Editorial: Hidden rules

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By Korie Marshall, Editor

Hidden rules are something I’ve been learning about in the context of poverty, but they don’t just apply to poverty. They apply to all classes, all societies, and I think understanding the concept of hidden rules is incredibly important for anyone who needs or wants to interact productively with many people.

A book I am reading talks about some of the biggest hidden rules in North America for those living in poverty, the wealthy, and the middle class. They are called “hidden” because they may seem obvious to people in a certain class, but many of them are not obvious to those in other class, and they are not written down anywhere for someone to easily look up.

If you’ve watched the Showtime series “Shameless” (or its original version on Channel 4 in the UK), you’ll recognize some of the hidden rules of poverty – like if you suddenly come into a bunch of money, it’s more important to do something fun with it than to pay bills. Bills will always be there, but you might not get the chance to do something fun again. There are many shows that demonstrate some of the hidden rules of the wealthy, like how much appearance and dress matters, and how important connections and influence are.

Many of us follow the rules of the middle class, and they may seem so obvious it is difficult to point them out. I think our typical North American reaction to someone wearing a hijab is us following a hidden rule – we think the hijab is a symbol of oppression and violence, and now that a woman is here in North America, she can – must – take it off. We think she is following a rule of her old society that doesn’t apply to ours. But we may be ignoring that she is choosing to wear it for entirely different reasons than we don’t understand.

I had a conversation some time ago with a young woman who always wore a hat to church. I asked her why, and she said “It’s a sign of respect; I just like to cover my head.” I asked why men take their hat off as a sign of respect, why it is different for men, and at the time, she couldn’t really answer. Now that I’ve been having more conversations about the hijab, and people talk about the beauty of a woman’s hair, how men should not look at a woman with lust, I think I understand it a bit more.

For many people, hair is a huge part of a woman’s beauty. It can be a huge self-esteem issue for women who lose their hair for one reason or another, but it is also a focus of defiance for some – shaving your hair off, or wearing a hijab could be a rejection of that standard.

There are many different standards for men and women in many societies, and many of us find our own ways of challenging those standards and hidden rules between classes. But I find it disturbing when people try to make or justify laws about issues that can be hugely personal. I heard someone recently say “I’m ok with someone wearing a hijab, but it shouldn’t be worn at a Canadian citizenship ceremony. Just dress appropriately.” To me, that person has no concept of why a woman would choose to wear a hijab, or its significance. And who decides what is appropriate?

But I think it is worse when someone says the hijab should be banned because it is a symbol of the repression of women and an acceptance of the violence against them. If a women wearing a hijab is a victim, then making her remove the hijab is not her salvation. But trying to understand the hidden rules she’s been following, and allowing her to make choices for herself might be.

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