Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide

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:

Simple Sentences

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.

Intense Interrogation

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.

Astonishing Assumptions

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’.

Attempt Assistance

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.

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at

50 Responses to “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide”

  1. Sandeep

    I quote.
    “You have the authority and right to demand answers to whatever questions you please.”

    All through the article, the writer insinuates that the privacy of women wearing the Hijab is constantly intruded upon.

    This is not true.

    On the contrary non-muslims in all non-Islamic countries go out of their way to keep from offending the oh-so-sensitive sensibilities of Muslims.

    In fact we are sick of bending over backwards to accommodate the typical Muslim hypersensitivity.

    And yet it seems we are not doing enough, as is implied by the article.

  2. Aditya Mehta

    Copy pasted an incorrect website address by mistake while posting earlier. Here’s this correct one.

  3. Tasmiya

    Oooooh I can see *someone’s* sensibilities have been offended and it certainly wasn’t the author of the article!

    Shagufta, you forgot to mention
    Ask her over and over if she is hot “in that thing”

  4. Matt Corker

    Sarcastic commentary seems to be a strength of yours Shagufta. Quite witty, yet enlightening.

  5. Sandeep

    @Tasmiya: Ask her over and over if she is hot “in that thing”

    Of course, even if she *is* hot “in that thing” she will dare not remove it, for fear of being flogged in the public square by the moral police. 😉

    It’s amusing how many muslim women make a virtue out of the necessity of Islam’s anti-women customs. Rather than collect the courage to fight for their rights, many muslim women (some of them on this forum) will defend these male chauvnistic customs as, in fact, being good for women. Pathetic!

    In Arab countries, men wear white because WHITE reflects heat and keeps the wearer cool. But women living in that EXACT SAME location have to wear black. You know why? Because white allows a bit of transparency, and black is opaque*. It does not matter if the black sucks in the heat and makes her feel uncomfortably hot inside. No problem. As long as the male Muslim ego is protected, anything goes.

    *This was explained by a muslim woman in a Nat-Geo documentary about the Kandoora (the traditional white robe of the Arabic male). The American correspondent asked her, “But doesn’t the black make women feel uncomfortably hot inside?” and her response was a shrug of the shoulders and a sheepish “what to do!”

  6. Shagufta Pasta

    Thanks for all the responses dear readers! A couple of notes:
    I’m always sad when I have to say this about my comedy, but this is um, a humour piece. So I’m not going to get into a ‘how dare muslims make jokes, don’t they realise how lucky they are to be tolerated in the first world’ type conversation-that specific conversation isn’t fruitful, and in general debating broad categorical statements doesn’t tend to work well over the comments section.

    b) Yes, the ‘aren’t you hot in that thing” question is a particular favourite of mine.

    c) if a comment isn’t respectful, i delete it. Friendliness, smiles, productive comments are always welcomed.

  7. Nick Zarzycki

    Wow Shagufta, either you’ve been really unlucky and happened upon a lot of idiots, or my conceptions about tolerance and common sense in Canadian society are horribly skewed.

    For the sake of debate/spicing things up (and because I’m a bit of an atheist [and am therefore prone to asking this particular kind of question]), I’d like to ask you this (I think it also addresses your last point a bit):

    If you had had a secular upbringing (which I’m assuming you haven’t had [I’m doing this rather blatantly, so please correct me if I’m wrong]) and had only been introduced to Islam/religion in general as and adult (say, at age 18), would you have had the same opinions about hijab and headscarves as you do now?

  8. Shagufta Pasta

    @sandeep: i didn’t know we had moral police @ UBC. Whew! I’ve managed to escape them thus far…

    re colours of clothing I’ve been to saudi arabia twice (an arab country) and women wear all sorts of colours, blue, purple, orange, etc. In general though, it’s not great practice to take the experience/comments of one individual, extrapolate that to apply to all muslim women worldwide, particularly when there are millions of women worldwide who find the hijab an important, identity shaping, positive experience.

    Unless you’re just trying to show what part 5 of the Etiquette Guide (Attempt Assistance) looks like? That would be ingenious.

