When you meet women who wear a headscarf and ask them to share their experiences, the similarities among them are striking. Regardless of their varied ages and cultural backgrounds, they have been subjected to the same abrupt questions and patronizing behaviour from others that is arguably an alien experience to the rest of society. Perhaps there is an etiquette guide circulating about, explaining to people exactly how this special individual- the Muslim woman they meet in their community, their workplace and at school ought to be treated. Such a guide must look something like this:
Speak loudly (that cloth must muffle her hearing after all) and make sure to enunciate your words as clearly as possible. Move your face close to hers if necessary. The poor thing likely doesn’t know very much English, and it is your duty to make sure she is at ease in what is surely a foreign country for her. Most importantly, do not simply smile, say hello and treat her with the same dignity as anyone else you encounter. You want to impress upon her your difference, not your similarity.
Don’t be shy. Do ask if she wears ‘that thing’ in the shower, whether she has hair ‘under there’, and whether her family believes in higher education. In fact, feel free to approach all Muslim women you happen to stumble upon: whether that happens at the water cooler, during a random elevator encounter, or when they are sitting beside you on the bus. You have the authority and right to demand answers to whatever questions you please.
Determine what her nationality is. Do not be deterred when she mentions Canadian, because Canada is not really her home, and she ought not to evade your questions. If she says she was born here, go back as far as you need to in order to discover where she actually belongs. Ask when she moved, why her parents moved, and how often she visits ‘back home’.
Make sure you ask whether she was forced to wear the scarf. Don’t believe her if she says no, and make sure to tell her not to fear her older brother or the men in her family. If she mentions wearing the hijab is her own choice, do make sure you tell her she is still oppressed, even if she isn’t aware of it just yet. Offer to keep in touch if she ever needs support.