Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pondering the hijab

Hey there, can we talk about the hijab?*

Yeah, I know. It’s late and it’s a sensitive topic. One where you say that it doesn’t matter and I say that it doesn’t but the fact that I don’t and you do, or you don’t and I might, or we both do but my clothes are tighter makes all the difference.

Listen, though – let’s try to talk about it anyway. Where should we start?

We’ve both been there, the middle-aged Afghan lady sneering at the younger veiled Afghan woman, “So, you’ve certainly wrapped yourself up, haven’t you?”
Should we talk about the middle-aged lady first? How she probably watched the headscarf come and go. Forced to take it off back in the day, forced to put it on again in Kabul after years of living in the US, perhaps enduring the barbs that all Afghan diaspora endure when coming back after our long absences.

Or about the younger, veiled woman? How she decided, on her own, that she wanted to wear the headscarf. And how she doesn’t wear it the ‘Afghan way’ or wear a burqa, but instead wraps her head in beautiful cloth, perfectly matching her lovely clothes? And that she has to endure the same barbs about not really being Afghan.

Or the elderly man who goes on and on about how LOVELY AND ANGELIC I look when I wear the hijab for prayers and MAYBE I SHOULD CONSIDER WEARING IT ALL THE TIME. Or maybe we can talk about the 13 year old who hollered, 'COVER COVER' as I walked into the masjid's basement (in the presence of young men who were watching and laughing)
I don't respond but this is mostly because my parents raised me right. Well, I did ask the little kid who he was talking to but he assured me that he wasn't talking to me. Hey, 13 year old, thanks for ruining the masjid experience for my non-Muslim friend, way to make dawa!
Or maybe the drunken homeless man that called you a terrorist on the side of the street?
I wanted to confront him but didn’t know how. I also didn’t want to get into a shouting match with a man who is drunk at 11 am and lounging by the paint store.

Or the niqabi** who looks down on the muhijaba*** in the long black coat who looks down on the muhijaba in the tight jeans and tight shirt who looks down on the uncovered Muslim girl?
Which makes me ask, when are we going to start looking at each other? Or around us?
Or can we talk about the Muslim guy who’s pretty awesome but scoffs at the sister in the matching veil and tight pants and tight shirt?
Brother, shouldn’t you be lowering your gaze anyway?
Or can we talk about the time that the feminist said that the veiled sisters are oppressed and were probably hiding bruises inflicted by their fathers/brothers/husbands?
You aren't helping.
Or the innocent question by the non-Muslim, “If you’re Muslim, why don’t you veil?”
Or maybe we can talk about – Well, you get the picture, right?

I won’t get in the technical, religious discussion because frankly, I just don’t know. I don’t know if it’s mandated in Islam. There are arguments on both sides. All I know that it is a deeply personal decision. A decision that reflects the spirituality, politics and specific situation of each individual Muslim woman.

One that is either vigorously supported (You’re a good Muslim, yay!) or just as adamantly opposed (how’re you going to find a husband, oh no?!) or just plain analyzed (damn, that’s awfully tight shirt for a veiled woman to wear).

KufiGirl does a much better job of discussing the hijab than I ever could.

Instead of attempting to replicate her work – I thought I’d try to give you a bit of my personal and still evolving attitude towards the veil.

I cover for my prayers because it’s how I was taught to do my prayers. When I do my ablutions and slip on my headscarf (with the balloons on it – my aunt made it for me when I was a teen), I have a sense of peace that I can rarely grasp anywhere else. The headscarf that I wear for prayers prepare me for my conversation with God. Where I pray for a vast multitude of things: patience, forgiveness, understanding, safety for my family, friends and myself, as well as thanks for this rich life I lead.

The hijab, when my bare feet are on the soft prayer rug, never feels constricting or repressive. It’s just another way to focus on my conversation with God.

