‘Mama, Let Me Do Your Scarf So You Can Look Muslim’

My 6-year-old daughter loves headscarves. In preschool she went through a phase where she color-coordinated them with her outfits while getting dressed. This is my same daughter whose most frequent proclamation when we view her vast dress collection in the morning is, “Nope, not fancy enough!”

On a recent trip to Morocco, she discovered a drawer in her grandmother’s bureau filled with colorful, silky headscarves. She dressed herself up in the mirror for the next half-hour, reminding me of the pleasure I derived from my grandmother’s jewelry box as a child.

Her love of headscarves is no different than her love of fancy dresses, hot chocolate or her bike. It’s not something I give much thought to.

One Saturday morning just after her ballet class, she found a scarf in my purse and declared, “Mama, let me do your scarf so you can look Muslim.” She said this in the same way you might say, “Let me do your hair so you can look beautiful.” She carefully wrapped the scarf around my head, smoothing wrinkles and pushing it off my forehead, ensuring not a strand of hair was visible while my older daughter took a picture. After some internal debate about whether this could be offensive to Muslims since I am not Muslim, I decided to share it on Facebook. The very first person who commented declared, “How creepy,” which was followed by another person announcing that I would be better off teaching my daughter that not all Muslim women wear a headscarf.

What these snap-second judgments didn’t consider was my daughter’s own identity: She is Muslim. Some of the most beloved people in her life wear a headscarf, and others do not. She understands there is no one way a Muslim looks. But that’s all beside the point. To her, at age 6, a headscarf is not so much an expression of faith as it one of beauty.

My daughter doesn’t see headscarves through the lens of jaded news media coverage that popularizes them as symbols of oppression, which many Muslim women have eloquently disputed. She also hasn’t watched the news that usually shows Muslims as angry and violent (peaceful Muslims don’t make for very good news) or seen Hollywood movies where the bad guy is always Muslim and yells, “Allahu Akbar!” before blowing himself up. Her opinions are her own, free from loaded assumptions handed to her by people who make sweeping generalizations about her faith. She doesn’t yet know that some people call it a religion of terror or that someone told her dad once that he was paid in the military to “kill people like you.”

Without the newsworthy sound bites telling her what Islam supposedly is, she understands Islam from her own experience. Islam for her is a crescent moon, the whisper of “bismillah” before we eat, a coffee-colored rug her dad unfolds to pray, feasts with friends after sundown on the weekends during Ramadan and parties with dancing and henna on Eid. Islam may as well be Christianity to her. She sometimes confuses churches and mosques — not unreasonable, since they are both places of worship, where people go to be closer to God.

While my daughter sees no differences between a church or a mosque, I have had to remind her several times that most Muslims don’t put up a Christmas tree as we do. Not every family is mixed faith like ours. To her it’s all so ordinary — Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Ramadan and Eid.

When my husband and I began dating 10 years ago, how our difference in faith would play out in children was a central discussion. We agreed that children would share both our belief systems (even though I don’t have a religious identity beyond spiritual) which made perfect sense at the time.

It was only after having children that I reconsidered this approach and came to favor one dominant faith identity while making room for a diversity of celebrations. Life is enriched by celebrations, but I believe having one faith is more beneficial through life’s ups and downs than grappling with a nebulous belief system like my own. I knew that Islam inspires antipathy, but the bigotry and misunderstanding of the many was irrelevant to our personal family decision.

What I didn’t imagine was how visibly intolerance would reveal itself in little things. If my daughter said, “Mama, let me make you look Buddhist” and helped me into lotus pose, would I have received the same responses? A headscarf is such a magnet for uninvited assumptions that many missed the essence of that moment in the mother-daughter photo: a little girl’s pride in making her mama look beautiful.

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