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New York school holds World Hijab Day

Parents were not informed in advance, and many were angry. Experts say that the hijab is actually not an Islamic requirement.

Hillel Fendel,

Veiled Muslim woman (illustration)
Veiled Muslim woman (illustration)
Thinkstock

Officials at the World [High] School of Inquiry in Rochester, New York, spent a week this month fielding dozens of calls from parents angry about a “World Hijab Day” event that encouraged girls to wear the Muslim religious head covering.

So reports EAGnews.org, the flagship website of Education Action Group Foundation, Inc.

The "Hijab Day" was held in the school on the first Friday of this month, at the request of a sophomore who wears a hijab every day. The principal approved the idea, and teachers brought in 150 scarves for female students to try on and wear for the day. Boys were given carnations to wear in solidarity.

Little did the principal realize, for some reason, the backlash the idea would cause.

“As a high school teacher for over 30 years, let me say that this is wrong on so many levels,” Jim Farnholz wrote on his Facebook page. He elaborated: "All religions are taught in our global studies classes. That being said, that is where understanding, tolerance and the good and bad of religion and history are taught. This, however, is a clear violation of separation of church and state.”

The student who initiated the project – originally from Yemen – said, “We wanted [the students] to experience it and feel how we feel… I just feel proud that I’m sharing my culture.”

Fear of legal repercussions, of course, had the final say. A school district spokesman said that when officials consulted with an attorney about the World Hijab Day event, they were advised that there would be legal issues if the school said no to the event.

The principal, Sheela Webster, was one of those who donned a hijab for the day. She insisted that the event was not religious, but rather cultural and experiential: "We are an experiential school; we engage kids in all kinds of activities and projects all of the time, so the perspective of being able to learn what a hijab is, why some women choose to wear it and why some women don’t choose to wear it…"

A Clarion Project report commented on this point: "Unfortunately, learning about 'why some women don’t choose to wear it' – or more pointedly, what happens to women in certain Muslim countries and societies who have no choice whether or not to wear it - was not part of the program."

Some Muslims have noted that there is a well-financed conservative effort within modern Islam to promulgate the idea that the hijab is a requirement of Islam – even though as recently as two or three decades ago, in many Islamic societies it was not. It is no longer uncommon to hear of "honor killings," both in the West and in Muslim countries, of Muslim women who did not don a hijab.

One offended Rochester school parent commented online on the hijab project, writing, “What lesson will they wear a Yarmulke in? Or the Christian cross? Or the Hindu turban?... Funny how it always seems to be the Muslims they learn about…"

Another commenter was more forthright: “How disgusting and irresponsible for any educator to encourage a child to wear a symbol of oppression, whether it be religious or cultural,” Rebecca Sluman wrote. And Rick Bentley added, "Don’t you kids dare wear a shirt with the American flag on it, someone WILL be offended."