guide, the day will come when Muslims are as ordinary in American life as Catholics are today. They might eventually stop wearing the hijab, or they might not, but one thing seems certain: There will always be a next new religion and culture at our gates. It will be ours to fear and to stigmatize. Or, far better, to get to know.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland writer specializing in religion in public life. His book “Onward Christian Athletes” on Christianity in professional sports will be published in October. Reach him at http://tomkrattenmaker.com