Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Social Experiment - Wearing a Hijab

I've been ill. Not anything life-threatening, but a fairly vicious ear infection that has disfigured one side of my face quite badly. No doubt it will be temporary, at least I hope so, but in the meantime I haven't cared to leave the house. It's quite surprising how one feels somehow shamed by a facial disfigurement. As if one were going to be judged. Silly really, but there it is.

So I have been fairly well housebound for a few days, and not getting out with my dog, and the other day I happened to see a thing on Youtube where some women (not Muslims) went out for the day wearing hijabs to find out how it would feel. It wasn't really a very good video, they didn't go into any detail about interactions they had, they just talked about how they felt wearing it and a lot about how they felt about male domination (which suggested to me that perhaps their understanding of the whole issue was a little simplistic), but they did demonstrate how to put one on correctly, and that was what stayed in my mind. I do love to learn a new skill.

Now it's not that I would mindlessly copy stuff I saw on Teh Interwebz, truly, I wouldn't, but there I was stuck inside, and it was a beautiful day, and I remembered that thanks to Youtube, I now knew how to put one on.

Half the battle is having the right SIZE of scarf. One of the things I'd learned from Youtube is that for a hijab, you need a lot more than an ordinary headscarf. It's really more along the lines of a pashmina. Well, I had one of those, and it was a beautiful cool day, so off I went to dig it out. It took me a few goes to get it right, and I'm not sure it quite covered all my hair at the front, but that didn't matter really, because it was the side of my face I needed to conceal, not my hair. At this point I was not thinking in terms of a social experiment; I just wanted to get out with my dog.

Anyway. Got myself kitted out for the walk. Poo bags, check. Keys, check. Sunglasses, check. Liver treats, check. Off we went in the sunshine, Princess Emily almost dancing with pleasure at getting out in the daytime.

This is a picture of me and Emily. As you can see, she is quite striking.
Now Emily is something of a local celebrity, and is very well known, and of course because she is usually seen out and about with me, pretty well most people in our suburb know me by sight as well. I'm accustomed to a pleasant greeting from everyone we pass, even if they are strangers.

The first person we passed didn't return our greeting, but I didn't really think much of it because she was probably a stranger to the neighbourhood. But then we came to the little park. Not the one where Emily plays, but the one we walk through to get to it. It has a set of children's play equipment so there are usually a few people there. Normally at least someone will rush over to pat Emily. But no - the five or six adults who were there today glanced at us, then quickly away. Okay, that was weird.

When we reached the big offlead park, various people were taking walks. There was one man with a little dog, also offlead, but he saw us, turned away and walked on. Now that was strange. This park is one people come to from miles around to exercise their dogs offlead, and it has a friendly culture; people always speak to other people with dogs. Not this time. He walked briskly off, his little dog, obviously summoned, trotting obediently behind him, looking wistfully back at Emily. Poor Emily didn't understand, but I stopped her from running after them. I never let her bother people if they clearly don't want to engage.

Other people we encountered on our walk were the same. All the same. A quick glance and their eyes would slide away quickly into the middle distance. The norm is a friendly greeting and comment on the weather, at the very least a smile. That's how we roll in that park. It was as if people were afraid of making eye contact with me.

By the time we got home I felt unclean, a pariah. Our walk wasn't as long as usual because I was starting to feel very uncomfortable and Emily, bless her, picked up on my mood and went very quiet as well. I think we were both relieved to close our front door behind us again.

What I've taken away from this experience is that perhaps all those people who've told me that there is subtle bigotry, subtle discrimination that someone who isn't a member of the target group usually isn't aware of, were actually right. I've often been told this by black people, and generally I've put it down to them having become oversensitised as a result of actual bigotry. But now I see that it really does happen. Before this walk, I would have been willing to bet money that a Muslim person walking around in our suburb would have exactly the same experience as anyone else. Sure, no one said anything rude to us, but there's a quiet way of excluding people that is unimaginably powerful. Unimaginably unless you've experienced it.

My resolution from this is to be more aware of how I'm reacting to people who may be different-looking. And I'd like to invite you, my reader, to join me in a challenge. When you see a lady in a hijab, or a man in a yarmulke, or anyone who looks 'different', MEET their eyes and smile. Just do it. Because you might be the only person in their day who does.

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