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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Guest Opinion: The pain of the scarf has not gone away Guest Opinion: The pain of the scarf has not gone away (September 11, 2002)

by Susan Solomon

One year ago -- in the few days following 9/11 -- I became aware that women in Palo Alto who wore scarves for religious reasons feared leaving their homes.

I naively had the idea to put on a scarf myself and encourage other Palo Alto women to do the same -- reasoning that if many women in Palo Alto wore scarves then those women wearing scarves for religious reasons would feel safer.

I was completely unsuccessful in what I set out to do. I learned immediately that I do not have the leadership or charisma to inspire great numbers of women to walk the streets of Palo Alto in scarves. I should have known this before I began.

I was aware there was risk involved. Those who care about me were afraid I could be physically attacked on the street by those angry with Muslims.

I was not hurt. Most on the street looked at me with curiosity. Some Muslims and others with simply a dark complexion and who had been mistaken as Muslim expressly thanked me.

The reaction from my own community is what surprised and hurt me. In my Palo Alto enclave I had felt safe. I considered acquaintances and those in the community as basically enlightened and tolerant.

Rather than being supported in my effort, however, in those next days a surprising number of these very people privately and publicly criticized my actions.

I had assumed my plan would be clearly understood for what it was, as I carefully explained it: simply a means to help women in Palo Alto feel safer leaving their homes.

Instead, many misunderstood it as expressing a whole range of political statements.

I found a threatening note on my car's windshield when I came out from a doctor's appointment.

Ironically, and in front of a large crowd, I was called anti-feminist for supporting women who are required in their own repressive countries to cover their heads.

Some condemned what I was doing as supporting all Muslim causes in all disputes worldwide.

Some suggested I wear a red, white, and blue scarf.

Several angrily told me that I was wrong to act before Muslims in America publicly condemn the 9/11 horrors.

After just a few days I stopped wearing a scarf. I heard the fears of Muslim women to leave their homes had lessened and my own actions had been clearly ineffective.

When I took off the scarf, I went back to being a middle-aged Palo Alto woman no one really notices. I wondered how the women felt who did not have the option to take off their scarves.

It was a "Black Like Me" experience, after the eye-opening 1961 best-selling book about the experiences of white journalist John Howard Griffin, who in 1959 colored his skin and traveled through the South for six weeks.

My "scarf days," or "burka days" as some now jokingly refer to this short period (although a burka is the full hooded dress), ended.

I continue to be deeply thankful to those who went out of their way to support me.

Even now, though, I remember the humiliation I felt then and cannot easily look into the eyes of those who had misunderstood and so harshly criticized me.

One year later, the pain from this experience has not gone away.

Susan Solomon is a Palo Alto resident. She may be e-mailed in care of


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