Louisa had an unusual resolution for the New Year. She had been thinking carefully and planning for several months before donning a headscarf. No, she does not identify as Muslim: she is part of a growing movement of women who are wearing headscarves as a visible sign of their commitments to religious pluralism. A high school senior and self-described "non-Muslim ally for Muslims," Louisa is dedicated to helping normalize the presence of hijab-wearing women in her rural, rather homogenous, New Hampshire hometown.
When a classmate of Arab descent accused Louisa of cultural appropriation, Louisa cited her own Jewish ancestry and reminded her classmate that Jews have been practicing head-covering for millennia. When asked why she decide to wear the headscarf, Louisa's reply gets straight to her point: "Because I want to." Her response captures both her strength of conviction and her desire to challenge abiding stereotypes.
Like Louisa's classmate, some people charge that non-Muslims donning headscarves in solidarity amounts to cultural appropriation and is potentially offensive or somehow a setback to feminism, but I do not give these objections much credence.
I was also reminded that Muslims have never had a monopoly on head covering when I recently traveled with a group of scholars and diplomats to Vienna. While there, we visited the majestic St. Stephen's Cathedral in the heart of the city to observe a Sunday Mass.
Somewhere between the opening benedictions and the Liturgy of the Word I was feeling a bit uneasy about how I was being received in my headscarf by the throngs of Viennese church goers. I leaned over to a colleague, who happened to be an art curator, and whispered as much to her. She smiled warmly and gestured toward a fresco of the blessed Virgin at the front of the cathedral, whispering back, "don't worry, you're not the only woman in a headscarf in this place."
That moment confirmed for me in an abiding way what I had known conceptually through my years of studying the ancient Near East; for millennia head coverings have designated dignity and societal respect.
Perhaps it was my exposure to images and praises of the blessed Virgin in the Catholic school of my youth, or perhaps it is my appreciation of never having to concern myself with salon-styled hair, or perhaps it has something to do with my general love of colorful accessories combined with my proclivity for comfortable hoodies on my days off; whatever accounts for my predilection, I am grateful to reside in a place where wearing headscarves can be a heartfelt devotional act. But, as I have come to see over the years, the headscarf also has its practical and sometimes serendipitous benefits.
For instance, I met Fatima, now one of my dearest friends and another Anglo-American convert to Islam, when we happened to be entering the same hardware store on mundane errands. We exchanged the traditional Muslim greeting of peace and then struck up a conversation. Our scarves, and subsequent greetings of peace, helped us to recognize one another as having similar values.
As our daughters now grow up together, they are proud and comfortable in their long skirts and loose-fitting, full-length swimsuits, their "burkinis." Maybe our daughters will even think a little less about their body image on account of having this alternative style and will feel slightly less pressured to conform to some of the dominant norms related to female sexuality and beauty.
Do you cringe at the ways in which women's sexuality is leveraged to churn corporate profits? Are you curious what it is like to wear a headscarf in public? Do you want to hit the gym on your lunch break and still look presentable for your high profile meeting with new clients at 2:00? Cold February day and can't find your earmuffs?
Here is a once-a-year solution for you: International Hijab Solidarity Day is the first day of February. It is also the first day of World Interfaith Harmony Week. Give solidarity headscarves a try, but consider yourself warned: you might just like it.