An Executive Order
On Friday, January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The EO’s title was unwieldy and it immediately became known as “The Muslim Travel Ban.” The order drastically lowered the number of refugees permitted into the United States and specifically prohibited the admittance of Syrian refugees. The seven countries targeted by the ban had Muslim-majority populations and 60,000 travel visas were immediately “provisionally revoked.” Based on Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it was clear this travel ban was meant to halt the entrance and exit of U.S. citizens and visitors who were Muslim and, thus, falsely perceived as terrorists associated with ISIS.
I had just been in Washington D.C. the week before for the 2016 Women’s March and I still had a partially unpacked suitcase from the trip on my bedroom floor. After Trump’s travel ban was announced, I spent the next day at my kitchen table, watching the news reports online. Outside of the airports, thousands of people protested the detention of the passengers and held up signs.
The news cameras continued to pan over a particularly popular message that spoofed Marin Niemoller’s famous poem and went along the lines of, “First they came for the Muslims…but we said ‘not today, motherfuckers!’”
I sat at the kitchen table and felt sick and scared. I remember thinking to myself, “This monster has only been in power for one week and he has already gone after a beautiful, peaceful religion. What is going to happen? Are we on the edge of another Holocaust? Who will stop this?”
My children wandered in and out of the kitchen as I sat and reflected on the evil that had been ushered into our country. I reached for my phone and my eyes widened at a question posted on a private Facebook group I occasionally skimmed.
A woman on there had asked, “You know that this travel ban means that people are going to discriminate even more against the Muslims, right? What if we all wore hijab to help them? The bigots wouldn’t be able to tell who was Muslim and who was Christian then. They would never dare go after all of us then, right?”
I heard myself gasp and it felt as if I had been hit in the chest. My thoughts raced. What if we did all wear hijab? What if the best way to prevent another Holocaust was to wear scarves and hide the Muslim women among us? They wouldn’t go after all of us, would they? Is this a terrible idea? Is this cultural appropriation? Oh my God, is this the worst idea ever? I need to talk to someone about this.
I don’t remember making dinner that night or talking to my children. I felt as if I had been struck by lightning and my thoughts raced as I pondered what it would be like to wear hijab. As soon as the kitchen was cleaned up and the kids were settled in their rooms, I settled myself in my chair and composed a cautious post on Facebook about my idea of wearing hijab as a gesture of religious solidarity with our Muslim sisters. Within minutes, my page was flooded with responses and, five hours later, I had found the answers I needed.
Support and Hostility
For the most part, I was surrounded by gestures of support. I blogged about my experience as a hijabi and received hundreds of messages expressing admiration for my gesture of religious solidarity. Sure, there were some hateful folks who viewed me as a traitor to Christianity or just chasing my fifteen minutes of fame, but they were easy to mentally brush aside. Being a white lady wearing hijab was making me braver than I knew was possible.
After I had been wearing hijab for about a month, the media outlets heard about my gesture and I was interviewed by both the BBC and CBS.
(The BBC interview can be found here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04wn3jz)
As part of both the BBC and CBS interviews, I was asked if I had encountered any opposition to my gesture. I shared that my sons’ local, and very politically conservative, Boy Scout troop had tried to make me remove the headscarf because it was deemed too political, but I had ignored their request because my effort was a gesture of religious solidarity. I added that the Scoutmaster and Committee Chair had voted for Trump and viewed my action as political speech. The BBC cut that portion of the interview, but CBS did not.
And with that, the shit hit the fan.
(You can read the CBS interview here: https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2017/03/14/christian-womans-hijab-sparks-backlash-from-sons-boy-scout-troop/)
Angry white folks from all over the world started contacting me and telling me that they were going to kill me if I didn’t remove the headscarf. I received messages from people on my workplace’s email saying that they knew where I lived and worked and that my children were going to be killed as well. I told my children’s father about the death threats and carefully filed them away electronically.
It was surreal to tell him, “In case one of the crazies goes after me or the boys, here are all of the messages. It will probably be one of these guys and at least the police will have a lead if they look here first.”
A few weeks after the CBS interview aired, my closest friend in the Boy Scout troop, Lee, called me with some grave news. I was driving home from a camping trip with a bunch of happy, tired Boy Scouts and I listened incredulously as he told me that the Scoutmaster and his wife, the committee chair, had convened a secret meeting at their house to discuss how I had “bullied” them. Apparently, they were unhappy with what I had shared in the CBS interview that I had been asked to remove the hijab. They had summoned the troop’s four assistant scoutmasters, including Lee, two other members of the leadership committee, and two members of the area’s District leadership.
