The facilitator, Joy Stewart, and we here at Serious Woo decided it was the perfect opportunity to try out an experiment we’ve been ruminating on for some time, attempting to get to the bottom of this question:
Are women really treated differently when dressed in a hijab?
Believe me, this was not a decision we took lightly and Muslim friends were consulted about the impact and ramifications of a non-Muslim woman wearing a hijab to avoid any offence or misguided message. indeed, we wanted to see if this highlighted an unconscious bias – not exploit one.
So it was decided. I purchased the tools necessary for my head scarf, we designed our scenarios for the evening, 4 actors with a range of issues and my physical appearance was a side line to the actual EI evaluation of the night. Never the less – we were ready.
Before the event, whilst catching up with a dear friend in Balmain, she assisted me in slipping into an attire that looks easy yet remained deceptively tricky to place. My western jeans replaced with a dress, my low neckline covered by the draping scarf and finally (after 3 fumbling attempts by two ladies who now have a huge respect for hair pins) we were satisfied with my authenticity. With that – I wrapped my arms around her 8-year-old (who in glorious child fashion did not even notice I looked different) and headed out to catch public transport to the city in peak hour.
The difference I felt internally and externally were quite remarkable.
On arrival, we settled in to prepare for the evening and the guests arrived, including one young Muslim lady. When she entered, my heart raced, my cheeks flushed and I suddenly had this rush of adrenalin that ‘she’d see straight through me, she be highly offended, I’ve done a horrible thing’. So, I avoided eye contact. Vehemently.
The night took off and the scenarios were a raging success. The learning was exceptional and each participant dived into unknown communication territory and bravely tried different approaches. Exactly what we were after.
At the end of the night, our exceptional facilitator, Joy Stewart did the various introductions of the actors. She brought me to the centre of the circle and asked how many people thought I was Muslim. And then I removed the hijab. The room became devoid of air and jaws dropped. We asked participants to truly examine their personal responses to me and question if it would be different now they were aware I wasn’t actually Muslim. Only they will know the true answer.
Gloriously, as soon as the session finished, up bounced the wonderfully warm woman whose eye contact I’d desperately been avoiding.. “I knew you weren’t Muslim’ She said with a gleeful smile ‘Because we Muslim girls – we stick together and we connect with one another and you wouldn’t even look at me’. I explained. We giggled. I asked if what we had done would be accepted by the Muslim community and the beaming smile returned ‘Of course’ she chortled ‘There should be more of it’.. Then she asked the question we were wanting to explore ‘So…. What was the difference?’
The difference externally was subtle and mostly my learning came from walking to the event. The eye contact shifted. People would look once… then away and never back again. Second eye contact was not admissible. And physically, the difference came when crossing the street, you know the moment, someone is coming towards you and usually both of you, slightly shift to avoid collision. Not this time. I found people quite adamant in sticking to their path and I was the one side-stepping as if they had some magical rite of passage. An observation that is particularly interesting being 6 months pregnant.
But what I noticed most was the internal awareness I felt wearing a hijab. The sudden consciousness of being different, of being a part of a cultural minority that receive bad press and social stigma. I felt slight fear. That I MAY be treated badly. At any second. For nothing more than wearing a scarf. That the bias was not necessarily subconscious – but lurking around every corner. And it made me sad. It made me understand why Muslim women support each other and why – as my new friend said ‘you just have to be strong and keep on – and teach the world we are all not like that’.
Our aim for the night was to examine unconscious bias in a workshop setting. What I didn’t expect was the profound effect it had on me as I travelled in my undercover attire. Or the new friend I’d make at the end of the night. I will now be aware of my path sharing and eye contact as I wander down the street and much more appreciative of the subtle bravery it takes women to proudly wear their religious dress. And of course, an eternal respect for hair pins.