It was standing room only at the “Habits and Hijabs” panel in the Center for Women of Coeur de Catherine at St. Kate’s on March 10. The panel was sponsored by the Dismantling Racism Working Group of the Justice Commission of the CSJs, St. Kate’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), and the Multicultural and International Program Services (MIPS) Office.
Three Sisters of St. Joseph (Carolyn Puccio, Avis Allmaras, and Linda Taylor) and three Muslim women (two students and a community scholar) responded to questions while a diverse audience of 75 students, faculty, staff, consociates, sisters and guests listened with rapt attention and added their own wonderings and experiences. Some of the questions the panel addressed were: “What is a Habit? Hijab?” “What’s the history?” “What does it mean to you?” “When did you start wearing it?” “What were/are the stereotypes you got/get when you wore/wear the Habit/Hijab?”
The questions prompted a sharing of stories and pictures, laughter and serious conversation among panel members and listeners for a full hour and a half. As the Sisters and Muslim women spoke, it was clear that both wore the habit or wear the hijab because of their religious beliefs. A big difference between the Sister’s and Muslim women’s replies was in regard to the stereotypes they get when they wear the habit/hijab.
Sisters are generally greeted with respect and appreciation, reverence and privilege. Muslim women are at times met with prejudice or even hostility – leading to fear for one’s safety. The contrast between the ways Sisters and Muslim women are treated when they wear religious garb led to a conversation about the acts of aggression between Islam and the Western world and the existence of religious intolerance among some people in the United States at this time. “A time”, one speaker added, “where Muslim women in the U.S. feel the most targeted.”
While head coverings can cause stereotypes from others, both habits and hijabs made women visibly identifiable to each other adding to the sense community within their respective religions. The CSJs explained the origins of the habit in France when sisters wore black veils to pass as widows in order to walk the streets freely without men. Yet as time passed, the habit lead CSJs to no longer blend in, but rather, stick out. Therefore not wearing habits now more easily allows the blending in and working with dear neighbor.
The students addressed the false perception that the hijab represents oppression of women within the Muslim community. This is not true in their experiences at all. They themselves freely choose it as a symbol of their connection and dedication to Allah. Girls decide for themselves at whatever age, if and when they want to wear the hijab.
A generous grant from the Association of the Sisters of St. Joseph Colleges and Universities (ASSJCU) in honoring National Catholic Sisters Week provided a delicious meal from The Holy Land Deli for everyone to enjoy. Both the Sisters and Muslim students expressed feeling honored and privileged to participate in this dialogue. Hopefully this “partnering with new eyes” will be the first of many fascinating conversations bridging faiths and forging friendships among the communities of the CSJs and the Muslim students.