  9. Shagufta Pasta

    Nick-Oh I wish that my experiences weren’t the norm! Unfortunately so many people experience a lot of ahem, interesting moments in their everyday lives, that relate to what i’ve mentioned here. You can expect some related posts in the upcoming period on dialogue and productively exploring one’s interest in islam.

    re your question about how i would feel if i was outside the faith, I think (and hope) I would a) respect the agency of Muslims to be sane, capable of thought, adults and not make that oppression assumption.

    b) be able to question my own assumptions, the media images I get, would seek reliable information if I was confused, and be able to set aside my feelings and listen to varied muslim points of view in case there is something that I’m missing in my own set of beliefs about the scarf.

    For me it’s not so much about believing, not believing, it’s about being a critical thinker. my best friends (many of whom are not muslim/atheist, many whom became Muslim in university) get that when we’re having coffee and someone comes up to us because they want to give me support phone numbers, that’s not a normal response to covering. I hope I would fall into the same camp even if I was introduced to Islam at an older age.

  10. Nick Zarzycki

    I suppose there’s this weird kind of symmetry when we talk about a(n assumed) lack of critical thought, because, when you think about it, the people approaching headscarved women with support numbers must, in many cases, believe that the people they are approaching are themselves guilty of a lack of critical thought (aka: ‘maybe she hasn’t thought it out on her own’). I have absolutely no idea about how and to what extent Muslim females approach/ponder over hijab (spiritually, philosophically, etc.) in modern society (I’d love to learn more), but the idea that absolutely every person who wears a headscarf has fully and perfectly thought the concept through might not be the easiest argument to defend either. (People [like Sandeep] who bring ‘oppression’ into the debate have already lost the point – I’m talking about the more nuanced forms of cultural, societal and communal influence that, when one thinks about it critically, apply to all aspects of religion). Indeed, I’m an atheist, and therefore inherently and by definition believe that people who are religious must, in some fundamental way, have not thought things through as well as they should have.

    Regardless, your piece brings up very interesting (and I guess, in my case, cultural-consciousness-raising) points. Looking forward to your posts on Islam!

  11. MaliZOMG

    I came upon this article through a twitter feed and suffice to say it made me smile. Nice to see a little bit of sarcasm and with.


    Just a quick question buddy, do you know anything about Islam, beyond Nat-Geo, or do you just assume stuff based on what you hear? Just curious!



  12. Vishal Salian

    Funny stuff…but I think I was more intrigued by the coments!

    I apologize if I’m being forward but I’m interesting in finding out what your personal arguments for continuing to wear the headscarf were (I presume that you do were one).

  13. Idris Baxamusa

    nice sarcasm….
    but as vishal points out, i too was intrigued (if not more) by the comments.

  14. cb3n


    I’m curious, do you feel that western women who voluntarily engage in cultural practices that are in certain contexts used as tools to support patriarchy are also lack “the courage to fight for their rights” as you say? Or is it only Muslim women who go through their lives without agency? More the the point, many western women choose to wear a brassiere, while some western feminists have championed the position that such undergarments aren’t necessary are were developed to shape the female body to male standards of beauty. If a western woman doesn’t burn her bra is she, in ignorance, “defending male chauvinistic customs as, in fact, being good for women”? Or again, is it only Muslim women who are ignorant of the fact that they are being oppressed and need you to tell them? What about Christian women who choose marriage or white women who decide to care for their children instead of working?

    It seems to me that your line of reasoning suggests that no women anywhere should have the ability to choose to participate in cultural practices that you feel are chauvinistic. Is that a correct assumption or do you just mean brown women? I honestly want to know

  15. victor ross

    “I’m an atheist, and therefore inherently and by definition believe that people who are religious must, in some fundamental way, have not thought things through as well as they should have.”

    Gotta agree with you on that one Nick.

  16. aanteladda

    Great Post, really funny!

    I do hope that the commentators realise that such comments and questions are asked of all minorities. On good days, I like to think that they are being asked because the questioners are keen to know more, and are curious or intrigued(!) and are using these simple questions to lay the ground for more knowledge of our cultures or colours. On bad days, I just find them intrusive and offensive.