The purpose of the meeting was to have me removed from the Committee and, ideally, to have my family leave the troop itself.
At the meeting, Lee said he spoke on my behalf and told them that it was inappropriate to discuss my removal from the troop when I wasn’t there to speak in my own defense. Two of the other assistant scoutmasters agreed that the concerns were not being handled correctly and that I deserved a chance to speak. A vote was taken and the majority of those present, including the District leadership representatives, voted to have me removed from the committee with probable expulsion from the troop as well.
I drove through the Illinois cornfields and listened in stunned silence. Scouting had been a positive part of my family’s life and I had always valued its focus on brotherhood, reverence, and trustworthiness.
I finally asked, “So now what? Are the boys and I out of the troop now?”
Lee paused for a moment and said, “Well, that’s where things took a surprising turn. The reps from District approved your removal from the troop, but ultimately, the pastor has the final say.” (The church where we met held our Scouting charter and had the right to weigh in on troop decisions.)
I bit back my tears and said with false bravado, “Yeah, and how did that go? More backstabbing crap, right?”
“Well, that’s the thing. He said that they were wrong for wanting you to remove the hijab in the first place. That any Christian who extends a hand to other faiths should be celebrated, not vilified. He said that you were to be left alone and that they should drop it.”
I started to sob. I had never met the pastor and I didn’t even know his name. I considered myself a Christian, but I hadn’t attended services in years. Yet here was this unknown man of God advocating on my behalf.
After learning of the Scoutmaster’s attempt to have me removed from the leadership committee, it was challenging to continue my service within the troop. The pastor had saved my position, but he couldn’t protect me from further negative nonsense.
One of the worst attacks was from a mentally ill Scout parent who complained that I was trying to “steal” her husband. Lee told me that the committee chair, Christy, was encouraging the woman’s delusions and I silently viewed their numerous passive-aggressive jabs at me on social media. I carefully filed their poisonous posts away as well. No one had the courage to discuss these allegations with me directly, and I knew that people in the troop were having a wonderful time talking about me.
When I didn’t cave after the homewrecker smear campaign, Christy ended up resigning her position as Committee Chair. I was told that I was the reason for her resignation.
The months passed and we all did what uncomfortable white people do best: swept the shit under the rug, didn’t communicate, and managed to co-exist. Committee meetings were seldom held and when they were, there was a clear division of factions: who was on Team Scoutmaster and who was on Team Whoever-the-Fuck-is-Hanging-with-that-Hijab-Wearing-Bitch.
It wasn’t until I heard of the Scoutmaster going after another leader, that I knew that I needed to leave the troop. They didn’t like that the other leader was questioning why they weren’t following Scouting protocols with committee meetings and long-term planning for rank advancement activities. They surprised him on a conference call and told him that “things weren’t working out” and that not only was he not going to be approved for promotion to Assistant Scoutmaster, but that he and his family “probably” needed to leave the troop.
That was enough for me. I knew that it was time for us to go too.
Numerous families left the troop with my family and the family of the other leader, but it was still a hard change. My boys did not want to leave the troop because of the friendships they had made. As a result, they have not been as committed to participating in the new troop’s activities. I worry that one day they will want to drop out of Scouting altogether.
Several of the families I had been friendly with in the troop no longer speak to me, including one of my closest (and liberal) friends, Carla. It was devastating when she ghosted me and I realized that choosing to leave the troop meant losing a treasured friendship as well.
I have always viewed Scouting and working with children as one of my anchors, as a huge part of my identity. Without it, I feel lost and uncertain. Wearing hijab and speaking against bigotry was the right thing to do, but it dramatically impacted the Scouting part of my life. And while I know that I will find my footing and return to what I loved in Scouting, it is hard to be patient. Courage matters, but it bruises us as well.
Humility and Gratitude
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge here how my experience was not the same as the Muslim women who wear hijab every day. The Muslim, Middle Eastern women of my community were always kind and supportive of my efforts, but I know that I never truly walked in their shoes. My European features probably protected me from a great deal of harassment when I was out and about. When I went into Middle Eastern clothing stores where hijabs and burkas were sold, the clerks were patient and kind to me, but I’m sure it was clear that this was a gesture, that it was a temporary effort, while their commitment to hijab was rooted in deep religious principles.
The Muslim hijabis of this country have had to develop strength and resilience when dealing with the bigotry present in our country. For that reason, they will always have my full respect and admiration and I am grateful for their tolerance of my gesture. I will never truly understand the bigotry they face in our country, but I hope that similar gestures of support help to ease the discrimination that they bravely face every day.
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