I cover in Afghanistan for safety and also the general sense of ‘When in Rome...” I find that the headscarf allows me the comfort to walk around and also puts local Afghans at ease. The headscarf, however, makes non-Afghans (read, Internationals) uncomfortable to some extent and some have a harder time taking me seriously (I am not a translator for the white dude I accompanied). My head-scarf wearing also complicates matters because I take it off inside my office, put it on when I walk in the halls and then take it off in big conferences with internationals, sometimes.

Yeah, I don’t get it either but it makes me feel better, alright? The headscarf in Afghanistan irritates me when I get inordinately praised for it. Irritates me when I am scolded to just take the damn thing off. Irritates me how people change how they act, just by the sight of my headscarf. Of course, being told by a random passerby on Chicken Street that my coat is ‘too short’ irritates me the most BECAUSE DUDE, IT IS HOT AND I HAVE 4 LAYERS OF CLOTHES ON AND SHOULDN’T YOU LOWER YOUR GAZE SOMETIME?

Sorry, lost control. Anyway, it’s different for everyone, right?

I’ve considered veiling but wonder about my motivation. I consider the profound and the mundane: Whether it’s the right thing to do, would it make me a better Muslim? Would I be pretending that I am something that I’m not? I really like skirts and shorts (I do, I admit it!). Will I become sanctimonious and self-righteous when I put it on? Should I be a better person before I start wearing the headscarf?

But I also think about what an acquaintance once related to me. She said that a sheikh once told her, “Everyone focuses on the veil when really, its just one brick in the house of Islam.”

Then I think, how have I built up the rest of ‘my house’?

So, the answer is, I don’t know about the veil. I don’t think I ever really will.

But I do know that KufiGirl’s final point about the veil is the most important: ignoring the politics of the veiled/unveiled split in favor of interacting with the human being inside.

*I will be referring to the hijab as the headscarf or veil.

**A niqabi is a woman who wears the headscarf and also covers her face.

***A muhijaba is a woman who covers her hair with the headscarf.


moonrat said...

Great blog--I really enjoyed perusing. I can't read enough about Afghanistan, and you provide a really interesting perspective.

It seems like you're an avid reader... I'm looking for people who like to read to join this new fledgling blog: thebookbook.blogspot.com. I think with your range of books and experiences you would be a really interesting addition...

I hope you'll check the blog out. If you're interested in joining, just let me know.

Sylvia said...

It bothers me that people in the west just don't get it. I wear a headscarf when I visit Med's village out of respect and certainly when I've visited mosques. Maybe as a temple garment-wearing Mormon I'm extra sensitive....


chaoyang said...

another beautiful example of your ability to write -- draw the reader in and hold them breathless to the end.

erin said...

beautiful post.

Frida said...

Great post HiK, the personal perspective is powerful.

"One brick in the house of Islam" - I like that. I am prone to taking a smorgasboard approach to my spirituality, having been raised by Brethren parents. I like to remember that what matters is the integrity and decency with which we live in relation to each other and to the planet - and there are many bricks that build that house (bad use of the metaphor but I hope you know what I mean).

When I read your description of putting on your headscarf for prayers I felt a shiver of recognition. It is a beautiful paragraph.

I've had some Afghan friends ask me not to wear the headscarf - they do not chose to wear the scarf out of personal spiritual conviction but rather out of a sense of social and political pressure and they tell me that when foreign women wear the scarf it only makes it harder for Afghan women to choose to take it off.

I wear a headscarf here mostly so as not to offend or to distract attention from the point of my work. Human rights/ women's rights work is sensitive and my place in this work - as a foreign and non-Muslim woman - is already complicated. But it is a question that is never fully settled in my mind.

Of course there are windy, dusty days when a head scarf makes excellent practical sense in Ghor as well!

KufiGirl said...

Thanks for this. I can identify. Especially when you talk about the comfort you feel putting it on in one context, and the "4 layers of clothes and it's hot and please lower YOUR gaze!" irritation in a different one. :) I've also felt both these things, but the first one is particularly hard to articulate to someone who hasn't felt it themselves.

I also like the brick analogy. That's appropriate to so many things.

omg said...

This was a wonderful post and it really gets across the complexity of the issue, not only for a whole society, but even for one individual. Nicely done!