A common myth that is pervasive and usually goes unchallenged is that we should all be “colorblind”, with the idea that if we don’t think about the skin color of our neighbor then we are anti-racist. This idea is false: indeed since color does exist why should we champion colorblindness? The acceptance of colorblindness as a response to dealing with racism is the worst bandaid: it is a false remedy that enables the disease. Color-blindess enables cultural appropriation: the idea that anyone can wear or do anything cultural without context.
This past weekend, I saw a girl draped in giant black cloth in such a way that only her eyes were showing. I was not in Saudi Arabia or Iran; I was at a white hipster costume party in Austin, Texas. I immediately knew what she was supposed to be: the generic, ever-present image of an oppressed Muslim woman in a “burqa”.
As a post 9/11 Muslim American woman with a grandmother, handful of Aunts, and cousins who practice wearing the niqab [the black strip of fabric that covers half the face below the nose], I did not hesitate before I went to confront her. While I may not wear the niqab because I don’t believe it’s obligatory, it is a symbol that Non-muslims have used to belittle Muslim women and generate serious misunderstanding around Muslim gender expressions
She told me that she was dressed as a woman in a burqa to generate discussion, even though she was not an expert on Islam. “But I have read a few articles and I do know that women choose to wear it sometimes, and other times they are forced to.” When I kept pointing out that she was not an expert on Islam, she came up with a solution: “I’ll point people over to you if they have any questions.”
As I mentioned before, my grandmother practices wearing the niqab. I love and miss my grandmother dearly, but I cannot see her: she lives in the besieged city of Homs, Syria. The Syrian people have endured titanic hardship in standing up to their oppressive government, and the International Community has failed in their duty to support the values of human rights and secular democracy championed by civilian Revolutionaries.
Concurrently, the American people have overwhelmingly failed to feel compassion for the Syrian people. When Syria became national dialogue in late August following the Sarin Gas attack, many people said this was a Muslim problem for Muslims to deal with. Quantitative factors are telling as well: Unicef raised 70 million dollars for the Haiti disaster in 5 weeks, while only raising a paltry 4 million dollars for Syria in over 130 weeks.
And now we are back, full-circle to the girl wearing the “burqa” as acostume.She is self-admittedly not able to educate people on Muslim veiling traditions, and is perpetuating the idea of the “Othered” Middle Eastern Muslim. I am insulted. This is not the same as dressing up as a doctor for Halloween.
The running joke is that hipster culture loves irony. The irony is that if we start the camera focused on the girl wearing a burqa, bobbing her head along to the folk music with an Indio beer in one hand, and zoom out to see the apathy towards Muslims facing starvation, SCUD missiles, drone strikes, TNT barrels, Apartheid, and systemic rape…well, the music stops playing pretty quickly and we would all stand sober.
My friends had been socializing a distance off, and watching my confrontation with the burqa girl. One friend came over and told me to let it go and so that we could have fun. “What she is doing is not okay, and you’re not going to convince her of anything”. Feeling defeated, I reluctantly let it go, and went to see my friends. As we chatted, I watched the feathers of a Native American headdress bobbing through the crowd.
What we say and wear in public is political. Our voice and our silence adds a vote to what we deem as acceptable and unacceptable in society. In this way, it is obligatory to vocalize ourselves against all forms of bigotry and ignorance and to support reasonable voices. To do this requires diligence, patience, and understanding — the latter of which cannot be acquired through colorblindess or costumes.
Originally published here as “The Burqa is not your Halloween Costume”.