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Picking the Wrong Fight

“Fighting for women’s rights means knowing where the fight should be fought.”

Human hair—those strands of compressed dead keratin protein emerging from the scalp to be painstakingly styled, colored, and cut—has long served as a medium for expression of gender, race, and economic class. In particular, women’s hair has always been highly politicized, where the boundaries of hair-related behavior are driven by social norms and expectations. But as a U.S.-born Muslim American woman, I quickly learned that the statement that causes the most consternation is when a woman’s hair is covered as an expression of religious intent.

When I decided to start wearing hijab, the combination of modest clothing and a headscarf, I understood that my simple act of religious piety would turn into an invitation for dialogue and debate within my personal circle of friends. I accepted the challenges that I would have to face in public spaces unfamiliar with Islam, and in a competitive job market where laws don’t manage to stop employers from discrimination. What I didn’t expect, however, was the recent emergence of a global debate, and in some cases hate-filled hysteria, challenging the very notion that Muslim women choosing to cover their hair could be anything other than a finger in the eye of modern feminism and an archaic throwback to a bygone era of medieval oppression.

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