I Wore a Hijab to Art Basel, and You Should Wear One This Saturday

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When Jenan Matari, the cofounder of MissMuslim.com, asked me to wear contemporary Muslim clothing including a headscarf as part of A Day in Her Hijab — a virtual event she is organizing for December 10 — I hesitated. In general, I’m the kind of friend who will show up if something is critical — but if it’s just for social purposes, probably nah. Also, I don’t like to be involved in public displays of goodness, especially the ones that happen all over Facebook. I was raised to believe that the most sincere good deeds are the ones you don’t brag about.

But Matari gave a simple but compelling pitch:

“There are ways of showing solidarity and support — and what better way than to literally walk around like a Muslim woman for the day and experience what it's like? Be it confidence, fear, harassment from those around you who are against the hijab, or support from those who stand for religious freedom — whatever you experience and feel on A Day in Her Hijab is a short, close look at how Muslim women who are brave enough to wear the flag of Islam walk through every day.”

The rules of engagement and what’s right in this country are changing every day, and who knows what may come in the future. But being quiet in the background with your beliefs is not enough anymore. Showing up for your friends in marginalized groups might just be the most important way to care for their well-being.

A Day in Her Hijab will take place this Saturday, but I’m telling my experience in past tense. That's because I did it December 3, during Art Basel Miami Beach.

The minute I read the invitation, I remembered a potential conflict overseas — which was also a conveniently easy excuse to skip out of the event without giving other reasons. I was immediately tempted to take that easy out. That’s how I knew I couldn’t.

So I decided to wear the hijab to all the Miami Art Week events I had planned to cover. Through the A Day in Her Hijab project, I connected with a Muslim "buddy," Diana, who offered perspective as I made my way through the world. (She was also the person who taught me how to put the thing on and helped fix it along the way.)
Going in, I was afraid I’d be physically assaulted. Basel-goers certainly qualify as the "liberal elite," but attacks have been reported in other progressive hubs, and I didn't want to become the star of the next Starbucks video or roadside Facebook post. As a freelancer, I was — and am — afraid that at some point, marking myself so clearly and publicly as a friend to Muslims will lose me some work. Or worse, if the alt-right/neo-Nazis are really taking over, maybe they’ll put me on some sort of dissident registry and, ugh, best not to go down that route.

But last weekend, I spent a day traveling around the city, by foot and by Uber, during one of Miami's busiest weeks, all without incident.

That's not to say I was treated like I'm used to. I received many blatant up-and-down stares from female guests at all venues — especially at the bank where we made an ATM pit stop. Whether they were confused by my blue eyes or just really noting the hijab, we’ll never know, because nobody said anything. Diana said she wished sometimes people would ask questions, because at least a conversation would begin. For example, yes, there are fair-skinned, blue-eyed Muslims in the world.

Meanwhile, men ignored me — not in a rude way; it was more like the presence of the hijab took me off the radar of men who size up every woman they see according to whether they'd hit that or not.

But those were the only changes. No one pushed me, called me names, or refused me service. At both the Tag Heuer show at the Mondrian and the Emilio Robba exhibit at the Langford, however, public relations contacts who have known me via email for ages blinked when they saw me, but showed no reaction after that. They were possibly nicer to me than they even are normally — which is saying something. At Aqua Art Fair, the event staffers were unfazed; they had much more interestingly dressed folks in attendance.

At the end of the day, I had made a new friend, I had gained a little perspective into the lives of hijab-wearing Muslim women, and I had suffered exactly nothing. I plan to do A Day in Her Hijab again this Saturday. And you should too.

People’s beliefs are the product of their personal experiences. People who distrust all Muslims probably don’t know any. I strongly suggest doing the experiment with a Muslim buddy if you can, because she can compare your manufactured experience to her real life. (Matari doesn't advocate the buddy system, saying the project is intended to ask women to go into the world on their own, like Muslims have to.) I found myself relying on Diana for emotional support, for fixing my scarf when it slipped, and for conversation — a lot of conversation. The kind of conversation that puts a real face to the rhetoric you see on the news. Post a comment to the Facebook event page, and you might be able to connect with a local expert.

If you call yourself an open-minded person, an inclusive person, a decent person, the minimum you can do is show up for your friends of other races and religions. And doing the right thing is often more difficult than you think. Maybe you're counting on your heroism to kick in at a moment of crisis, imagining you would confront any bully who might hit a Muslim girl in the face, pull off her headscarf, or call her a name. But if think you’d do that while finding reasons to sit out this very easy social experiment, you’re deluded.

The only way you’ll get used to standing up for people is if you put yourself in their place, starting now. This Saturday, A Day in Her Hijab gives you the chance to see what it feels like to take a public stand in the real world. Here in Miami, one of the most culturally diverse cities in North America, it’s relatively low-risk. And at the end of the day, you will have gifted yourself with better perspective.

Besides, whatever might happen couldn’t be worse than what real Muslims go through every day. If you do this, always remind yourself of that.

Visit the A Day in Her Hijab Facebook event page.

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