Macalester has always prided itself in the celebration of diversity and student activism, both of which are great to have on a college campus. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm with which students throw themselves into political or cultural events causes them to overlook the implications of their actions. This is most apparent in the Muslim Student Association’s “Hijabi for a Day.” In this event, various students volunteered to don a hijab, go about their daily lives and, at the end of the day, discuss their experiences with one another.
The sentiment of the volunteer students and MSA is certainly admirable. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn about another culture and empathize with the successes or difficulties that other people face. However, the way this learning experience was brought about seemed rather inappropriate.
While I don’t identify as Muslim, I do understand that the hijab has important cultural and religious connotations. Women have a variety of reasons for choosing to wear a hijab, but none of them treat the decision as a trivial one. But the MSA event seemed to portray the hijab as just a costume. During the discussion, it was hard to hear volunteer students talk about the fun they had “dressing up.” Moreover, the goal of this event was to better understand the experiences of Hijabi women, but in practice that didn’t happen at all. The discussion questions sought to explore whether Hijabi women were treated differently or forced into any power dynamics, but none of the volunteer students had any experiences throughout their day that would give them a better understanding of those issues. Hijabi for a Day managed to encourage problematic behavior without creating insight.
But the event did have some very strong points. The most compelling parts of the discussion were when actual Hijabi women discussed their own experiences. A few women spoke about the reactions of their friends and family when they began wearing the hijab, while another discussed the potential difficulties of classroom interactions and job interviews. The stories of hard choices and adhering to social mores were eye-opening. And the volunteer students seemed to agree. Many of them talked about how interesting it was to read personal narratives of Hijabi women. Another mentioned how they scoured the Internet to learn as much as they could about the topic. From what I heard, the most
rewarding part of “Hijabi for a Day” wasn’t playing dress-up, but hearing the voices of those who have genuine experiences.
This MSA event proved an important point about cultural interaction: you don’t need to be part of a culture to understand it. A student doesn’t need to don a hijab and walk around campus to sympathize with Hijabi woman. If anything, using aspects of another culture as a costume is detrimental to the ultimate goal of acceptance and appreciation. It’s exciting to get involved and be hands-on, but sometimes, the best way to learn is to sit back and simply listen.