It's 88 degrees on a scorching Tuesday afternoon, and I'm at the office water cooler, downing my third cup.
"Aren't you hot?", my co-worker asks, referring to the hijab that's wrapped around my head and draping over my chest.
"Yes." I say nothing more, nothing less. Because that's all she asked.
She looks at me, unsatisfied by that response, clearly struggling with what to say next. I smile at her, and when she says nothing, I walk away.
For a long time, we've given people the 'okay' to say things like this because we take it upon ourselves to spare them from that brief moment of internal struggle that they experience when they don't know how to continue the conversation.
We beat them to it, by answering the questions they don't actually ask. And while that is generous in theory, it's detrimental to the way we teach others to approach us. We give them a pass; but pass after pass turns into derogatory speech that, despite our strong characters and impenetrable self-confidence, will sometimes annoy us on a day when we're not feeling very generous. We are human, after all. And speaking for myself, I'm not always in the right mood to be a missionary of peace and commonwealth. Therefore, there is a discussion that needs to be started, and it revolves solely around how to ask the right questions.
Sometimes, these 'wrong' questions are so subtly wrong that we don't notice them. But for the sake of building bridges and creating appropriate dialogue that can be carried by all, we have to notice them. While we may possess the ability to look past a snarky remark and carry forth in being socially informative Muslims, we're only encouraging a behavior that may not be met with the same response as ours. And then what are the consequences of that? An angry Muslim woman that doesn't want to answer innocent questions and help others understand, of course. And as past events have taught us all too well, it only takes one negative encounter to vilify the reputation of an entire population.
The truth is, most people are curious, and that's a wonderful thing, because curiosity is the key to abolishing blind ignorance. It means that there is a genuine urge to know that is fighting the unfortunate, but natural, urge to judge according to the attitude engendered by the status quo.
It's a great place to start, but definitely not enough on its own.
A young lady once watched as I adjusted the pin on my hijab and then asked, "Aren't you scared you're going to stab yourself?", to which I replied, "It's happened." As you probably guessed, that wasn't the right question. When we see something strange or foreign to us, something that seems alarming from our point of view, our aim should be to clear up that confusion. This can't be achieved through yes or no questions. That just cuts the conversation short. A better question would have been, "How do you wrap your hijab?" That's a question upon which a conversation is built, and can grow. It's a question that shows authentic interest and has no trace of prejudice. It's where we should start, by making the foreign known and understood. And then we can talk about how many times I've stabbed myself, and how that side of my head doesn't even notice anymore.
It seems like people are side-stepping around blatantly asking about things due to fear of being intrusive, and therefore, offensive. But I would much rather have someone ask why I choose to wear the hijab, than for them to just ask if I have one in every color. Again, the only answer to that is "yes", and that conversation would then be over.
These wrong questions are perceived to be good for breaking barriers, because people believe them to be acknowledging differences and speaking about them rather than pretending they didn't exist, but all they really do is give a light shove. Knowledge is what breaks barriers. But asking whether or not I'm hot is gaining knowledge around the subject matter, and leaving that foreign, foreign. Deep down, what we truly want to know is the 'why?' or the 'how?', but hiding that behind a much easier question only results in a much easier answer. And easy is cheap. It isn't thought out. It isn't rich in cognition. That's why the right questions need to be asked - so that the right answers are given.
Of course, I'm not exactly advocating against being a good person and explaining things despite not being asked properly. But there is a way to fix it, slowly but surely. The next time someone asks a 'wrong question', answer with the right question.
"Do you sleep with it on?"
"Do you want to know what the guidelines are?"
image : petite-sonyeo.deviantart.com