Should the Prime Minister have worn a headscarf after the Christchurch mosque attack?

You might not have realised that was even a question being asked. Here in New Zealand, there's been very little media criticism of Jacinda Ardern's decision.

Most of what you'll have read is praise for the PM. To many of us - myself included - her wearing the head scarf looked liked like an act of compassion and support for the Muslim community.

But, step out of the country, or even onto New Zealand's social media pages, and the praise isn't unanimous. There, you'll find a fair bit of passionate criticism.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern waves as she leaves Friday prayers at Hagley Park in Christchurch. Photo / AP
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern waves as she leaves Friday prayers at Hagley Park in Christchurch. Photo / AP

Former Housewives of Auckland reality TV star Gilda Kirkpatrick's been persistently vocal about the PM's headscarf. She's railed on Twitter against it. Even I attracted an unsolicited tweet admonishing my praise for Ardern. Kirkpatrick knows about headscarves. She originally hails from Iran. To her, the garment is "a symbol of women's oppression" that "millions are fighting to avoid".

Offshore media have carried the criticism we've been muted on. "I wish she hadn't (wore it)", a Muslim women's rights advocate in Malaysia told the Thompson Reuters Foundation. And then Maryam Lee went on to suggest that the reason Ardern did it was because she didn't understand the implications. "She is not a Muslim and not from a Muslim majority country."

Which sounds a lot like what Spectator USA said too. It implied that New Zealanders are naive because it's our first brush with real terror. And then the publication raised the awkward subject of the PM being a feminist. Being "a self-professed feminist" makes wearing a headscarf even worse, the outlet suggested.

"If an elected female prime minister chooses to signal her virtue by wearing a hijab ... she will appear to be endorsing the hijab as the official and correct public costume of Muslim women."

Which is to say, it's telling Muslim women that it's ok to have men dictate what you wear.

And the criticism isn't limited to the PM. It's also aimed at all Kiwi women who wore headscarves for harmony last Friday. In an anonymous column online, a Kiwi Muslim woman calls it "cheap tokenism" and says it "stinks of white saviour mentality, where Muslim women need to be rescued by (largely) white folk".

So was it the right thing for the PM to wear the headscarf?

Despite all the criticism, yes.


Christchurch's Muslim community was singled out for nothing more than being Muslim. And it's the headscarf - in its various forms - that most easily marks out a member of the Muslim community.

So, putting on the headscarf was the simplest and most compelling way of the Prime Minister telling the Muslim community that they are us and they have our support.

Sure, it's a difficult choice for a feminist to make. How do you show support for a persecuted minority but at the same time continue to stand up for the rights of women? Ultimately, it's a question of which is the most important. To you. At that time.

And surely immediately after the attack, the Muslim community were the most vulnerable people in New Zealand. So, surely, supporting them was the most important thing to do. Which is to say, supporting all Muslims was more important than being a feminist in the days immediately following the attack.

But, that doesn't mean that the PM, or any other feminist, should tell themselves it's ok to continue to wear the headscarf. What was solidarity in the aftermath of the attack, can become endorsement if it continues.

But to answer the question right at the start of this column, yes. She was right to wear the headscarf.