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Epic Battle: Ninjas vs. Burqas



This is rad. I hope that if you ever have a question like this that you ask me. I think it shows initiative and a deep sense of compassion to want to say and do the right thing. Also, four year olds are hilarious.

So, let's talk abount ninjas versus niqabis. (A niqab is the veil part that goes across the face and a niqabi is an Urdu slang term for women who cover their faces.)

With absolutely no disrespect to my face covering sisters in Islam, I can totally see the ninja-niqabi connection.The subtle differences in clothing are difficult to ascertain, especially for a four year old.

But the question isn't why does a four year old think a Muslim woman with her face covered is a ninja because that's an honest and obvious comparison. We are more concerned here with how we can make this a teachable moment.


Put your hand over your mouth, turn your head, pretend you're coughing and get the laughter out of your system. While this situation is hilarious (did I tell you about the time that N. thought Taye Diggs was Barack Obama?), it's important to turn this moment into an opportunity to develop compassion for the different. Laughing with your child is great, but it's important to make sure it's not distracting.

What to Say: "Other than those face coverings, what else looks like ninja clothing? Don't ninjas have swords? Aren't their clothes tighter?" My response to N.'s misperception regarding our president was something to the effect of "Are that man's shoulders as broad as the other handsome guy you saw at the DNC?"

2. Down with Shame!

There is nothing wrong with a child confusing a woman with a veiled face for a ninja, so don't make them feel bad for saying that. Ignorance is not the biggest obstacle to the elimination of bigotry. It's shame. People often feel shamed for making a mistake and then they fight that shame with anger, actual bigotry and denial. 

What to say: "You're right, what she's wearing is very similar to a ninja's mask, but she's not a ninja -- that's called a burqah and what she's wearing on her face is called a niqab." At this point, most children are going to ask another question. If they're under six and don't ask any more question, this is like the sex talk-- just answer what they've asked and don't go any further. Give them the minimum amount of information so they don't feel overwhelmed or worse bored.

3. Identify simple lessons in the opportunity.

Geography is super fun, so try explaining the disparate geography of the ninja and the niqabi. Use it to distract from topics that will likely lead to an incredibly controversial discussion on the constructed cultural concepts of modesty, patriarchy and the Western objectification of Middle Eastern women. And why they're called "Chinese stars" when ninjas originated in Japan.

What to Say: "I definitely see how that veil reminds you of a ninja mask, but did you know ninjas originated in Japan and the veil's history is in the Middle East?"

4. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another.

And also how you and I are going to save the world together. Let's bring home the point that everyone has different ways of expressing their feelings about clothing. This is a great opportunity to discuss relativism (how much should people cover) and acceptance (how much business do others have in telling people what to cover).

What You Can Say: "Would you go to the grocery store in your underwear? Why or why not? Do you think I would? Why or why not?" Okay, don't say the "why or why not" thing. Do explore with your child the different ways that we determine what is okay to wear and what is not. Move a step further by exploring the issue of how we feel about someone else bringing their determinations from another country. I know this is a tough topic, but that doesn't make it less important. Remember that while your child is their own person, you do have a right to present your beliefs within the context of a value system you've chosen to implement in your home.

5.. It's really just a piece of cloth over someone's face. Mostly.

Here is something to consider: men who ascribe to the practice of Islam which mandates face veiling are required to grow beards that are of a certain length (no longer than a clenched fist) and must wear their clothes in a certain way (for example, the cuffs of their pants must not go below their ankles). And, in my experience, the husbands of women who cover their faces generally adhere to these rules stringently. They never seem to make it as topics for debate on TV or the Internet. Why is that? Something for you (and your child depending on their age) to think about it.

What to Say: I don't know. I just felt the need to throw this last one in there. You do what you want with it!

The thing of it is that a person who wonders (worries) about approaching a cultural misunderstanding with grace has nothing to worry about in the first place. Asking ourselves questions about how we can coexist and be sensitive to difference is an important skill that you can only model by doing.

If you have any questions for me, always feel free to tweet me or post a message my Facebook Community page.


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Reader Comments (15)

I'm trying to find the EASY BUTTON so I can share online.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOHmommy

They are mistakenly called Chinese throwing stars here in the West. But the real name for them is shuriken, and they often didn't look like stars at all. Many just looked like small blades or needles.

See how I pick up the least important part of an article and run with it? ;)

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterB.E. Earl

This was a terrific post! My kids go to school with many girls who wear hijab (did I say/spell that correctly?). And for some reason they have never asked. Their biggest question has always been why the kids don't eat the pork tenderloin sandwiches during lunch (luckily there are options for people who don't eat pork) There are always questions...

