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Thinking about ‘Hijab Day’ at Notre Dame

| Monday, April 25, 2016

Last Wednesday, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) sponsored a “Hijab Day” on campus. Members of the MSA could be seen in front of DeBartolo Hall fitting hijabs (or headscarfs) on non-Muslim women and sharing information about Islam. According to the MSA members I spoke to at the event, they hoped that this experience would both increase awareness about Islamic practices and build sympathy for the difficulties which Muslims — and especially Muslim women — face in American society. Still, “Hijab Day” at Notre Dame raises some interesting questions. I’d like to mention three of them.

First, what is the connection between the hijab and the larger principle of modesty? Most Islamic scholars see the headscarf as one element of a series of requirements for women to cover what is known as awra, the “forbidden” area of a woman’s body. According to most scholars, this includes much of her body: including arms to her wrists and legs to her feet. Most scholars insist that the face can be shown but some (notably in Saudi Arabia) disagree. Many Muslim scholars would find rather bizarre the idea of a woman who puts on a headscarf while wearing a short-sleeve shirt, or shorts, for example.

Second, what about Muslims who are opposed to the hijab? Many Muslim women (and men!) have noted that the Quran only calls on women (24:31) to cover their breasts, and never their hair or necks. Now, many Muslim women argue that wearing the hijab is a liberating experience because it forces men to deal with a woman’s character and not her body. Others, however, argue no less insistently that the very idea of hijab was imposed on women by a male-dominated society which — with no basis in the Quran — sought to impose unequal standards of modesty on women.

Third, at Notre Dame should we consider too the Christian experience of the hijab in Muslim countries? The (mostly) Christian girls of Chibok, Nigeria, (remember #BringBackOurGirls?) abducted by Boko Haram in 2014 appear in pictures in captivity with hijabs. In certain countries Christians (along with Muslims) are compelled to wear the hijab. Meanwhile in other contexts, Muslims have been compelled not to wear the hijab. Clearly this is a complicated matter.

I certainly understand the enthusiasm which Notre Dame’s MSA feels about “Hijab Day,” and I agree that we should explore ways to find solidarity with the Muslim-American experience.  However, in light of the difficult questions surrounding this issue, I wonder if “Hijab Day” is the best way of doing so. Perhaps we can think together of other, creative ways of promoting inter-religious understanding at a Catholic university.


Gabriel Said Reynolds

professor of Islamic studies and theology

April 22

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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