  17. Olivia

    Looks like you need to add a new one: “If she expresses impatience with you or just leaves to write a blog post indicating that she’s heard these questions many times before, be skeptical. YOU’RE the one who has to hear the word “Muslim” on the news, like, every day in this PC multicultural utopia of ours, so what can she possibly have to complain about? Other than her oppressive family and slavish existence, I mean.”

  18. gatamala


    You need to have a conversation with a [turbaned] Sikh

  19. Jha

    LOL! Directed here from Racialicious, and this brought a smile to my face. Would you mind submitting this (or something similar) to the Asian Women Carnival? We’re tackling culture and sexism for the next edition and this strikes me as something particularly relevant! (And some of the comments here too – great questions being brought up!)

  20. Sarah

    I’m a women who wears head scarf , Speak loudly ??
    are you kidding me !!

    whats the different between me and you is that i just choose to cover my hair objectifying us in that way and stereotyping us is just offensive

  21. Imad

    The spirit behind wearing such garb is to divert attention. This article shows that it has the very opposite effect; it’s not at all the supposed act of humility to wear it in Western society but an act of attraction-getting pride.

    Given that hijabis are wearing hijabs to make a political statement, then of course we have every right to judge them for it. Politics is about the intrusion on the domain of others.

    It’s a civil liberties issue about whether or not they’re allowed to wear it. So is wearing piercings in all sorts of places on your own body. But further than that, people shouldn’t be sanitised of their antipathy towards the headscarf.

  22. kal

    I’m with aanteladda…

    one of the more interesting, and disturbing, western cultural reference anomalies is the word ‘Asian’ — which is used refer to some ethnicities such as the chinese, japanese, koreans… but almost never for pakistanis, indians, bangladeshis, sri lankas… who cumulatively account for about half the population of Asia!

  23. Sandeep

    Wooooooo…27 comments over a head scarf ?! Interesting.
    But at least we are talking. 🙂

    @ MaliZOMG

    Dude, you sound like you know a thing or two about Islam. I thought you might at least provide an explanation for why women have to wear sweltering BLACK while men wear cool WHITE in the scorching Middle Eastern heat.

    To answer your question though…

    YES, I know about Islam “beyond Nat-Geo”. I know that Islam was conceived as an excellent system for living life in harmony with the universe. I know that most of the rituals prescribed by the Qur’an have a sound scientific basis. I practice many of those rituals myself, despite not being a muslim by birth.

    Frankly I think Mohammed was a genius. But I also believe, that much of the original Qur’an has been distorted/misinterpreted by chauvnistic males to keep women repressed. And my post was directed at THAT.

    @ cb3n

    The bra was not invented by men, at least not the ‘push-up’ bra. It was invented by women eager to fashion their bosoms to attract more men. 😉

    Be that as it may, imagine this scenario: Suppose the males of a community felt that the push-up bra was making their women more attractive to other men, and so they decide to BAN it. Henceforth all women will wear hideously tight wraparound cloths that completely flatten their breasts, so there is no bulge whatsoever, and further, all women will now wear a thick shawl covering their chest to further eliminate any little bulges.

    Now, suppose a woman does wear this outfit, it’s HER choice. None of my business.

    Even if she does NOTHING to fight this custom, it’s HER choice. No skin off my a**.

    BUT…if she starts talking about how culturally unique she feels because of her ironed out chest and her shawl, I have to turn around and tell her get a life.

    And that’s what I did in my post.

    I believe we are all free to do/wear ANYTHING we want on our body. If a woman wants to wear the Burkha, or the Hijab or any thing else that insecure MEN have invented* to keep women from appearing attractive to other males, she is free to wear them. None of my business. It’s when she starts waxing eloquent about how it’s a CULTURAL thing, THAT’S when she begins to appear, shall we say, dim.

    * What insecure western men have invented is the PMS 😉

    @ Shagufta Pasta

    My post was in response to the “oh-puleeeez-do-leave-us-alone” vibe in your article which implied that women who wear the hijab are forever fending off random, intrusive, insensitive members of the public. When the ground reality is the opposite! Muslim women get MORE than their fair share of private space in social environments. Because the stereotype of the average muslim woman is one of orthodoxy (especially when she wears a traditional costume) people move out of their way to make her comfortable or to LET HER BE!