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEsther

Kids are so awesome. One of my dad's favorite stories was of me as a kid about that age riding the bus in Minneapolis staring at a native American woman and asking blunt questions about her and having her explain things to me. It is one of those things that drives home the importance of teachable moments. Like when I had to explain the giant Jesus on a cross in the back of a truck in front of the bus I was on with M. We're atheists and it was our first run in with Christian symbolism. I think I did OK because the woman reading her bible next to us said I did a good job explaining it.
Still though, kids. Totally wonderful.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmelia Sprout

Great post, Faiqa!

Oddly enough, my kid was a ninja for Halloween and I was surprised at how my dusty hijab-wearing skills came in handy. Huh.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelli Oliver George

I'm confused by the lack of turtles in this post.

On your final point about the husbands' practices not eliciting comment, perhaps it is because the individual practices are not specifically uncommon in the general population? Note that I do not know this to be true as I don't know what all of the practices are, but the two you mention certainly aren't as uncommon as veils. Well, the cuffs thing might be, but it likely just looks old-fashioned to the modern Western eye.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRen

Thanks for sharing this advice. My kids are very inquisitive and loud and sometimes the combination of the two can be rather taxing. We're working on empathy...and volume control. Sigh.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

How can you not love a religion that mandates pants ready for a flood y'know? :-)

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRW

We see women in hijab once in a while, but not really in burqas or niqab. Mack has yet to ask about the women in hijab (would they be called hijabi?), but I wonder if he'd ask about the others. Of course he is almost 14 so it's really not much of an issue to explain it to him.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

What a great way to handle it.

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCorey Feldman

Whatever, Ninja Faiqa. I like your attempt to throw us off, but it's not working.

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSybil Law

Ok, so thank you for starting my day by making me feel like a TOTAL rock star! We seriously had this same thing happen just a few weeks ago. Cash pointed out a lady and said, very excitedly, "Look Mommy!!!! A ninja!! Can we go talk to him?" My reply was something a long the lines of, "Well, she does look really beautiful, doesn't she? That's a lady, though, and what she's wearing is called a burqa. She wears it like your auntie covers her hair or Mommy's friend wears long dresses and skirts." Since we are blessed to have such an amazing and colorful group of friends and family, our kids are pretty accepting of almost anything, because we are. We recently got a "save the date" card for Andy's step-sister's wedding. When I told the boys, their immediate repsonse was, "Yeah!!! Does that mean we are going to have more cousins, soon?!?!" (she's marrying another woman). My answer was, "Maybe, but sometimes, people like to be married for a while before they have kids." I don't know if they're quite old enough to understand the complexities involved in same-sex couples having/adopting children, but like teaching anything to small children, you do it in small steps. Of course, little kids can also be amazingly observant and understanding. Once, Sloan and I were at the grocery store, and I noticed that he kept looking at someone or something. Finally, I turned to look, which he noticed and said, "Mommy, now I know that that person looks like a little kid, but they're actually a big person who's just my sized." It was a little person, of course, and I was amazed that he had figured that out, and proud that he was so matter of fact about it, rather than being afriad or asking what was "wrong" with that person. He was also my kid who would run excitedly to anyone on a scooter or with a motorized wheelchair to tell them how cool he thought their "motorcycle" was. Joseph would always tell people how much he liked their robot (insert limb, here...leg, arm...etc). Luckily, none of them ever met someone who took it for other than what it was, a child processing something "different" in a positive way, but that's how I've tried to raise be positive and kind.

November 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterwindyfairy

I have been called a nun by many kids(I dont cover my face) and have many friends who have been called ninjas. My husband has been called an angel (he was wearing a saudi thoub and is really white..almost pink). I always find it fascinating when kids are mesmerized by the muslim garb. It is an opportunity for the children to learn about different religious and cultural beliefs. What is not so cool is when you have adults calling you a terrorist in the middle of Target (yes Faiqa..Target..not Walmart;-)).

November 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSahar

Kids are largely innocent and the product of their environment, so they can be given leeway one way or the other, But Sahar, being called a terrorist just because you are a Muslim is unacceptable. I'm glad you can generally handle that with a little humor. As a Christian I find it offensive to say the least and I apologize for whatever sociopath did that.

November 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRW

This is a wonderful post. Such a great explanation not only of how to address question like this, but also mixing it with helping our kids be critical media consumers, asking the "why" questions.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Bamberger

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