Prejudice – a Link to Hope

Dr Patricia Berwick Researcher/Writer and Former Director

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“Girls! You should not be seen in public with your hat brims turned up.  It makes you look cheap and so you lower the school’s tone,” the nun alleged. The nun was the head teacher at a Catholic girls’ school in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was berating the girls who had broken the school rule.

We, ungrateful young people that we were, decided that the nun was making our lives a misery; picking on a tiny issue. However the lesson was learnt. We conformed, not for the best reasons, but because we did not want to have attention drawn to us in the big hall. We were too young to see the bigger picture.

What was really going on here? The nun was talking about prejudice. Girls with their brims turned up were cheap. They were different from the other girls. Being cheap implied many things especially being too friendly with boys. In reality no relationship can be proved between having one’s brim turned up and a too amicably relationship with boys.  It is an imagined relationship. So too, is much of the prejudice which surrounds the Middle East.

I have had an association with the Middle East since 1965; quite a long time. At first I was fascinated with the mystique, the intrigue of all things different from home. Then I began to make friends and discovered my friends had the same desires, hopes and fears I did. We all wanted to have interesting but peaceful lives shared with people we love most.  And yet that is not the view of some Western people. Why not? Perhaps it is initially through perception drawn from how we dress.

Many Middle Eastern women wear headscarfs and/or veils. Their clothing is different from Western women as well. Of course it is also true that Western women dress differently from Middle Eastern women. It is a matter of perspective.  However, not so long ago married women in Southern Europe, Central America and other places wore black and always wore a scarf on their heads. What is the difference? As a child I was required to wear a hat when I went out on a formal occasion. In church I was expected to wear a hat, headscarf or mantilla. Despite this historical tradition some people in the West appear to believe that the Middle Eastern veil and head scarf is somehow subversive.

Not all Middle Eastern women wear the traditional headscarf. However I know many Middle Eastern women who wear headscarfs, veils and/or burqa. I find they love, hate, laugh and joke. They have good days and bad days. They are kind and/or selfish. They are generous or not. Work hard and/or paint their nails. Enjoy sports or prefer to sit around and chat. In other words they are people just like the rest of the world’s women.

The head teacher above was protecting the young girls’ honor when she was telling them off. She knew a little item like a hat brim turned up could be misread.  If a little item like that can be misread we still have a long way to go to learn to understand each other.  Until we all accept that it is not how we dress or even how we say something that is important then we will never have peace in our world. We need to divorce ourselves from our thoughts; what we have been taught so that we can listen to what is important. What is truly important is what is in our hearts.  Through listening to our hearts we can find the link to take us from prejudice to hope.



Dr Patricia Berwick is an Educationalist/Anthropologist with over 20 years international experience in management, research, teaching and policy advice to government and private educational institutions and to non-governmental organizations. Her primary areas of interest are ethics, international relationships, and education. She has travelled widely and has spent the last 10 years living and working in East Asia and the Middle East. Apart from writing she has a keen interest in photography and filmmaking.


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