Ever since I heard Juan Williams say that he gets nervous and fearful when he sees somebody wearing Muslim garb on a plane I’ve thought about the term “Muslim garb” and the two times I dressed in “Muslim garb” for Halloween. We escaped the hell hole that Iraq was in 1982 and ended up back in Colorado in October of that year, just in time for Halloween. I was 13 and I decided to dress as an oil sheikh because our generous American friends with whom we stayed during those first few joyful weeks owned an oil company, and I thought it would be funny and convenient. My parents had no money to waste on costumes. I had a dishdasha and I borrowed my dad’s 3gal and shemagh. My mom drew a goatee on my face. It was simple and it worked well.
A few Halloweens later in high school I wore a similar outfit, but on my head I wore a checkered kafiya with 3gal and I wore the dishdasha I received as a gift the previous year. Two other students also wore kafiyas that day, but their outfits looked more menacing – one guy carried a toy machine gun. The school paper’s photographer took a picture of the three of us in “Muslim garb” and the photo ended up in an article showing some of the creative costumes worn that day. I thought it was funny back then, but I realized later that maybe the photo helped perpetuate a portrayal of Muslims (or Arabs) as terrorists. Maybe this is the image that is etched into the minds of many Americans when they hear “Muslim garb”. During the 1980s, American mainstream media (ABC, CBS, and NBC at the time) broadcast on a weekly basis many images of Arab militants wearing checkered kafiyas. But a kafiya is not as much Muslim garb as it is Arab garb.
I could go on about stereotyping Arabs and Muslims in American TV and media, but Jack Shaheen, an Arab American professor of communications I learned about in college and invited to speak at our campus, has already done a very good job in covering that side of the story. It's good to see the Arab kafiya becoming more popular among westerners, as this will no doubt help combat the stereotype. Christian white folk wear "Muslim garb" too, it turns out:) I've seen it since I was a student in Boulder and the kafiyas have become quite colorful. I bought one like this two years ago, but I still haven't worn it on a plane.
Now what is "Muslim" garb? One could write a whole blog post about the different types of “Muslim garb” worn all over the planet. Abbas Hawazin once posted on the different types of hijab worn by Muslim women. That was a good post showing the varieties of hijab.
I would venture to say that approximately half of Muslim women in the world do not wear any form of hijab and they wear western style garb most of the time. Worldly women no doubt pack and wear a combination of outfits, depending on the countries they travel to and from. In many Muslim countries, like US ally KSA, hijab is mandatory, but some Saudi women wear completely different clothes when they travel abroad.
Most Muslim men I know wear pants and shirts, but they live in western countries. Even in Iraq, many (maybe most) men also wear pants. The dishdasha has become old school among Arabs and Muslims. Nevertheless many Muslims still proudly wear their old school “Muslim” garb and they don’t think about the nervousness their garb may cause on planes.
In Iraq alone the variety of garb is wide ranging. When you consider the number of Muslims in the entire world and think about the different types of garb they wear, you begin to understand that “Muslim garb” is not easily defined. One out of every five humans is Muslim. Go to Indonesia, home to 200 million Muslims, and you will see an incredible variety of clothing, ranging from sarongs to silk scarves as hijab to jeans and t-shirts.
Nothing about “Muslim garb” should scare me or you, unless the Muslim’s face is wrapped with a kafiya and he’s aiming a gun at you. But it is unlikely you or I will ever see that, especially on a plane!
On the other hand, there is something about the sight of a woman covered from head to toe and face veiled that is embarrassing to a westernized Muslim. It is strange to see in the summer in LA, or in a restaurant in a western country. I feel sorry for those women if they are forced to wear such outfits, but if Muslim women and girls living in western countries choose to wear the veil and ibaya/niqab/burka in western countries I do wonder WHY? Many Muslim women are forced to wear hijab but it seems the majority of Muslim women do it because they believe it pleases God.
Last summer in the UK I met an Iraqi woman who told me that wearing hijab brings her closer to God. How? The Qur’an instructs Muslims to dress modestly. It doesn’t say cover your hair and it definitely doesn’t say cover your entire body from head to toe. Over the years my mother has introduced me to many Iraqi women in the UK and US, hoping I would marry one of them. A few of these women wore their own versions of hijab (usually a head scarf) when I met them. The hijab alone disqualifies them. I don’t mind meeting them. Many women who wear hijab are beautiful and interesting. I simply do not want to marry a muhajaba (a woman who wears hijab). My mother thinks that I can convince a woman to stop wearing hijab after marriage. Even if this is true, I’m not sure I can date a muhajaba long enough to become engaged. So these days I ask the muhajaba on the first date: are you willing to stop wearing hijab? Usually the answer is no, and I respect that.
The Qur’an says there should be no compulsion in religion, but that’s not how it is in Iran and much of the Persian Gulf. Iran has their religious police. KSA has their Mutaween. There is no reason to fear "Muslim" garb, but I think there is good reason to loathe people who force others to wear "Muslim" garb.
Back to Muslims on a plane. Let’s say you’re flying LA to NYC to London. Most likely there will be many Muslims on those planes. Some of those Muslims will be wearing western clothes because that’s what they always wear and some of them wear western clothes just to blend in while they travel. Some Muslim women will wear hijab. A few passengers may be turbaned Sikhs, and they aren’t even Muslim. None of them should cause fear.
“Muslim garb”, whether it’s secular or Salafi or in between, has nothing to do with terrorism. A terrorist wearing a shirt and jacket can conceal an explosives belt just as easily as a dishdasha-donning terrorist. But neither can get past good security. Thus there is no logic in trying to associate “Muslim garb” with terrorism.