Why do you wear that?

I recently hung out with kids on two different occasions in the last month. It was good for me. To avoid making sweeping generalizations about all kids, I hung out with two toddlers and a big girl who goes to school and can give you the spa treatment of your dreams. 

Their parents are old friends of mine. 

The big kid’s mom was in town and invited me to join her family for dinner. As we were catching up on our lives, she whispered in her mom’s ear that she’d like to ask a question. Her mom – an old friend who married another old friend, both who I hadn’t seen in years – then turned to me and said her daughter asked about my headscarf. My friend said, “I think it would be good for her to learn from you.“

It’s been a while since I answered the “Why do you wear that?” question.  After college, I decided I’d go with my gut about a questioner’s tone and establish some ground rules.

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1) I don’t answer this question for adults I barely know and especially ones who think it’s okay to ask that question but don’t care to even know my name. 

2) I don’t answer this question when doing Hijabi Monologues shows.

3) I also don’t answer this question during any public forum to which I am invited to speak on a subject that has nothing to do with hijab. 

4) I certainly won’t answer this question on a job interview. And neither should you. Because asking such a question is illegal on the part of the interviewer. 

Basically – unless you are someone who regularly feels entitled to ask all sorts of strangers and acquaintances on the streets or on stage about their sartorial choices, it’s highly problematic and inconsistent with your own practices of socializing. My guess is you most likely have touched a black woman’s hair without her permission while waiting in line for your coffee – or see nothing wrong with that. 

For example, as I was boarding a plane, three middle-aged white women standing behind me, two of whom were fake blondes and one who most likely needed to get her highlights redone, chatted. Loudly. Their admiration for 45 and his anti-immigrant positions was annoying. I’m not sure what made me turn around, but when I did, one of the fake blondes asked, “Aren’t you hot in that?” 

Several responses came to mind, like 

“Nah. I’m from Florida, bitches.”

OR 

“Does your basic Coach purse make you feel on trend?” 

OR

“Aren’t you embarrassed to be a fake blonde?”

Instead, I just shrugged, said no, and turned around. 

But back to the kids.

I like the transparency and honesty and bravery and curiosity of kids. 

And I usually like ALL of their personal questions like “Are you a superhero?”  “Are you a vampire?” “Do you like blood?” “Do you know my friend and bully Charlie?” “Why does dad do whatever mom tells him to do?” And “How does that guy (i.e. my partner) know English if he’s from Bangladesh?”

I also like my friends; I like their kids; and I like that they are raising their kids to be aware of different people in the world. 

Because of all those reasons, I was excited to take a stab at answering the question.

I’ve grown rusty.

So I said, “Well, you know your mommy is pretty cool right?”

She nodded her head. She was about to give her mommy the spa treatment of her dreams after all.

I continued, “She’s cool because of lots of things but also because she’s a woman. Like women, in general, are pretty cool.”

She nodded.

“Oh! And you and your sister are SUPER COOL.”

She smiled big. 

“And your daddy,” I looked over my shoulder, “Welll, he’s … you know. A dude.  Definitely not as cool as your mommy.”

She smiled even bigger. Her daddy saw me pointing at him and asked, “Are you talking about me?”

(By now, my friends who are theorists of gender and sexuality might be horrified by my invocation of gender binaries but like I said – I’m rusty. And haven’t hung out with kids under the age of 18 in a long time.)

I continued.

“So, what I mean is – When I get dressed to go out, I wear this, too. But when I’m hanging with my cool girlfriends — like you — I’d let my hair loose. But in secret. Not for dudes like your daddy. Except sometimes. If they’re, like, family and really close to me. It’s pretty special. Oh, and I’m Muslim. But all Muslims don’t dress the same. I think that’s it?”

She smiled even bigger. 

(I wish I added something about having a super secretive inner circle. With hand signals, and codes, and karaoke meetings, and t-shirts. Folks who judge folks for their grays and bad hair days and touch black women’s hair at Starbucks or during office hours or at the company office lounge are definitely not allowed.)

I’m not sure if any of it made sense, but I think she decided it did and that I was awesome because when her parents went to use the bathroom, she was excited and not scared to be left alone and hang with me and look at pasta. 

Then, a couple weeks later, I hung out with another toddler. She was visiting from out of town. Her momma had plans for the evening with other adults. We were excited to hang. After the adults left, we went for a walk around a neighborhood in the Upper West Side. 

As I pushed her along in her stroller, she looked up at me and said, “You always wear a scarf. On your head.”

I said, “Yes. That I do.”

She said, “It looks like a scarf. Because of those!”

She pointed to the frills at the end of my green and black shimmery leopard print scarf. 

I said, “Great observation!”

She said, “Why do you wear a scarf on your head?”

Again, I wanted to give this toddler a good answer so she could go forth in the world and prosper with her cosmopolitan cultural competence. 

So I started with – “So. You know how I’m Muslim?”

She said, “What’s Muslim?”

I said, “Oh. Right. GREAT QUESTION.”

As we walked, we passed by a JCC, and I remembered she told me she goes to a JCC. 

So I said, “So. You know how you go to JCC?”

She perked up, super excited, “Yes!”

I said, “Well…so you know how you also celebrate Shabbat and say prayers and eat good food after???”

Even more excited, she said, “YES!!”

I said, “So Muslim is like that. Like – Jewish. But MUSLIM! I’m a Muslim.”

She said, “Ohhhhhhhh.”

I wasn’t sure again if any of it landed or made sense.

But then she started shouting, “I LOVE MUSLIM! 

MUSLIM! MUSLIM! MUSLIM!”

I quickly pushed her stroller wondering what folks would make of an ambiguously brown hijabi adult woman pushing along a white, blue-eyed brunette Jewish toddler on the Upper West Side happily chanting MUSLIM MUSLIM MUSLIM. 

And I really share all of this is to say – I love kids, especially when they belong to other people.

And now, I go forth to celebrate the weekend. 

2 thoughts on “Why do you wear that?

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