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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Palo Alto woman tests the power of a scarf Palo Alto woman tests the power of a scarf (October 03, 2001)

Non-Muslim woman experiences harassment, angry looks as she dons an old scarf as a head covering

by Jay Thorwaldson

Susan Solomon of Palo Alto listened with growing dismay last week to news reports of harassment and intimidation of persons of Middle-Eastern appearance in America, including on the streets of Palo Alto.

Solomon -- a commercial-law attorney in Palo Alto -- felt a sense of helplessness and sadness, a small echo of the feelings that swept the world after the terrorist acts of Sept. 11.

She was "especially saddened that Muslim women in my neighborhood, who have their heads covered, are sometimes too frightened to leave their homes."

Last Thursday she decided to do something. After first checking with a Muslim cleric to see if it would be offensive, she drafted a one-page "Dear Friends and Family" letter, entitled "Women for Tolerance," and dropped copies by local newspapers.

On Friday morning, she "took an old scarf from my drawer, covered my head, ran the ends under my chin and tied them in back," she recalled.

Then she went shopping, feeling embarrassed and unsure of herself.

She was greeted immediately by "suspicious looks" and a few angry glares.

That same afternoon, she took her high-school-age daughter to a medical appointment at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Returning to her car, which was parked in the underground garage, she found a one-word note on the windshield that described a portion of anatomy.

Badly shaken, she considered dropping the whole idea, then over the weekend decided to proceed despite growing fear for her safety on the part of her daughter and college-age son. Her husband, Doug, has been supportive but concerned, she said.

She is now suggesting that, beginning Wednesday, women of all faiths try wearing a scarf in the Middle-Eastern fashion.

"Wear any old large scarf: any color, design or no design," she suggested in an e-mail to friends that described the note incident.

"Cover your head, wrap it around your chin and then tie it in the back. I don't know if this is an 'official' way of doing this, but it was enough for whoever wrote that note to think I was unworthy of walking the streets of Palo Alto."

She doesn't expect everyone to try it -- acknowledging the fear she and her family members have felt.

"Even if you feel uncomfortable doing this (which is totally understandable), please help get the word out to others," she wrote.

She said, before donning the scarf, "I spoke to someone at a local California mosque. I described my idea, and said I was calling as I wanted to be sure that doing such a thing would not be offensive in any way to Muslim women or to Muslim people."

She said the other person was initially puzzled by the idea. "When he realized what I was saying, he said it would not be offensive at all, and then began to say 'thank you' over and over.

"He questioned what good would this do if I were the only woman covering my head. I said I think I could get other women to do it also -- even in just Palo Alto.

"It touched me deeply when he said he couldn't tell me to do this," out of concern for her safety, she said.

"I'll start tomorrow -- as scared, embarrassed and ill at ease as I am doing this...," she wrote in her letter to friends and family on Thursday. "I will think of the Egyptian Muslim woman I met last week in Palo Alto, worried about leaving her house or sending her son to public school, and maybe this will give me strength to take others thinking I look foolish.

"I hope this will be only for a very short time. I'll try to keep in touch with Muslim women in this area. When they tell me they are no longer afraid to go out, then this will no longer be necessary," she wrote.

"Please pass the word. I am only one woman."

Solomon, 52, said that 30 years ago she spent a month each traveling in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

"I was young, when I knew the answers to everything," she said. "Now I have only questions."

She said she was inspired by the story of the Danish king who faced Nazi demands that all Jews wear yellow Stars of David. The non-Jewish king donned such a star, as did virtually all Danes.

"The Jews were protected by the many," she said.

E-mail Jay Thorwaldson at


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