Last Monday evening, I got in conversation with another woman in my congregation about how disgusted we both were that President Obama went to speak at the mosque in Baltimore. We both agreed that by going into a building that requires women to cover their heads, the president was giving tacit support to a culture that is oppressive to women. “Can you imagine him speaking at the church of a group of polygamous Mormons? Imagine the outrage!” I said. “Can you imagine if Hilary Clinton was the president? Would they require her to wear a head scarf in order to walk into their building?” my friend responded.
Let me be clear: this conversation did not express my actual views. My friend and I were part of a skit, playing the role of people who have an anti-Muslim bias. Our skit led into a discussion about how to speak up when you’re part of a conversation that exhibits cultural insensitivity or cultural stereotyping. Monday’s workshop was part of the on-going conversation happening in our congregation about white privilege and understanding cultures different from our own.
Even though I was play-acting when I got on my rant about Obama, it was an unnerving experience. It was easier to come up with anti-Muslim things to say than I would have imagined. I found myself getting mad, not just because I was acting, but also because I called out something in myself that really does feel this way. It was a good reminder that I need to move beyond myself and my own feelings if I'm ever going to figure out how to live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural world.
I consider myself a strong feminist, the daughter of a feminist and the product of a “long line of strong women” as my mom likes to say. My mom made sure I understood that rules and laws that purport to “protect” women are usually designed to control women. For that reason, I would never join a group that required me to cover myself up. I don’t even like school dress codes for this same reason.
But I’ve come to realize that wearing a headscarf can mean something different to the woman who wears it than it means to me. That doesn’t mean that I have it wrong—it just means that I know my own experience, but I don’t know another person’s experience.
This sounds obvious now—but the fact of that matter is most of the time, I universalize my experience. That’s part of following the Golden Rule, after all. If I’m going to “Do unto others as I would have them do unto me,” I have to assume that most of the time, people like what I like and dislike what I dislike. So, since I want to be recognized for my contributions, I need to recognize the contributions of others. I would not want to be treated unjustly so I should not allow my government to treat anyone else that way.
But there are real limits to the Golden Rule. We rely on culture to give meaning to many activities and behaviors. When we encounter a different culture, we have to do a lot of listening and learning before we make judgments.
The way I’ve moved beyond my knee-jerk response to a headscarf is by participating in the Daughters of Abraham book group founded by Ruth Smith, a long-time member of my congregation. That group has allowed me to build friendships with a number of Muslim women who have been willing to speak personally and thoughtfully about their experience. In addition, we’ve read some books that have allowed me to walk alongside someone else’s story. Most helpfully, we read “A Tender Struggle” by Krista Bremer, an American (nominally Christian) woman who is married to a Libyan Muslim man. She writes beautifully about standing by her young daughter as she decides to wear a hijab for the first time. That essay helped me to understand why (and how) a woman (or a girl) might make her own personal choice to wear a headscarf.
The part of Obama’s speech at the mosque that has stayed on me was this: “Most Americans don’t necessarily know, or at least don’t know that they know, a Muslim personally. And as a result, many only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film, all of which gives this hugely distorted impression.”
This is how anything changes: forming a connection with a person who is different from you and listening to them talk about their experience. Slowly coming to the recognition that their experience is at times different from your own. Getting curious about those differences. Asking questions and allowing someone to ask you a few in return. And somehow in the process, building a world where you can both live and grow.