By Mauree Turner, Shehla Fazili, and Anna Facci

Often, in times of heightened animosity towards the Muslim community, non-Muslim allies seek ways to show their solidarity with American Muslims. One of the most debated ways to show solidarity is whether or not non-Muslim women can or should wear a headscarf, sometimes referred to as hijab. This desire to show support is very encouraging,  but it is important to find the line between solidarity and cultural (or in this case, cultural and religious) appropriation.

Finding this line can present quite a challenge. To understand it, we first must approach the topic of what the hijab symbolizes to Muslim women. When it comes to the hijab (which is Arabic for covering), there are many, many styles, each with a different name. These styles vary by culture and geography. Hijab isn’t just wearing a headscarf or head wrap though – the term also refers to the loose clothes that Muslim women (and men) may wear.

The religious implications of hijab go far beyond simply covering your hair or neck – the practice of hijab represents a spiritual commitment to behaving in a way that follows the path of God. Dressing modestly is only one aspect of this.

This idea of hijab as modesty is elaborated on in the Qur’an 24:30, but we feel here that it is important to note that modesty in Islam is not only limited to women. While a woman’s practice of modesty is more visually apparent, a man’s, while less apparent, is still of high importance.

“Tell the believing men that they should restrain their gaze (from looking at the women whom it is lawful for them to marry, and from others’ private parts), and guarding their private parts and chastity.” Qur’an 24:30

One of the other reasons wearing the hijab in solidarity can cause concern is that not all Muslim women wear a headscarf. The practice of hijab is a personal choice – and a highly personal one at that. Some women wear hijab around any man who is not a member of their family; some women only wear hijab while praying; others may wear hijab on days they feel like it and leave it at home on other days. In all of these cases, the Muslim woman is choosing to practice her faith as she sees best. This means that wearing a headscarf as a mechanism for solidarity with Muslim women actually excludes the experiences of many Muslim women.

Opinions about wearing the hijab in solidarity vary widely – below are some examples that we thought might help offer some clarity about which scenarios we see as appropriate and which we see as appropriation.

It is appropriate to wearing a head covering or scarf in solidarity when invited to do so by a Muslim woman, particularly if attending a Muslim event or attending a service at a mosque or Islamic center. It is appropriation to wear a headscarf when doing so makes the headscarf political – for example, by wearing one for a social media post that calls political attention to Muslim Americans. Wearing a headscarf without understanding the religious context and internal debates over the hijab is appropriation. Religious head coverings, ultimately, are not props to be used solely for social gain or self-promotion.

It is our opinion that wearing a headscarf in solidarity, instead of directly engaging with the Muslim women who do so, only contributes to a mentality that seeks to do good without considering the impact on the community that experiences discrimination. Why wear a scarf over your head to project the experience when there are already Muslim women who wear the scarf daily and live the reality you seek to project?  Any attempt at solidarity should include the experiences of all Muslim women. Instead of drawing attention to oneself, one should empower these women and work to overcome Islamophobia. Empowerment and active learning should be a priority in facilitating mutual understanding and respect.

At the end of the day, no one can police what you wear. If you choose to stand in solidarity and wear a hijab then you can do just that – but we ask that you consider the broader cultural and religious implications before you do.

For more, we suggest reading: “Wearing a hijab isn’t the way you should show support for Muslim women”