Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fear and Loathing of Muslim Garb

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.


Maury said...

The Muslim garb I'm talking about, and I assume Juan Williams was too, is the head to toe thing. I associate those with extremists, rightly or wrongly. And if she's with some guy in a dishdasha and scraggly beard, my nervousness isn't helped one bit. People that wear their "Muslimness" on their sleeve are making a statement. I think their dress is intended to make me nervous. And it works.

Dolly said...

Well this is islamophobia, which is that you have a visceral negative reaction to any symbols perceived to be connected to islam. Like a Camel for instance, or a member of the Arabic race.

As I explained earlier, in the beginning Americans tolerated Bush's statements that islam wasn't all bad. They tolerated it because they expected results in terms of body counts.
But once fortunes began to reverse, that led them to now say: "Stop the politically correct nonsense!"

Anonymous said...

I don't think that feeling nervous about the "muslim garb" is islamophobic (whatever that means).

My kid had a very bad flu a few years back, and I took him to the ER. In the waiting room there was a couple in the most "muslim" of the "muslim garbs" - he wore the long robe (dishdasha?) and she wore the full head-to-toe covering, with only her eyes visible. My son, who was maybe 10 years old then, was so scared of them - mostly of her - that he couldn't hide his feelings. I'm sure they felt as offended as my som was scared, but I couldn't do anything about it. I must say that my first reaction too was fear, followed by pity for the woman.

My son didn't know then that those people were muslims. He didn't even know they were arabs. He just reacted to the image he saw - an image that doesn't match anything our brains tell us about how a human being should look like.

The fear of the "muslim garb" is, as Maury said, a fear of extremism. Unlike Maury, I don't think that they do it on purpose, just to make us nervous. Nevertheless, it makes us nervous, and that's good and normal, because extremism is dangerous not only for our bodies, but for our minds as well.

I realize that what I wrote above is a sweeping generalization and not all the people wearing traditional arab/muslim garb are extremists, most of them are probably just following customs. My point is that we see them all as extremists because that's the "healthy" way to deal with it - you can't tell who's the extremist and who's not, and if I have to choose between being seen as racist or 'islamophobe", or beeing blown up with a clean and politically correct conscience, I will always choose the former.

I can't login with my Google account, I don't know why. I hate being anonymous.


Lynnette In Minnesota said...

Thus there is no logic in trying to associate “Muslim garb” with terrorism.

I agree. The way someone dresses does not denote what their actions will or will not be. The same goes for those people way back when who weren't allowed to fly because of their loud praying. Does anyone really believe that a true terrorist would want to call that much attention to himself/herself?

Your story of dressing up in "Muslim garb" for Halloween reminded me of an incident that happened a month or so ago. I was shopping at my grocery store when I looked over to see a woman dressed in a black abaya with only her eyes showing, such as you would see in KSA. I did a classic double take. It was just so out of place there. I felt a little bad, because my first reaction was actually a little amusement, as I thought it would have made a wonderful Halloween costume. My second reaction was to try not to be rude by staring. I can just about gaurantee that she will get that at some point in time.

Maury said...

"Well this is islamophobia, which is that you have a visceral negative reaction to any symbols perceived to be connected to islam."

I'm sure there's a cure for it Dolly. We should put 500 million westerners on a couch and have them talk those silly fears out of their system. Or maybe invent a shiny blue pill that will cure all our phobias.

I've got a better idea though. How about if some of those people associated with Islam stopped blowing innocent people to little bits? That would go a long way towards curing my phobia.