Cassidy Herrington, a senior journalism student at the University of Kentucky and a non-Muslim, covered up in a hijab for a month and nothing happened.
No one called her a terrorist, hurled insults or outright thumbed their noses at her for wearing a hijab – the head scarf worn by many Muslim women.
No, what happened was quite the opposite. Herrington, speaking to a sizable audience at the University of Central Missouri Thursday, said she didn’t tell her friends and colleagues about her plans to wear this religious garment. And the lack of response was palpable.
“I wanted to be approached and I wasn’t,” she said. “In the first few weeks, people in my classes, people that I have known since high school, didn’t say anything even (when), obviously, something was a little different. And it was kind of hurtful.”
So, to say nothing happened isn’t completely accurate. The lack of response, for Herrington, revealed “a gap in our conversation that needs to be opened up.”
Well, Herrington’s experiment may have been uneventful, but her quest for understanding launched an international conversation. This conversation began shortly after her school newspaper published her column, “‘Undercover’ in hijab: unveiling one month later,” in October 2010.
Nearly two years have passed and the conversation continues. She’s spoken to journalism students, professional journalism groups, and her column was read over the radio in Palestine and South Africa and was shared in a handful of international magazines and a textbook.
This was her first time speaking about her experiment outside of Kentucky. And UCM students are richer for the experience. She was professional and quite brave in not only speaking extemporaneously but fielding numerous questions from the audience.
Two students wearing head scarves sat near the front row while Herrington shared her story, which included a shocking e-mail she apparently received by accident. Attached to the message was a ringtone with the Muslim call to prayer broken by the sound of three gunshots followed by the national anthem. The sender told her it was “just a joke.”
Well, Herrington took her experiment quite seriously. She told a class of sociology students Friday that she quit going to bars while wearing the hijab and she was on her best behavior as she felt she was representing the Muslim community dressed as she was.
Her message was twofold – we all need to communicate better and journalists must be on the front lines asking good questions and covering more sides of the Muslim community, good and bad.
“Real ethical journalism – something we should all demand because that’s what a healthy democracy deserves,” she said. “It’s how we check and balance our government. It’s how we look into corruption and it shapes foreign policy.”
These words filled this journalism teacher with so much hope for the next generation of reporters.
So, communication was the message. And this savvy young lady suggests that instead of rushing to judgment that all Muslims are extremists, how about we talk with Muslims about their faith. This is not taboo, and it’s likely that Muslims, like Christians, are eager to discuss something they value so deeply.
And that was clearly the case following her presentation. I spoke with a few excellent representatives of UCM’s Muslim community who were happy to talk about the hijab and the customs of their country. Herein lies my only criticism of Herrington’s talk – she didn’t invite folks like this to talk.
If she had, the young Muslim girl from India wearing a hijab near the front row might have shared some startling stories. Such as the time when a couple of guys passed her on campus and called her a terrorist under their breath. To this she said she did not feel anger, only pity for people who wish to remain narrow-minded.
Or the time some girls in the dining hall teased her and her friends. Her reaction? She ignored them – three times. And it worked, the taunts stopped.
As far as what’s next, someone asked if Herrington would continue the experiments with other religions. Herrington said, no, she’s moving on to continue her career as a reporter.
“I hope the power of the message continues on itself,” she said.
You can read more about Herrington’s experiment and what motivated her to embark on this quest by reading her column at kykernel.com/2010/10/31/%E2%80%98undercover%E2%80%99-in-hijab-unveiling-one-month-later/.