First – a disclaimer. I am not Muslim. I am a born and bred Christian, and was ordained a minister over 25 years ago. Yet, my work as a college minister during most of that time has given me the wonderful opportunity to work with people from a wide variety of faith traditions, including Islam. One of my greatest joys in recent years has been the connection with the growing number of young Muslim women on my campus. Obviously, when things that impact my young students are in the news, I pay attention.
During the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was front and center as the United States processed. I have since learned much more about Ibtihaj Muhammad, a New Jersey native who won the bronze in her sport.
On the Copacabana Beach, headlines were made when one member of the Egyptian beach volleyball team chose to wear a hijab. Her teammate, while also choosing the full body suit, did not cover her head. (Rules were changed 4 years ago to allow players to wear more than the tiny bikini normally seen.)
Muslim women’s bodies were once again in the news, when the mayor of Cannes banned the wearing of the so-called “burkini,” a full body swimsuit with a head covering, citing it as a symbol of religious extremism.
It seems that Muslim’s women’s bodies are not their own, but instead the battlefield for issues concerning religious diversity, extremism, terrorism, and even feminism. Is it sexist to cover one’s hair and body? When Kim Kardasian claims that nude selfies are empowering for women, how does a Muslim woman live in the same society? (And I’ll leave it to you to decide if Kardasian tweets these pics due to body confidence or exhibitionism – or a mixture of both motivations.)
I know Muslim women who wear a hijab, and others who only wear one when they go to the mosque. I know Muslim women who wear sleeveless shirts and short dresses, and others who always have arms and legs covered. Not one of them has been forced by a male relative to do any of these things. (And yes, I am well aware that there are women who are forced to adhere to extreme dress codes – I protested the US Government backing the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1991 because of how the Taliban treated women.) My point is that there are Muslim women who choose to dress with certain standards, and people need to get over it. One of my dear Muslim students explained to me why she chose to start wearing a hijab when she was 12. “It’s a symbol that I am what’s important – not my hair or my body. People see my face, the essence of who I am.”
I was envious when I heard her explain her decision. As a child of the 80s, I have spent far too much time and money on my hair over the years. As a professional woman, I have again spent far too much time and money trying to choose appropriate, but attractive (and yes, sometimes sexy), clothing that makes the statement I want to make. And what is that statement? I’m a professional – I look younger than I am – I’m sporty – I’m fashionable – I’m desirable?
I believe it’s rare for any woman in our society – Muslim or not – to be able to separate what she truly wants in her own choice of dress or what is culturally expected. I know I can’t completely do that. I do know this – we need to find something else to worry about in this world other than Muslim women choosing certain clothing to express their faith. Let’s take on hunger, kidnapped girls in Africa, gun violence, racism, homophobia. Leave Muslim women and their bodies alone.