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A Tale of Two Headscarves

In Deference to Islam, U.S. Secretary of State Dons Headscarf, while that of Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean is Conspicuous in its Absence

In the clash of civilisations between Islam and “the West”, there are Churchills and there are Chamberlains. A recent New York Times front-page photo shows U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton donning a headscarf on her recent visit to Pakistan. But Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s Governor-General (and thus that country’s highest-ranking official after the Queen), recent journeyed to the “Af-Pak” region herself. Photos released by Rideau Hall show Her Excellency breezily taking questions from girls in an Afghan school build with Canadian development funds. The photos show a woman who appears free, confident, and easily engaged by her interactions with those around her. The contrast with Secretary Clinton couldn’t be greater.

The advice si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more, traditionally attributed to no less a sage than St. Ambrose, is sound counsel indeed, but one can’t help but wonder if in this circumstance the Governor-General’s way is the more appropriate one. How rare it is that we find Western leaders with enough self-assurance not to pander deferentially towards a culture alien to our own. Secretary of State Clinton, in her headscarf, broadcasts the signal that she is following an agenda set by others, whereas Governor-General Jean chooses to set the agenda herself — fitting for the viceroy of one of the most stable countries in the world, that enjoys an enviable constitutional longevity.

Still, the Governor-General’s head did not remain bare for the entirety of her visit to Afghanistan. Her Excellency is Colonel-of-the-Regiment of the three units of Canada’s household guard, and, donning the military beret, Madame Jean visited a memorial to the soldiers of her country who have given their lives in the endless conflict in Afghanistan. After the proper solemnities were observed, the Governor-General took a few moments to meet with some of the Canadian soldiers who stood guard during the ceremony.

This post was published on Thursday, November 19th, 2009 8:47 am. It has been categorised under Canada Politics and been tagged under .
Robert Thornton
19 Nov 2009 4:26 pm

[a]nd thus that country’s highest-ranking official after the Queen. Can The Queen really be considered Canada’s highest-ranking official? what I mean is, can she properly be considered an “official?”

Jacqueline Jouret
20 Nov 2009 11:03 am

It’s an extremely tricky issue, particularly for a diplomat, but I think you’re right, Mr. Cusack. By donning the headscarf, Mrs. Clinton does indeed seem to be deferring to the requirements of Islam — and in a manner that goes beyond what one would typically do as a guest in another country with different traditions and practices. As Secretary of State, she should be representing the mores of the U.S. rather than adopting those of the host country.
Affairs of state have much to do with hierarchies of power and authority. It seems she has taken the U.S. and Western society a step downward with this act.

Robert Harrington
20 Nov 2009 11:26 am

“As Secretary of State, she should be representing the mores of the U.S. rather than adopting those of the host country.”

Ironically she probably is representing the mores of the U.S. (the official mores, maybe not the more widespread mores) by wearing the headscarf, as the ideas of political correctness have become the state-sanctioned mores of the U.S.

20 Nov 2009 12:54 pm

The fact that U.S. relations with the Muslim world have long been characterized by dishonesty, manipulation, exploitation & aggression may have something to do with Secretary Clinton’s demeanor. For the most part, this cannot be said about Canada.

Is it any wonder Miss Jean appears free, confident & engaged?

20 Nov 2009 12:56 pm

Pardon, I meant to say: “Secretary Clinton’s sour demeanor.”

Seraphic Spouse
21 Nov 2009 12:34 am

Reading this post, I feel proud to be Canadian and also proud of Madame Jean, for not kow-towing to a bizarre sexism. I know Muslim women in Canada who do NOT wear hijab, and I bet Madame Jean does too. Hilary’s cover-up suggests that women in the Islamic world don’t (or shouldn’t) have choices; Madame Jean models freedom.

21 Nov 2009 11:44 am

Mr. Cusack,

What say you on all this bowing by our commander in chief? Bowing before the Saudi King sent legions of Americans to the hurling spot, which struck me as 0’s whole point. Likewise before Akihito, an Emperor who still stands in his subject’s eyes at the head of their super-race. I suspect 0’s point was just to send us back to the hurling spot again, and as for all the super-race stuff, well it’s not like the Japanese are white. It’s not as if he would bow before the Queen of England. She’s white and pro-American royal and bowing to that would result in 0’s hurling on the Queen’s feet. Then again, that bow would symbolically up end the whole point of the American experiment, so who knows, 0 might hurl on the Queen’s feet yet.

Andrew Cusack
21 Nov 2009 1:01 pm

I was happy to see Obama bow, but the fact that his bows to monarchs are not standard is, as you point out, suspect.

In a sense, he was incorrect in bowing to the Emperor. While Emperors no doubt are worthy of bows, one must always follow the lead of the Emperor. In Obama’s case, the Emperor very generously proffered his hand for a normal handshake, so Obama should have accepted it simply. Instead he shook the Emperor’s hand while also bowing, and ended up looking like a damned fool who didn’t know what he was doing.

So far as I know, it is nowhere the custom to bow and shake hands simultaneously, whereas to bow first and then proceed to a handshake is quite widespread.

But, as always, follow the lead of the person of higher status. It is customary to kiss the ring of a bishop when introduced (though, as it is purely symbolic, one’s lips needn’t actually touch the ring), but when I met the Archbishop of New York a few weeks ago, the jolly man thrust his hand forth obviously expecting a handshake. It would have been somewhat impudent of me to try to force that offer of a handshake into a ring-kiss.

