Every few months, a never-Muslim western woman will don a hijab for a day, ostensibly to see what life is like for Muslim hijab-wearing women, and often to turn this into a blog post or paid article. Meanwhile, every single day, Muslim and ex-Muslim women are writing and speaking about life as a hijabi, and what the hijab means to them. Guess which gets more attention?
We tend to listen to privileged people over the disadvantaged in most facets of life. In America, Muslim women don’t have religious or gender privilege, so we are really unlikely to listen to them. But we should, not just because that would be fair, but because they are the ones who actually know what it’s like to be a Muslim woman. Wearing a hijab for a day and then taking it off again doesn’t give one that experience or depth of knowledge.
If putting on a head scarf holds no meaning for you, if it’s not important to your faith or your family or your community, then it’s just dress-up. It won’t tell you what it’s like to value your hijab or to hate it and be coerced to wear it anyway.
I can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I cannot know the internal, spiritual experience of a Muslim woman by covering my hair. I can’t know the quiet dedication of a nun’s monastic life by throwing on a whimple. I can’t know what it is to be a business man by putting on a suit and tie.
Lives are full and complex and messy. And they are never just clothes or just outsider reactions to clothes. I was a devout Christian drug-using slut all at once for a part of my life. No outfit can give someone else that experience or what it felt like – the intoxicating mixture of self-hatred and self-medication, the pain and shame of confessing my sins to the god I believed in and believed I had let down.
Clothes are an expression – of individual preference, of group affiliation, of religious devotion. But putting on the clothes does not give us insight. It does not make us wise. It does not let us know what it is to live as another person, a different person. Muslim and ex-Muslim women have special knowledge about hijab that never-Muslim women playing dress-up lack. They know what it is to pray five times a day, or to skip prayer and feel guilt over it, or to pray resentfully while wishing they were somewhere else. They know what it is to wake up as a Muslim woman, go to bed as a Muslim woman, and wake up as a Muslim woman again. This is no short-term, poorly controlled “experiment”. These are lives, full of complication and mess and wisdom. These are the women we should be listening to.