    I think your creative juices would be far better spent poking fun of male chauvinism in Islam which is a disturbing reality, rather than on exaggerated reports of violations of privacy by non-muslims as presented in your article.

    And I love your prose. 🙂

  24. Shazam

    LOL, excellent sarcasm.

    For people like Sandeep who depend upon nat geo and other sources as their bible to learn about diff cultures. I would say look much more close to your own culture women in your culture also wear a kind of veil and don’t show their faces to others sometimes they do it out of respect, sometimes out of cultural necessity and sometime forced to do it.

    For atheist and people who have not seen this way of life, if nude beaches are a sign of freedom then yes headscarf is a sign of suppression.

    When world is becoming a melting pot we will come across this kind of cultural confrontations where we will always have a reason to defend our way of life and doubt other’s way of life. Then we prove our magnanimity by saying we practice cultural tolerance. But my friends to live in a hatred free world we don’t need to tolerate each others culture but we need to understand and respect it.

  25. Simplicity

    Exellent post, i must say.

    @ Sandeep – maybe you ought to TALK to muslim women who wear the hijab/jilbab rather than listen to and believe whatever the media portrays.
    Just as it is choice which allows one woman to wear a short skirt, it is choice which allows another to fully cover herself. it does not make sense, logically, to say that the choice of the covered woman is not her own or is faulty because she cannot see or understand that she is oppressed. Regarding the men wearing the ‘white’ and women wearing the ‘black’ cloth, i can tell you that this is but habit and culture. The hijab/jilbab is not a black cloth or covering. it is rather a garment which is supposed to ensure that you are covered and that your figure/body shape is not displayed – this applies to men as well, albeit not in the same way. this garment can be of any colour which is not eye-catching. it could be white, black, blue, gray, green. some scholars have argued that if you are wearing hijab/jilbab in the West, then you can wear colours which would not make you stand out – they argue that a black jilbab would attract more attention than say a green one. i wear the hijab and the jilbab and i can tell you that i do not feel oppressed and neither do i restrict myself to wearing a black jilbab.

  26. Shagufta Pasta

    Hi all!

    Wow, I’ve been at a conference/working on other projects the last little bit, and the blog sure has been active in my absence.
    A few notes.

    a) I gather there is some curiosity, interest, desire for learning around the hijab, and that’s cool. I’ll be sure to post something soonish about the scarf or compile a list of great resources for y’all to check out. That post likely won’t include my own awesome tale though, that’s more of a one on one piece. I find online settings tend to attract many folks who aren’t actually interested in hearing what individual reasons for covering are, cos they’ve got their own explanations to disseminate. And if i tell my hijab story and that happens, I’ll be all like, dude! you’re not listening! and then some people will be all like, we don’t need to, we’re telepathic, and then I’ll be all like, you’re making my mascara run- and I want none-o that.

    b) re: “the people approaching headscarved women with support numbers must, in many cases, believe that the people they are approaching are themselves guilty of a lack of critical thought”.

    Yep. It’s unfortunate. Cos if one’s basis for conversing with others is that they’re deluded full stop, it can be hard to stimulate authentic conversations. And in general, it’s problematic to assume only critical thought capabilities exist within your belief set. I was discussing this one earlier with a friend, and we were agreeing that we know lots of folks who believe in something deeply (for ex the idea of no God, or the idea of God) but also respect that others have gone through a process of intense reflection and have come up with differing views from their own.

    c) um, a public announcement about our comment technology. sometimes the site holds comments for a while before it posts them, and sometimes the admin folk need to manually publish them. If you don’t see what you write automatically, be’s coming. contacting me isn’t the best way to speed that up though.

  27. Nick Zarzycki


    Though I’d definitely agree with you, what I was also trying to imply was that sometimes people who harbour strong opinions against hijab _don’t_ do so because they think others are ‘deluded full stop’, but because they feel that someone’s cultural, societal and communal influences/context/environment/whathaveyou (influences that are almost always complex, graudal, nuanced, etc.) have culminated in an action that is ultimately anathema to them (the person who opposes hijab/headscarves/etc.) But yeah, people who are convinced in the delusion of others definitely make a mess of things.