21 Nov 2009 2:08 pm

Mr. Cusak, the church is of course the body of Christ, and there is a difference between the body of Christ, and foreign kings. Putting that one aside for the moment, you say that 0 was incorrect, “in a sense,” in bowing to the Emperor because he both shook hands and bowed. That really seems to leave the door open. Is it all a matter of the proper dance moves? In what sense then was 0 correct to bow to Akihito and King Saud? And did his bow to King Saud, sans handshake, suit your fancy? And as this is a first for an American President (Ben Smith’s claim of a Nixon bow aside…hoo boy), why has the time come to do away with the American tradition?

Sorry, I really love the site. I write assuming that you are an American citizen; forgive me if I have that wrong.

21 Nov 2009 4:17 pm

Two items for consideration:

1. I am all for western women not wearing a headscarf in Muslim lands, but at the same time, could we Catholics say this and yet call for non-Catholic women to wear a head covering when in the presence of His Holiness the Pope?

2. Regarding the Obama bow, monarchists, whether they are American citizens or not, find it highly appropriate for anyone to bow before a monarch. “Royalty trumps elected politicians”, as it were. I recall the funeral of the late great Pope John Paul II where royalty occupied the front row seats and elected politicians sat behind them.

22 Nov 2009 7:13 pm

I don’t get it. Wearing a headscarf may be a Muslim practice, but it is not intrinsically wrong. Actually headscarves often look beautiful (if not in Hillary’s case). Would the world really be improved if Muslim women exchanged their feminine attire for drab masculinish western garb? I mean, pants suit is practically Hillary’s middle name, and you’re criticizing her when she submits to a womanly custom that happens to be Muslim?

23 Nov 2009 9:23 am


Why do you think Hillary decided to wear a headscarf? She never wore a headscarf when she was First Lady, but she wears one now. What’s changed?

23 Nov 2009 9:47 am

As for the matter of the scarf, why criticize her for wearing it? Many western women dress more modestly when they visit places like Pakistan and India. Is it not simply a matter of respect? The same goes for the scarf. (Of course she need not wear one. Miss Jean chose not to. But so what if she did?)

In India I saw American, French and British women wear saris to formal functions — and there was no sense that any of them was being politically correct or somehow “unfaithful” to western mores.

Andrew Cusack
23 Nov 2009 10:39 am

Indeed, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about the headscarf, just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong about a hammer-and-sickle or a swastika. But it is the mode in which they are operated that is the key factor.

Private citizens wearing saris to formal functions is one thing. The behaviour of a high official of state, as Mrs. Clinton is (being the foreign affairs minister of the United States), is an entirely different category.

It is not the headscarf being objected to, nor even the headscarf being worn in Muslim countries being objected to, but rather the headscarf being worn unnecessarily by an America public official abroad to pander to Muslim consciousness.

24 Nov 2009 12:25 am

Thanks, Andrew. I appreciate your response.

Frankly, I find mentioning a mere “headscarf” and “a hammer-and-sickle or a swastika” in the same sentence to be well, surprisingly sophomoric.

At any rate, she chose to wear a headscarf. I take it as no more of a sign of “pandering” (there is nothing partucularly vile about a headscarf) than a gentile wearing a yamuka at a Bar Mitsvah, or a westerner removing his or her shoes before entering a Hindu or Japanese houeshold. There are many other examples.

I guess that, in a post-9/11 world, any sign of respect or tolerance toward Islam is suspect.

What strikes me most in comparing these images of Secretary Clinton & Miss Jean is not the headscarf or lack thereof, but the difference in demeanor of both women.

24 Nov 2009 6:07 pm

Pitch perfect.

B T Van Nostrand
25 Nov 2009 3:30 pm

Well, Mr Cusack, Obama IS a damned fool and he DOESN’T know what he is doing.

Jason Isaacson
28 Nov 2009 12:27 am

Wearing a headscarf is respectful, not obedience. On another matter, the premise on which you raise your criticisms is suspect and ahistorical. There is no clash of civilizations, only clashes of pragmatism, power, and person.

30 Nov 2009 11:01 am

Well said, Jason.

30 Nov 2009 1:43 pm

Let me ask this question again to readers: What do you think has changed in the world between when Hillary was First Lady, when never wore the headscarf, and today? If wearing the headscarf is nothing more than good manners, then what do you think made her more polite in 2009 than she was in 1993?

And kd, if all women in a particular country wore burkas with the face completely covered, would you also find it a matter of polite respect for the U.S. Secretary of State to go full burka? Would you see that as the equivalent of taking off your shoes in a Japanese home? Is it still just a matter of respect as far as you’re concerned? And since many Muslim women in the world have no choice but to dress a certain way or else suffer torture or death, do you still think it is just a matter of respect to follow this “custom” in such a country? Really I’m most interested in your answers to the questions in my first paragraph.

30 Nov 2009 4:47 pm

Douglas, these are more or less leading questions.

30 Nov 2009 5:07 pm

Let me ask you a leading question. What, if any, Muslim “custom” do you believe a foreign dignitary can reasonably observe?

30 Nov 2009 6:27 pm

As far as I’m aware, the US Secretary of State has never seen fit to observe Muslim religious dictates, and therefore my answer is none. (Call them customs if you prefer; however, there are a lot of dead and tortured Muslim women who might disagree.)

Kd, I don’t care if you don’t want to answer my questions, but this isn’t a court of law. It isn’t even a TV show. You are a completely anonymous poster on a blog’s comment section. It’s not as if you are putting something on the line by answering my questions. They aren’t exactly trick questions; just straightforward and obvious.

30 Nov 2009 6:40 pm

They are not exactly “straightforward” questions, Douglas, but rather thinly disguised expressions of bile toward Secretary Clinton and Islamic culture. That’s fine with me, but don’t pretend your questions are sincere inquiries.

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