Slusher: Vernon Hills High School's event certainly stirred discussion

 
 

Who knew a headscarf could attract so much attention?

The experiences of a former Daily Herald reporter might provide some clues. In 2005, then-staff writer Nadia Malik, who has since moved on to other professional interests, wrote a compelling first-person story about the wrenching decision she -- as a Backstreet Boys-loving, ponytail-wearing, bell-bottom jeans-clad 18-year-old from the suburbs -- made to wear the hijab, the traditional head covering whose purpose, in Malik's explanation, is "cloaking a woman's physical appearance to highlight her intelligence and personality."

Malik's experience 10 years ago, written in response to questions she'd been asked at a Harper College exhibit vilifying various forms of hijab as symbols of the oppression of women, gained fresh meaning in the past week. Lake County senior photographer Gilbert R. Boucher II dropped in on an event at Vernon Hills High School, and the one-minute video and 470-word story he wrote quickly became one of the most talked-about stories the Daily Herald has produced. The report described an event sponsored by VHHS's Muslim Student Association in which non-Muslim female students voluntarily wore the hijab for a day to get a better understanding of what it's like in today's suburbs to wear something that makes you stand out as the hijab does,

In the past week, Boucher's online story has been shared, literally around the world, more than 60,000 times on Facebook. It has attracted more than 350 comments in an online discussion.

All from an event its organizers humbly hoped would show "we are just caring, peaceful, respectful students." VHHS's Principal Jon Guillaume emphasized the value of the engagement the event promoted. "This wasn't about promoting a religion," he said. "It was about getting kids to follow a theme we have, which is to walk a mile in someone's shoes before you cast any judgment."

Those VHHS young ladies who took up the hijab experience displayed an admirable willingness to advance their understanding of a different culture through empathy. Accidentally, they also launched a serious cultural discussion in a terrorism-stained political climate that is growing even less tolerant than that when Malik donned the hijab despite the scolding of her devoutly Muslim mother, who fretted, "Do you want people to see you as a fundamentalist?"

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Like those VHHS students, a Wheaton College professor took up the veil in an effort, as she posted on Facebook, to show "religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book." The college, however, grew concerned that Dr. Larycia Hawkins' online reflections misstated the school's evangelical theology and placed her on leave. Wednesday, scores of Wheaton students petitioned the administration on her behalf and hundreds of people rallied with her in Chicago. Her story has become a national conversation.

It began with a scarf. Who can say where it will go from here? With abiding faith in democracy and the power that engaged discussion has for good, we editors of course anticipate the best, eventually. Perhaps even those bent on castigating an entire religion based on the vicious perversions of a minority of its adherents will eventually recognize how a simple garment can, as Malik described, at once express one's cultural and religious identity and "liberate my American self."

Or, recalling the words of the Harper professor whose question inspired Malik's reflections, it may help explain the conflicting emotions a simple item of clothing can evoke. "Do we risk demonizing the hijab?" Malik quoted Harper's Steven Peskind. "Isn't it possible that wearing the veil is just an expression of faith?"

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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