Friday, April 11, 2014

The kerfuffle over wearing foreign clothing

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 25/3/2013
Last week President Barack Obama visited Israel’s Hall of Remembrance while on his Middle East tour. During his visit he wore the Jewish kippa on his head as a sign of respect. It was an appropriate gesture that followed a long line of US presidents and foreign heads of state who also wore the kippa during ceremonies.
US presidents are often required, or asked, to wear traditional clothing of foreign countries or cultures. US President Calvin Coolidge famously, or infamously depending on your point of view, wore a Native American Indian chief’s headdress in 1927. He was widely mocked by the press. Yet such things come with the job like kissing babies and making promises that are impossible to keep.
Wearing an Indian sherwani or a Russian ushanka will never cause much of a stir, but the same can’t be said for any garment even remotely connected to Islam or Arab culture.
When then-Democratic Congressional majority leader Nancy Pelosi wore the hijab in 2007, and first lady Laura Bush wore one on her visit to Saudi Arabia in 2008, the slings and arrows flew. Saudi doctor Samia Al-Amudi gave Mrs. Bush a black hijab decorated with a pink ribbon to help raise awareness for breast cancer research. As any visitor who respects her hosts, Mrs. Bush was delighted to wear it.
However, the then-First Lady spent considerable time explaining herself as to why she felt the need to don the hijab that represents to many Western conservative extremists a symbol of oppression of women.
Politics aside, there are no culturally traditional clothing that sparks more outrage in the West than the keffiyeh, the Saudi thobe, the abaya (or burqa) and the hijab. While the hijab is indeed an obligatory code of dress, it’s not worn to display religious affiliation. There is no religious obligation to wear the burqa or niqab. Rather, these are articles closely associated with Arab and South Asian culture.
The issue of cultural clothing received considerable attention in February when history students in a Lumberton, Texas, high school wore variations of the keffiyeh, thobe, niqab and burqa as part of a classroom project. The intent by the teacher appeared to be to help students change their perceptions about Muslims and Islam.
The project raised the hackles of parents who complained that Christianity could not be taught on campus, but it was OK to teach Islam. The media picked up the story and fanned the flames of outrage by claiming students were “forced” to wear the clothing.
The teacher followed reasonable curriculum required by the school district. District officials said the lesson “focused on exposing students to world cultures, religions, customs and belief systems. The lesson is not teaching a specific religion, and the students volunteered to wear the clothing.” Judaism and Christianity were also part of the project..
The Huffington Post picked up on the story and held a live radio chat that included a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and opponents of the history lesson.
The message that CAIR should have delivered, but never quite made clear during the radio interview, was the history class lesson was a typical high school exercise in teaching foreign cultures to teenagers. While the Arab Spring has helped drive the politicization of Islam, some Americans have taken the view that Arab culture is synonymous with Islam; that the two are interchangeable.
Parents and teachers would never consider that male students wearing the kippa as part of a history lesson is indoctrination of Judaism. Nor does the thought of high school kids wearing a Mao suit conjure up thoughts of communist indoctrination. And neither should wearing a burqa, representing some segments of Afghanistan society, be considered an oppressive religious garment.
Muslims themselves share some of the responsibility of confusing culture with religion. But most, including the 6 to 8 million American Muslims, make the distinction. The problem is we have done a poor job of delivering that message to non-Muslims.
Context also matters. Context provides a better illustration of the hypocrisy of condemning leaders (or non-Muslim school children) for wearing traditional Arab clothing, but praising them for being culturally sensitive to wearing other foreign clothing.
An American teacher may be condemned for having his students wear the keffiyeh and thobe to represent an Arab country. But would the same teacher be singled out for criticism if he had his students wear the same costume for a nativity scene during the Christmas holidays?

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