    Also, apropos critical thought and belief sets: I didn’t mean to say at all that only people who share, say, my beliefs are capable of critical thought. I meant to say that when push comes to shove, I believe that, out of everything I’ve heard and thought about, my own beliefs are, to me, most thoroughly thought out and most thoroughly ‘true’ – if they weren’t, why would I believe in them? (Indeed, In the case that I thought those beliefs weren’t the most well thought out and the most likely to be true, I would probably move to the beliefs that I thought were more/most true!)

    I’m all for respect, because it’s the only way we get any meaningful dialogue off the ground. But I also believe that ‘respect’ doesn’t entail [even the slightest hint of] special protection for a certain belief system – the whole point of ‘dialogue’ (as opposed to rhetorical sparring/debate/fighting) is to exchange and compare perceived truths and beliefs in hopes of coming to some sort of consensus about ‘what is true’ that represents a better and more thorough ‘conception of truth’ than the one you started off with before entering the dialogue in the first place.

    [I’m just rereading your post now, and am noticing that we’re not really in disagreement. Sigh. Oh well.]


    well after so many months I find something really good to read and appreciate.
    Shagufta I really like all of ur post almost I read all of them.
    this tym i dnt want to say anything bt from next post I will be in a discussion …nice to see u here …
    tk care
    Ma’as salaamah

  29. Sarah Andersen

    I think there might actually be two issues at play when it comes to western society’s ambivalence towards headscarfs.
    The first is indeed racism, or disrespect/mistrust of a set of personal beliefs and cultural heritage that is not one’s own. This is narrow-minded and should be criticized.
    The second is the sense that by wearing items that publicly display one’s religion (whatever religion that is) or stem from a value system that is different from that of the country of residence, people are refusing to assimilate and adopt the values of their country of residence. In many western countries, public secularity is valued because it creates cohesiveness. What one does privately is one’s own business. Because the headscarf can be seen as such a strong religious symbol, it makes some people wary. A good example of this is France, which is grappling with this debate right now.
    Whether or not the belief in public assimilation/adoption of national values is right or wrong, in the context of that debate, the criticism of headscarfs shouldn’t be dismissed as bigotry.

  30. Shagufta

    re Nick…you’re both we’re not in disagreement at all. You’re right, my comments weren’t directed to you particularly (i think we’re hearing each other just fine, having a good convo) and would both whoop “John Stuart Mill in the house!” towards people who were preventing a vigorous debate of ideas cos they wanted to protect their own point of view.

    sarah: i agree criticism of the headscarf often isn’t bigotry. where it can be problematic however, is as you said, in the first case where one just mistrusts another point of view.

    in the second case, true, i wouldn’t say debates are about bigotry, but can sometimes be misguided. I’d question the foundation of the idea that wearing a hijab for ex interferes with one’s acceptance of national values, or desire to assimilate. The country one lives in might just make it very hard to participate in the social sphere. in the case of France, where in 04 headscarves were banned along with other religious garb, what has happened is that many girls have either undergone the traumatic experience of forced unveiling to attend school, or are no longer part of mainstream schools because they want to practice their faith. Either way many people might feel like secularity is nott helping them be part of the whole: its creating separation not cohesiveness. I’m curious to know the long term impact of being booted out of school.

    Of course, many people have framed France’s decision to be about protecting people who may be forced to wear the headscarf in their daily lives, yet that protection enroaches on other individuals in the same way: being forced not to wear is the same form of compulsion. And for the women who might be forced, dress is unlikely to be the only thing going on their lives. So having a rule against dress may just remove them from educational access instead of removing the clothing, and possibly limit community involvement in the future (what can i say, i’m a huge proponent of education)

    Lots of important debates.

