Hailey Woldt is part of an anthropological project, led by American University Islamic studies professor Akbar Ahmed, to document what it is to be Muslim in America after September 11th. Her assignment: wear an abaya.
Luckily for everyone's sanity, she -unlike Danielle Crittenden at the Huffington Post - isn't doing it to try to make some large statement about women's oppression or to show off her own ignorance. She and her co-workers are doing it as part of a large documentary and book project, "to discuss American identity, Muslim identity, and find out how well this country upholds its ideals in a post-September 11 world." Woldt, in fact, is wearing it to try to see if Americans are as racist as we think we are.
The project itself sounds really interesting, from interviews with a variety of Muslim-Americans from all walks of life with roots in many different countries. So, I hate to bash the project as a whole or suggest that someone like Woldt shouldn't be doing it. But the one problem with playing dress-up in traditional Muslim garb as an obviously-white woman to expose prejudice is that prejudice against Muslims and assumptions about Muslim women are also deeply rooted in race.
Woldt isn't going to get looks or questions the same way an Arabic Muslim woman or an African Muslim woman would because she's white and, with that, comes a basic assumption that she's choosing to wear a garment for reasons that are her own. I mean, no one is going around arguing that the U.S. government needs to free Hasidic Jewish women from the confines of their wigs and modest clothing, right? No one is trying to get Mennonite or Amish women to free themselves from patriarchal religious structures that have them clothed in bonnets and long pioneer-woman type dresses (in some cases). No one is trying to get nuns to ditch their habits or their vows of chastity. And, yet, there is a very basic assumption that, for the (mostly) brown women who wear hijabs, abayas or niqabs for religious reasons, that they must be freed from the yokes of their oppressors — even in this country. Because, of course, if they knew they could choose, of course they wouldn't.
Which is, of course, not to say that some women aren't forced to dress more modestly than they might otherwise choose. It doesn't mean that no women are harassed - here or abroad - for their clothing choices, be they modest or immodest. But what is does mean is that you can stick me in an abaya and send me down South and far fewer people would look askance at me because I'm a white woman wearing it - and because people will assume that it's my choice and not someone else's.