Hijabs, Burkinis, and Assumptions

A woman wears a Burkini in the south of France Credit: PA (via ITV)

A quick word to not judge by appearances, or to make assumptions about religious values.

Our family took a vacation to the Red Sea recently, at a hotel with a healthy mix of European speedos and Egyptian burkinis. It was quite the contrast.

From what we could tell, everyone behaved respectfully and enjoyed themselves.

While nowhere as revealing as a traditional bikini, the burkini is quite shapely. One night at dinner two Egyptians rose to dance to the folk band that came through. One was bareheaded, the other wore a hijab. Both knew well the techniques of belly dancing, and took no mind of the onlookers.

Was one a Christian, the other Muslim? If hijabed, why would she dance so? And while the burkini is an innovative development to help conservative Muslims enjoy the beach, is it conservative enough?

Within this discussion a recent article at CairoScene took my attention. A popular Egyptian comedienne decided to take off her hijab: 

Mostafa stated through her official Facebook page that she had been wearing the hijab since she was in primary school up until high school, and she believes that, in the beginning, it was internalised by her as ‘normal’ because it was just part of the way you’d look in the society and community she grew up in. However, when she really started asking herself if she was wearing it for herself, God, or people, she realised she was doing it out of pure conforming to society – “The concept of God wasn’t there,” she stated.

Mostafa started wearing it in different ways, like the fashionable turban-style hijab that has been more prevalent lately in Egypt and around the world for hijabis. But, that did not go well because she was once again attacked for wearing hijab “the wrong way,” though she asserts is something a lot of girls do in terms of their choice in clothing that is only coupled with a scarf over the head.

Her decision to take off the hijab came to her when she refused contradicting herself. She states that once she takes it off, which is what she is comfortable doing now, perhaps she will become convinced of the concept of the hijab on a personal level, and if that happens, it’ll be the right decision because it’ll come from within.

[Read on to discover the largely negative reactions to her post.]

As you encounter Muslim women in your everyday life, be careful not to make assumptions. Some wear the hijab because of their culture. Some wear it because of their husband or father. Some wear it because of piety. Some wear it as a political statement.

What they actually believe, and their personal character, may bear no relation whatsoever. Or maybe it does.

We were in church the other day and a hijabed lady came in with an uncovered friend. This is unusual in Egypt, but it doesn’t have to be a scandal.

My daughter asked, surprised, “Daddy, is she a Muslim?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Some Christians cover their heads in church.”

My daughter protested. It was clearly a Muslim hijab.

“You’ll have to ask her,” I said, smiling wryly.

My daughter didn’t like that answer either. It is sort of an awkward question, both in Egypt and America.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to make assumptions. What we need is conversation. When you next encounter that hijabed woman going about your daily life – yes, it is awkward – do your best to say hi.

Who knows what assumptions will be undone next.