The University of San Francisco Muslim Student Association recently hosted an event called “Try On A Hijab” on the second floor of the university center. Students and faculty passing by the table set near the entrance to the main cafeteria were encouraged to stop by and try on a hijab. A member of the Muslim Student Association executive board would wrap a headscarf around a willing participant and voila! Anybody expressing interest in the Muslim Student Association booth would be wearing a “hijab.” The term hijab is placed in quotation marks because conceptually, wearing a headscarf in a certain fashion is not equivalent to wearing a hijab.
When first hearing about the “Try on a Hijab” event, several thoughts came to mind. The term cultural appropriation flitted around my head but was quickly swatted away. Is it considered cultural appropriation for non-Muslims to wear a hijab? The answer was a tentative “no.” The reason for this was because everyone has the right to wear a headscarf. Wrapping a scarf around one’s head is not an expression culturally exclusive to Islam. Yet the idea of handing out “hijabs” to random passersby seemed off putting and this discomfort had more to do with the meaning behind the term hijab itself.
There are two interpretations of the word hijab. When translated from Arabic literally, it means ‘veil.’ But when placed within the context of Islam, which was what the Muslim Student Association was doing, hijab is a principle of modesty in the name of Islam. In order to wear a hijab, one has to actually be a practicing Muslim. The hijab is an expression of piety and modesty within the religion, in the name of god. So the idea of non-Muslims wearing “hijabs” is simply nonexistent. However, in a post 9/11 world, it is impossible to ignore the stigma and negative attention that people who wear hijabs receive. A “Try on a Hijab” booth can offer outsiders a peek into what it might feel like to wear an article of clothing that strangers draw so many assumptions about.
Contemplating the idea of non-Muslim students wearing hijabs served as a reminder of a recent trend. The trend involves various social media platforms where users attempt to showcase the experiences of people in marginalized groups by having people in the privileged group sample what their experiences are supposed to be like. These social experiments include instances where people don fatsuits to perceive how they would be treated if they were more heavyset or recording people of two different races acting the same way in public and studying how strangers react differently to them. These experiments are problematic because they validate the issues of people in marginalized groups only after those with privilege decide their problems and experience are worth paying attention to.
The “Try on a Hijiab” booth is a popular event at Muslim student groups at college campuses across the country, and rightfully so. The hijab is so symbolically associated with Islam that it only seems logical for Muslim student associations to center events around wearing hijabs. However, simply handing out physical scarves out to students around campus is not how the concept of hijab works in Islam.There is nothing inherently offensive about having a “Try on a Hijab” booth on one’s college campus- it just simply does not make any sense.