  31. Sarah Andersen

    Shagufta, you make good points. I agree that it would be a shame to see women pulled out of school and not receive the benefits of education. I also understand what you’re saying about enforced secularity and how it might drive people to disengage from mainstream society. That would be a shame as well, and counter-productive.
    To argue the other side for the sake of debate, however, no one immigrates with their eyes closed. While it’s true that people are often forced to leave their home country for their safety/well-being etc., a country’s national values are not hidden or obscured. In the case of France, who has made its position on the importance of a secular society very clear for a number of years, if those values do not match your own, perhaps it is not the country for you. I guess it comes down to which party should bend to accommodate the other.
    Although I’ve never been to Iran (to pick a country where headscarfs are common), my impression is that they would not take kindly to my wearing of the kinds of clothes I would wear during the summer in Canada. But correct me if I am wrong on this point. I do know that when I travelled to Turkey a couple of years ago, I did wear a headscarf when visiting mosques out of respect.

  32. Jack

    OK I’ve been following this discussion for a while and I thought I would pipe in.

    I think that Sarah has really hit the nail on the head. Yes, part of this argument is about an individual’s right to wear and believe as they wish. Obviously though from the above comments it is a difficult issue to resolve.

    The bigger issue revolves around what Sarah has brought up, the issue of immigration and cultural norms within a country. I think there is a bit of hypocrisy going on in the muslim world. Bear with me as I explain.

    A large part of the reason for opposition to the Iraq war is feeling that we, as outside, western, ‘white’ nations shouldn’t direct issues within a muslim nation. This is also the sentiment of most muslim countries on the Arab peninsula: that they should be allowed to run their country how they want. Something that is totally within their rights to do.

    Why then is it wrong for North American, and more importantly European nations to try and direct culture how they wish. Although all people have the right to freedom of religion and to dress how they want in these historically Christian nations, things that offend the majority of people are illegal. If a religion whose traditional clothing for women was no clothes at all then society would tell them that isn’t allowed and the religion would take the backseat to the will of the majority.

    There are examples of this that I can think of. In Alberta, there are several colonies of religious orthodox farmers. They live in peace and totally within the law and practice their religion as such. Now, one of these colonies (I forget what they are called), in an attempt to not use modern technology refused to have their photos taken. They raised a freedom of religion claim against the government who ‘forced’ them to have photos on their drivers license. The government politely told them to suck it up and get their photos taken.

    They are a small colony but it illustrates the point I am making. This is also the reason that headscarves were banned in France in 04. Because the majority will to separate church and state (something that has existed in France for over 150 years) overruled the individuals right to practice their religion in public.

    And quite frankly if you aren’t letting your daughter get an education because practicing your religion is more important then you probably shouldn’t have immigrated to France in the first place as your moral values do not at all match those of the native population. If you were born and a long time resident in France then you had the ability to influence the democratic process: you win some, you lose some. Again, no one is stopping you from leaving the country. I hope that you do go because withholding a daughters education on religious grounds borderline counts as a human rights violation in western nations.

    Everyone has a right to do what they want, when they want, as long as its within the law. The majority makes the law and politicians try to protects minority rights (as they should). But when a law gets passed it is law, and the country has a right to make it.

    If you don’t like it you have a right to leave.

  33. Shagufta Pasta


    Firstly, I have no idea about Iran. I don’t like to talk about people that I don’t know, places I’ve never been. re Turkey, I hope you managed to get some pretty scarves! Not that you’d necessarily need them in Turkey, it’s an interesting case study because it’s only in the last year that women are able to wear headscarves in university. It’ s a pretty staunchly secular country.

    I didn’t understand most of the examples mentioned, but to say, the idea that law is always good, and that government always categorically protect pple can be naive. I can think of lots of laws made by majorities that weren’t great: apartheid in South Africa, segregation in the US, suffrage rights in North America, treatment of aboriginals in Canada..the list goes on.

    re the idea of “if you don’t like, you can leave.”. This is a common idea; I hear it a lot.

    The difference between the Iraq example is that it involved certain countries coming to other sovereign countries and saying, as Arundhati Roy puts it, we’re going to bomb you to a feminist paradise.

