On Friday, one week after the March 15 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch that killed 50 people and injured as many, women across New Zealand turned up on the streets and at workplaces wearing head scarves. The headgear, modelled on the hijabs worn by many Muslim women, was aimed at showing solidarity with victims of the terror attack as well as shunning the Islamophobic ideology that allegedly drove the attacks. The 28-year-old Australian who was arrested for the shootings detailed his motivations in a 73-page manifesto, which expressed anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments and proclaimed support for the white nationalist movement in the US.
There were at least two social media-led movements encouraging New Zealanders to wear hijab-like scarves as a show of support: Scarves in Solidarity and Headscarf for Harmony. Participants also included news presenters, some of whom reportedly began broadcasts with the Islamic greeting “Assalamualaikum”.
According to reports, one of the forerunners of the movement was Thaya Ashman, a doctor from Auckland, who came up with the initiative after hearing about a woman who was too scared to step out of her house with a hijab after the Christchurch attacks. “I wanted to say: ‘We are with you, we want you to feel at home on your own streets, we love, support and respect you’,” Reuters quoted her as saying.
But as an unintended consequence, the movement sparked a heated debate on social media. While some spoke up in support of the gesture, others decried it as tokenism and many appreciated the sentiment but criticised the method. The dissenters explained that the hijab – which women in many Islamic countries have no choice but to wear – is a symbol of oppression and control, a way of policing women’s bodies by enforcing standards of modesty.
Novellist Taslima Nasreen was among the critics. “I consider those victims as humans. But the people who consider them only Muslims, wear hijab for solidarity,” she tweeted.
Canadian human rights activist Yasmine Mohammed on Twitter said that even as other Islamic countries had fought against the hijab, the West was “fetishising it”.
Journalist Raghu Karnad criticised television anchors’s decision to wear head scarves on television. “Journalists show solidarity by reorienting and deepening their coverage – not by cosplay,” he tweeted.
In India, some of the debate also took on local overtones. One Twitter user contended that Hindu women have no place to criticise this gesture or speak for the efficacy of its symbolic value.
Another Twitter user said that while some Indians expected Muslims to partake in Hindu celebrations in the country, they objected to New Zealand embracing Islamic traditions as a show of support.
Another discussion between activist Gita Sahgal, journalist Salil Tripathi and anthropologist Annu Jalais on Twitter sheds further light into the various strands of the debate. The three were speaking in particular about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision to wear a head scarf – she did so on Friday as well as during a visit to Christchurch a day after the attack. While Jalais praised Ardern for her “brave decision”, Tripathi said though he appreciated the New Zealand prime minister’s overall response to the attacks, he wished she had taken into account the politics of the hijab. Sahgal raised apprehensions of such gestures giving further legitimacy to demands that Muslim women keep themselves veiled.
The headscarf gesture was one of several ways in which New Zealand citizens and authorities have decried the Christchurch violence. On Friday, thousands congregated at a memorial service at a park across the road from the Al Noor mosque, one of the two targets of the March 15 attacks. Ardern was also present at the service and addressed the gathering. On Friday, national television and radio channels broadcast the azaan, or the Muslim call to prayer, at 1.30 pm local time, the same time as the attacks the week before, following which people were asked to observe two minutes of silence.
New Zealanders have also been performing the Haka, the traditional dance of the Maori community, at events across the country, as a way to honour the victims. Praise has also flowed in for 38-year-old Ardern’s response to the attacks. As soon as reports of the violence emerged, she described it as an “extraordinary act of unprecedented violence”, called it a terrorist attack, and emphasised to migrant communities that New Zealand is their home. She also promised gun law reforms and announced an immediate ban on the sale of military-style semi-automatic guns and assault rifles.