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Why Non-Muslim Women Have Spent Ramadan Doing the Hijab Challenge

Wearing a hijab for a day, a week, or a month doesn’t challenge the systemic oppression Muslim women face.

A non-Muslim woman wearing a hijab.
A non-Muslim woman wearing a hijab, during a 2014 event in which mosques across Australia opened their doors to non-Muslims to dispel misconceptions about Islam.
Photo: Luis Ascui/Getty Images

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Ramadan comes to a close this week, and throughout the Muslim holy month, women who don’t practice the religion have been wearing hijabs.

They’ve worn the head coverings as part of what’s called the Ramadan hijab challenge, a way for non-Muslims to show solidarity with the Muslim community. And while Nazma Khan, the president and founder of the World Hijab Day organization, applauds women for taking the challenge, not everyone supports the practice of non-Muslim women veiling themselves.

”This event is for those who want to experience the hijab for more than just one day in order to better understand what Muslim women go through on a daily basis,” Khan told Al Jazeera in May. She went on to say that non-Muslims wearing the hijab make more of a social impact than fasting does, a statement co-signed by Afaf Nasher, executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

But critics of the hijab challenge argue that wearing the hijab may be too shallow of an act, a way for non-Muslims to play dress-up for empathy’s sake while doing little to address the often gendered violence hijabis face from Islamophobes every day. Reports from both CAIR and Georgetown University showed a rise of Islamophobia following the 2016 presidential election. In fact, Georgetown University reported Islamophobia was at a 15-year high, meaning that Muslims in the US face just as much animus now as they did immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks.

“Be a hijabi” sign.
A woman carries a “Be a hijabi” sign on World Hijab Day.
Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Wearing a hijab in solidarity may lead to compelling photo-ops, but these ultimately offer little substance,” Shireen Ahmed pointed out last year in an essay for the Establishment. “The action does not affect policy or organizational structures, and it doesn’t help to dismantle unjust systems that cause distress to so many women of color within the wider Muslim community.”

She also asserts that the practice de-centers actual Muslim women. The experience becomes more about what the ally feels wearing the hijab than the real violence and government policies that threaten Muslim women. Moreover, Darakshan Raja, co-director of the Muslims for Justice Collective, has said the practice of non-Muslims wearing the hijab is more about assuaging the guilt of allies than it is about challenging the institutional oppression Muslim women face.

“So many layers of how hijab is being co-opted by political liberals and even Islamophobes … [are] as tools to talk about how progressive they are,” she argued.

Moreover, not all Muslim women wear the hijab, making the veil far from a catchall symbol. While some wear other forms of coverings, such as the burqa, others choose to wear no covering at all. Some Muslim women who don’t regularly wear hijabs reserve Ramadan as a time to do so, making the hijab challenge an altogether different experience for them than it is for some of the non-Muslims who do so.

In addition, Islamophobia does not stop at the veil. Sikhs have been victims of deadly hate crimes at the hands of Islamophobes because of their trademark turbans. And any beige or brown person can also be victimized, one reason hate crime legislation protects people attacked because bigots mistook them for members of a targeted group.

American flag hijabs.
Two women in patriotic hijabs on World Hijab Day.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Getty Images

As a Christian born to an interfaith couple — my mother is a Baptist from Tennessee, and my father is a Muslim from Nigeria — I can personally attest to experiencing Islamophobia sans hijab. My maiden name, Kareem, is actually part of the widely used Ramadan greeting “Ramadan Kareem,” which roughly translates to “may Ramadan be generous to you.”

I’ve had people make terrorist jokes about me, nervously inquire if I’m a member of the faith when the issue is irrelevant, send xenophobic mail to my workplace, and take to social media to suggest that I don’t belong in this country — simply for being born with a Muslim name.

Islamophobia’s reach is far and wide, hijab or not. But the fact that there’s no consensus in the Muslim community about the appropriateness of wearing the hijab as an act of solidarity shows how diverse and complex Muslims are. Ultimately, it’s up to any one person to decide if the hijab challenge is the right move to make. But those who do should be prepared to use the experience as more than just a way to develop empathy for “the other.”

One shouldn’t have to wear a headscarf to understand that xenophobia, and all the marginalization, insults, and abuse that goes with it, is at a fever pitch in our society. Allies can be supportive by voting out politicians who spout Islamophobia or affiliate themselves with Islamophobes. They can volunteer for or donate money to Muslim organizations. They can support the work and political activism of Muslim women and take action when they witness Islamophobia. Showing solidarity for Muslim women doesn’t begin and end with wearing the hijab.