    The France/other European country example is about internal debates within a country about what kind of behaviour/beliefs/practices are acceptable. I wouldn’t say Muslims there are trying to ‘direct’ culture, just trying to practice their own religion/live a decent life/contribute to society/do the same things other people are trying to do.

    And lots of Muslims in France are French citizens. I question the idea of them being mutually exclusive categories. So if someone says, “yeah, I’m French, I’ve lived here for generations” and ” umm..leave and go where? I’ve lived here my whole life” or “but this is my country, what happened to freedom to practice religion”, or “uh, I’m a convert, i was part of the majority community till six months ago”, and the state and everyone else says “get out get out, we don’t like you, that seems dictatorial to me, but of course we’re allowed to differ.

    i agree it’s a shame when pple don’t go to school. And sure, would call it a human rights violation when a girl believes in her scarf has to make a choice between her faith and her education. it’s not a fair choice to have to make.

    For people who did immigrate at a certain point in time, a huge reason they came to France was because of patterns of colonization/French involvement in their countries of origin at a certain point in the past. Just like you tend to see more people from North Africa in France, you see more people of South Asian descent in Britain.

    Darn those long term impacts of colonisation.

    In any case, we’ve strayed far away from “what people in headscarves experience when other people talk to them” to a discussion of yeah, but should you really complain cos hey, the exit door is right there. so if i’m not responding to other comments cos they are part of a different discussion, don’t be sad.

  34. Sarah Andersen

    To clarify, Shagufta, my comments were in response to some of the other comments in this thread, not in response to your original post, which is clearly a satirical commentary on racism and stereotyping. I certainly don’t think anyone should be patronizing or rude when faced with an example of cultural practices that differ from their own!
    My point. although perhaps tangental, is simply that it is narrow-minded to dismiss all people who disagree with the wearing of hijab etc. as racist/sexist etc. There are legitimate issues to be debated regarding freedom of religion and where that fits into society. I certainly believe that people who disagree with current national values can and should work to change those values through the democratic process. I don’t believe I implied anywhere that to be muslim means not to be a citizen of France or any other country. That would be silly! But I think a sense of cultural sensitivity is called for on the part of both the nation and those who have customs or values that differ from the philosophy of the country as determined from the laws and leaders elected by the majority.
    Perhaps I should have chosen the Vatican instead of Iran as an example as I have actually been there and know that you are required to be modestly dressed in order to enter many areas because of the values and beliefs set forth by vatican policy based on their catholic values.

    In any case, this is an interesting topic to debate, which is why I took the liberty of perhaps extending the discussion beyond its original scope.

  35. Shagufta

    Hi Sarah,

    I agree with you. Cultural sensitivity is important on both sides. There are Muslims who vigorously disagree with the hijab-I have a problem when they then try and force me to take mine off, and claim they know what’s best for me better than I do, but I wouldn’t say everyone has to have warm fuzzy feelings about the hijab. And I wouldn’t chase after anyone trying to get them to put it on.

    I think we’re in agreement here on the basic point of not being patronizing. There are a lot of people however, who sadly are really clumsy in their discussion abilities and that doesn’t help anyone. I’ve got a piece coming up that talks about that: really ineffectual discussion practices.

    Again, really interesting discussions.

  36. Meg


    You would do well to remember that Arabs make up only about 20% of the world’s Muslims. Arab culture is not the only way people practice Islam, and the way Arab men and women dress is not the only way that Muslims deal with issues of modesty.

  37. C L O S E R » Blog Archive » Closing the week 26

    […] Terry » Archive » Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide 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 […]

  38. Dechen

    was directed here by a friend and i agree, the comments are better than the post :/

    @Sandeep agree with you, especially when you went into that breast flattening description LOL. PS: you write very well!

    @ others blah blah, sorry but my personal take on this is, you want to do something, go ahead. Lets not make a sensitivity issue about it.
    And quite frankly we are animals, not higher beings. Our instinctive reaction is to assume some one who looks different is…different! Its called the Primal Instinct.

