A burka in a Christian town: How Fox News and right-wing media turned a lesson in tolerance into an excuse for hate

Salon.com: Sharon Peters reached into a hot-pink cloth bag and pulled out an abaya, a full-length body garment for women, from Kuwait. As if she were modeling for a fashion show, the world geography teacher stuck her arms out sideways and held the garment against her to show how far it stretched, from the tips of the fingers on one hand to those on the other. She slipped her arms through, letting the black polyester cloth hang loosely from her shoulders to her moccasin-clad feet. She apologized for her inauthenticity; normally she would wear sandals. Next, she held a black, filmy veil to her face, then repeated what she always said to her freshman advanced geography students in Lumberton, a dot of a town one hundred miles east of Houston, near the Louisiana border. “I want you to put it in front of your face so you can see how others in the world live,” she said. Imagine, she added in her native southeast Texas twang, what it would be like to see the world through gauze.

 Like a magician about to unveil the next trick, she reached into the bag again and clutched a royal-blue burka from Afghanistan, a garment that conceals the wearer from head to toe and includes mesh over the eyes. This was the item, she said, that caused “our famous burka incident.” Her previously gentle tone turned stern: “This is the only damn burka.”

It was the fall of September 2013 and Peters was giving me an impromptu fashion show in the living room of her one-story ranch home in Lumberton. She didn’t try on the burka because it was child-sized, okay for a very short teen but not for an adult who was about five feet, six inches tall. She relived the day she’d given her customary lesson, which for nearly fifteen years had been part of her instruction about Islam and the Middle East. During her February 1, 2013, class, as always, students took photos of one another. But this time a student posted a photo on Facebook of four girls and one boy wearing the outfits, including the burka. The picture went viral, causing an uproar that some teachers dubbed “burkagate.” For several weeks it was as if Peters’s entire thirty-nine-year teaching career was under attack. Strangers sent e-mails accusing her and the school system of corrupting children and attempting to convert them to Islam. Already sixty-three, Peters had been thinking of retiring at the end of that school year. The controversy sealed the decision.

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