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.