    As long as the interoggation bit dont hurt anybody. I mean, I dont believe in bashing up the first person with green hair and tatoos all over! That’s the only place where our conceited civilisation ought to make us little better than say gorillas or dogs

  39. MuneeraD

    This was interesting for me to read, as i live in Cape Town, South Africa, where there is a rich and varied Muslim community and I have never come across anyone asking me about why I wear a headscarf or any of the things mentioned in the post. That’s just how it IS. Alot of people really don’t care if your hair is green or if you’re wearing a kilt and a tshirt. It just doen’t matter here. So I didn’t really GET it until I read the comments.

    It was really good though, and interesting for me to hear about other peoples’ experiences.

  40. LINKAGE: Veiling On My Mind « threadbared

    […] Online Commentary Really Count,” from the same people who brought us the etiquette guide to “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf,” outlines the rhetorical tactics most often used to decry the complex personhood of Muslim persons […]

  41. Veiled woman

    If you decide to follow this guide take CAUTION because you can get PUNCHED IN THE FACE by a veiled woman at any moment when you´re talking that talk. Seriously, some veiled muslim women I met (before I started veiling myself) got REALLY fiercely angry with people who pitied them in any little way! To that degree that it chocked me and others. In some cases the veiled women where MUCH more well-trained than I first thought, because you can not see the bodyshape of a woman with a baggy and all covering clothingstyle. Yep, you may learn sooner or later, like I did, that many veiled women also go to the gym and do different kinds of hard sports.. and that they too can loose their patience with well-meaning, but prejudiced know it all-type of people! Sure there are shy doormat-like veiled women, but the absolutely most tough and loudmouthed women I have known have also been veiled women. Seriously, they where too tough and loudmouthed.. Take the middle-path all you veiled ladies!

    During my years of veiling nobody has ever spoken to me THAT much pain in the ass know it all-like when in reality they knew nothing at all about me.. IF someone ever did that then I would stare them straight in the eye and tell him/her honestly about:
    1.when one of my family-members ripped my nicest veil apart.
    2.when one of them spit me in the face several times because I have chosen to wear the veil and when one of them pretended like I was a stranger when we met on the bus because I wore it.
    3.All the not so G-rated things one of them have called me for starting to wear it.
    4.I will finish off with telling in detail how two off my family members thretened my to force me to a mental hospital if I started to wear the veil at my home.

    That will shut most self proclaimed helpers up. But I COULD go on and on about how I´ve had to fight to get to where I am today where I have the power to decide for myself when and where my OWN hair aswell as my own body is on display and who gets to see what of it. That I have done this without the support of any family, friends, relatives or anyone else. In all honesty I can tell them to shut up and walk a mile in my veiled life before talking about how it must feel for me to wear it and listen to one who actually knows what she´s talking about from experience. A woman can love to veil even if nobody in her life wants her to. Even if it´s more provocative and hated than a punk-style these days, she can still love to be able to cover up that much.

    BTW.. because I have lived life in the summer heat both with shorts and tank-tops and later with a veiled loose fitting clothingstyle I can tell you the all covering veiled style is much cooler -YEAH, EVEN if it is all black. We women who veil typically wear thin cotton or silk in the summer, so it´s both very breezy and shady for the skin. Unlike tight-fitting and skin-revealing clothing -that collects more heat on the body. Another thing is just because a veiled woman wears mostly black doesen´t mean she belives Irani black is the only modest enough colour for women. If you try matching up a full-covering outfit every day for a week or more you soon realise veiled women get lazy and choose much black that goes with everything. Unless it´s veiled somalian women offcourse.. They typically don´t care about matching and just throw on all the brightest colours they can find, because that´s their african cultural norms.

  42. Nadrah Muhammed

    The early men invented clothes inother to cover their nakedness but the so called 21 century idiots thinks the more body parts a female exposes the more liberated and free she is…the female has been turn into a merchandise…whenever yo see a bill board for adverts there’s a naked figure of a woman ..the west are exploiting her sexuality in every way possible..she needs remove her clothing inother to be accepted in the society and you call that freedom? It’s either you lack sense of reasoning or you are simply stupid..and here you are calling a female on hijab oppressed? Hijab is the highest kind of liberation anyone of your females can ever get in life… our body our pride…GET YOUR LUSTFUL EYES AWAY FROM HIJABI!

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