Of Headscarves and Hidden Stereotypes


This past Tuesday I began my post natal physical therapy group. Two of the other four women were from my prenatal group, both of whose babies had been born a week or two early. A third woman has a little girl who is Tay’s age and who was also induced a week after her due date, although she didn’t have a c-section. The fourth woman was there with her youngest of 4 kids, a little girl who is 10 months old (significantly older than the rest of our babies who are all 2-3 months old).

This fourth woman was wearing a headscarf and spoke with an accent that was stronger than mine, although she seemed a lot more at ease speaking so I can’t say if she is an immigrant or a first generation Belgian of some other descent. Either way, I didn’t think too much of it I suppose, until I looked over half way through the session and saw that she had removed her headscarf.

And much to my surprise, I was shocked.
I’ve seen plenty of women in head scarves here, especially in our neighborhood which is more immigrants than Flemings and it never occurred to me that they remove their scarves outside of taking a shower or sleeping.
I know that they can take them off if there are no men around, but I’ve never been close enough to a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf to have ever been in the presence of one when they are allowed to take the scarf off.

And suddenly I saw this woman as something completely different than I had five minutes before. She had very pretty auburn-brown hair twisted up with a clip and seeing it made her face look ten years younger.
She looked like, well, like a regular woman.

Which is horrible to say, I know.
Like women who wear head scarves aren’t regular women.
But that’s when I realized that, despite the fact that I don’t consider myself racist or ignorant, I do apparently subscribe to some stereotypes.

I see women in head scarves and I confess, I automatically assume they are uneducated, either by choice or by circumstance or that they simply don’t respect themselves and allow themselves to play the role of “submissive” rather than take an active role in society. I see something slightly less than an autonomous person.

I made quick, unconscious assumptions when I first saw this woman enter the p.t. room and once I saw her without her head covered it dawned on me that had she not been wearing the scarf in the first place, I’d’ve made completely different assumptions about her without even second guessing myself.

Even now, after several days of muling it over, I’m partly ashamed of myself for swallowing the stereotypes surrounding these women so easily that I didn’t even realize I was doing it. At the same time, from what I understand, a woman covering her head in such a manner is doing so partly to make herself less noticeable (especially to men) and in doing so does, at least in part, subscribe to the Muslim ideology* that somehow women are inferior to men, or are nothing more than a temptation to men that must be covered up and hidden away.
So then I have to wonder, if that’s how the woman views herself, am I wrong to view her the same way? If someone follows a certain belief structure and accepts the assumption that they are inferior, what then is the proper attitude to take for an outsider like myself? Am I being disrespectful if I try to see the person according to the assumptions of my own belief structure? Am I being untrue to myself if I accept the person as what they want to be viewed as (i.e. “inferior”)?

Obviously I have no answers for myself at the present, simply a strong desire to go take some philosophy and religion courses at a university. And while I sadly, don’t have enough time for that, I do have the time and ability to stop myself from unconsciously absorbing and applying stereotypes to the people around me.

Accept for Moroccans. Don’t even get me started on Moroccans.**


* I realize there are many kinds of Muslim beliefs and some probably don’t preach the inequality of women. If anyone has an unbiased resource for me to learn more about the Muslim faith, I’d be interested, if for nothing else, not to be ill informed.



3 responses »

  1. What a great post. But I don’t know that it is all you. The head scarf does set her apart. Does make her separate from those that don’t wear them. It is suppose to. That’s why there is such a battle in some places about wearing it. She is a woman like you, but, her beliefs and mores are different, and the head scarf shows that as much as a Jesus Saves bumper sticker, or a Jewish star, or, if as non-religious Jew, a Jewish Community Center sticker. She has a different culture and a different morality, but she is still flesh, blood, mother, sister, wife, daughter. What I am saying is, the scarf gave you certain assumptions that you hadn’t been aware ran so deep, yes, but, she wears that scarf expecting and wanting you to know something about herself. If she didn’t want to be identified with her culture and her religion, she wouldn’t wear it, I would think.

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