What everyone got wrong about Mason High School’s Covered Girl Challenge (and why that’s the real problem)

The American public is more than twice as likely to report having negative feelings toward Muslims than toward Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, according to a comprehensive Gallup poll. As the world’s second largest religion, Islam is visible but widely misunderstood, and students at Mason High School in Mason, Ohio wanted to change that.

Mason’s Muslim Student Association recently (April 2015) organized an event called Covered Girl Challenge. MSA invited any student to wear a headscarf—or hijab—to school for one day, in an effort to “combat stereotypes students may face when wearing head coverings.” The day would be followed with discussion groups where student participants could reflect on their experience and talk about what they feel the Hijab means in the context of the Muslim faith. The Covered Girl Challenge was the Muslim community’s invitation to the rest of the Mason High School community, to try and understand the religion that so many Americans would, at best, like to ignore.

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The email that went out to students linked to this Buzzfeed video. In it, Edina Lekovic, Director of Policy and Programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, challenges four American women to wear a hijab for the day, and then talk about their experience. Spoiler alert: their perspectives change (and no, they don’t convert to Islam). The Covered Girl Challenge is nested in overcoming misconceptions of what the hijab actually means. And, what is often the first delusion about hijab? The assumption that a hijab is oppressive. Lekovic explains: “The core of it is that it’s supposed to be a symbol of modesty, and a symbol of a woman’s intellectual ability, over her physical beauty and sexuality.”

For many—if not most—American Muslims, the hijab is a tool of empowerment that has nothing to do with jihad or drawing attention to Islam. Muslim students at MHS simply wanted other students to understand that.

Not surprisingly, cyber xenophobes overtook MSA’s attempts to bring light to the Muslim experience at MHS, ultimately prompting the school to cancel the event and issue an apology. Robert Spencer, a vocal opponent to Islam, posted about the article on his blog “Jihad Watch,” positing that teachers were the ones actually asking students to wear hijabs for a day. In fact, the Covered Girl Challenge was organized by students, and offered students the choice to wear a hijab. His post demonizes the attempt to elicit cultural understanding, and goes so far as claiming that Mason’s MSA is connected to Islamic terrorist groups. Finally, he calls on his readers to email MHS’ principal in opposition to this event: “Do not give them ammunition in their jihad against freedom: be calm, respectful and reasonable in all communications, limiting discussion to asking why Islam is getting this preferential treatment in a public school.” His followers responded, taking to Twitter, email, and the phones, doing his bidding.

One man even said he would forbid his daughters from participating in a Covered Girl Challenge, if they didn’t refuse on their own that is.

Former Mason school board member Sharon Poe was one community member who spoke out against the Covered Girl Challenge. “My belief is wearing these hijabs represents the oppression of women and Sharia law,” she said. What Poe seems to completely fail to acknowledge is what a hijab actually means to the women who wear it in America. (She’s referring to instances where women in Islamic countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabic, are required to wear hijab.) But for most Muslim women in the Western world, wearing hijab is a choice, and an empowering part of their spiritual journey.

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Ghofran Miari, a student at The Ohio State University, wears a hijab—and yes she’s a feminist—and asserts that the hijab has as much to do with Islam as it has to do with feminism. “Hijab is an active effort to prioritize women’s contributions over their physical attributes,” Miari said. “While it does have a religious affiliation in Islam, that affiliation is based in theory.” Her statement echoes the entire purpose of the Covered Girl Challenge.

While people like Sharon Poe point at hijabis and decry oppression, Miari shares that “women in Muslim majority counties discuss women’s oppression in western countries including the unattainable beauty standards and the sexualization of women in the media.” Miari points out a huge cultural disconnect in how oppression shows itself. “It’s all about perspective,” she explained. Indeed, it is all about perspective.

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But what do we do when an opportunity to provide perspective is cancelled?

For most American Muslim women, wearing a hijab means unintentionally sending an invitation for others to lay down their own assumptions and prejudices. The young women in Mason’s Muslim Student Association hoped to address the stereotypes and misconceptions that follow their identity as young Muslim women in America–in Ohio. They invited their fellow students to share this experience with them, then discuss afterwards how they felt wearing hijab, so their fellow students could begin to understand why they do it. That invitation was not only rejected, but condemned by community members. That’s exactly why we need things like the Covered Girl Challenge.

Members of Mason’s MSA declined to comment, but been vocally supportive of their cause on social media. You can use the hashtag #SupportACoveredGirlChallenge to join the conversation.