a little less than two months ago, when this blog was still new and my relationship to it still unclear, i thought a lot about what i would write about, and more importantly, what i wouldnt write about. things like the hijab, fairness creams and the taliban were some of the things i was committed to not write about. my reasons for each topic sounded legit at the time, but my commitment to staying away from conversations that are inherently political and controversial has wavered. so here i go, saying things that i might not necessarily be qualified to say about things that i dont fully understand/appreciate. i guess this is evidence #191389834 of my flakey and contradictory way of talking about stuff that makes me uncomfortable.
technically, i know very little about religion, and perhaps even less so about islam. granted ive grown up in a super duper muslim country, learnt islam in school and have been included in its cultural and practical executions through my family, but i cant claim to be someone who really knows how it works, or why it works the way it does. to be honest, it makes me nervous to talk about islam because i know and love people who take it very very seriously, and i dont want to make anyone upset or comment on peoples ways of living without having lived as them/with them.
so that was my awkward disclaimer of sorts.
today, muslim women all over the world choose what they do and do not wear based on certain guidelines prescribed by the islamic faith. ever since i was young, i remember covering my head at religious events with a square piece of cloth, whether it be functions at school or at community gatherings that had islamic purposes. the process of covering does not apply only to ones hair, but to ones limbs and curves and shapes. the point, is to not attract attention to your womanly build, and thus to present yourself as a good modest muslim woman.
modesty is one of the most central themes that i have interacted with whenever dealing with islam. at school we were taught about how the female body tempts men and makes them think about all the wrong kinda thoughts that then lead them to do all the wrong kinda things. and so, women have to do their part and cover up in order to not tempt the eager men in their life to see them as nothing more than sexual objects. and so, thats what we have done.
dont get me wrong, its never as simple as that. the hijab is way more than the best sleazy guy repellent available in todays market. the hijab has historical roots to desert living in the middle east and has been around for way longer than we think. in other instances, the hijab has been seen as a political tool, where women (especially in the developed world) have used it to make a statement about their faith and their pride in it. the hijab also varies regionally in its interpretation and usage, with some women choosing to cover their entire bodies other than their eyes and with other women choosing not to cover their hair at all but adopt a personal style that is perhaps more conservative in its outlook. plus, theres a whole lot more to modesty than covering your hair or your arms or your legs. both men and women in islam are expected to be respectful of the others bodies, in moments of day to day interactions and in those of intimacy. the islam i know and have been taught is progressive and honest about bodies. islam is the same religion that tells you to stop eating when your stomach feels exactly three quarters full because thats all the food you really need. its worthies exercise and hygiene and makes you do it by praying five time a day and washing up before hand. islam is the religion that tells you that heaven lies at the feet of your mother (the last one is my favorite). my point is, the messages here are always kind. the interpretations of them however, tend to be way more complicated than that.
in my life, i have had three sustained interactions with the hijab. the first, was when i was about 9 or 10 years old and spent my summer holidays with the um, very religious side of the family. i returned with this desire to cover my head at all times, much to the amazement of my guitar playing super mellow mom who chose to freak out and (thankfully) talk me out of making decisions that i was not yet qualified to make. after that, my family and i went on pilgrimage twice, both times to a country that enforced hijab by law, so i didnt really have a choice about the whole matter. both times, my wardrobe looked a little bit like this (well, not exactly, but you get the idea). this is what i thought about the whole scene:
1) you can get away with super greasy hair and general unkempt behavior. when people cant see if your clothes are ironed or your hair is brushed then you kinda stop caring too.
2) my nose looks bigger when all my hair is covered. covering your hair in particular can make you look way different than how you normally look.
3) peripheral vision goes away 100%.
4) the extra fabric can be claustrophobic and hot. it would also be more difficult to maintain in rainy weather/snow.this is also not an ideal look for swimming/out door activities in general. though if you need to be modest and still perfect your free style you always have the option of wearing these.
5) clothes = identity, and restrictions on what you wear can be oddly frustrating. but the ladies always figure a way around such hurdles- during my stays i always saw crazy bag/gloves/shoes combinations ever. not to mention the options available via make up and perfume.
all in all, my interactions with the hijab were pretty okay, primarily because they were short. i remember flying back home both times after pilgrimage, and feeling the wheels of the plane leave tarmac. our bodies officially entered international territory and the hijab came off and i rolled up my sleeves and could breathe again, with peripheral vision on my side.
this would probably be a good time to talk about why im writing about this, and what has spurred the longest blog post i have ever written. a few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted this article on her facebook, which talks about a white lady that converted to islam after being kidnapped by the taliban in 2001. i’ll leave you to make your own conclusions about what she says and how she has chosen to prove that islam is superior in its instruction as compared to secular market driven societies. the part that struck me, is the publicity that this post got on my friends profile, particularly in the case of one self identifying male muslim, who commented by saying the following:
wheres the veils then ladies…???
and then followed that gem with (i kid you not) direct excerpts from the Quran.
im not going to share my first reaction to this on this blog, because it was angry and personal and contained too many reactionary statements, but i just want to pause for one second and look at the intention behind this comment. the hijab has become a political tool, and is often at the forefront of conversations about whether islam is progressive or the root of all evil. stuff like the hijab is used in the same way abortion is used in this country, with womens bodies posing as the frameworks through which larger agendas play themselves out.
and there is the problem. no one can really know why these rules were created years and years ago, but it can be hoped that women were not told to cover their bodies so that men wouldnt judge them, or other women wouldnt think of them as less pious and pure. but thats what happens. when at pilgrimage i remember being given death stares because my hijab had slipped and some of the poofy parts of my hair were showing. what i remember even more clearly was the feeling of shame i felt when i hastily tried to cover myself up so that no one would be given reason to tell me off again. and in retrospect, i resent that anyone could evoke such a reaction from me about something that i didnt choose to do, as it says nothing about me and has very little to do with the reasons for why i respect myself and my body when i move through public space.
the point i want to make, is not about whether the hijab is the right way forward or not, or if dressing a certain way makes you a better person- but that these conversations are happening in the wrong contexts and by the wrong people. last i checked, this was about women and the decisions they make. it has nothing to do with the guy i quoted before. its none of his business. and most importantly, he dare not use it as a way to make himself feel better about how he lives his own life.
and the same goes for policy makers in france and saudi arabia and afghanistan. dont decide that the hijab is repressive before talking to women who wear them. dont ban driving in your country because wearing a seat belt shows off the contours of the female body. and really, instead of wasting your time making decisions that are not yours to make, create social and political space that finally let women talk about themselves without fear of judgment and ridicule. look beyond our hair and our skin and recognize the fact that your critique does not help us, and that it clogs up the time that should be allocated to more important things. lets make getting a divorce easier for women, lets make it simple for women to file cases of rape and harassment. lets achieve real tangible change that will actually make being a muslim woman a little bit easier- because trust me those are two very loaded terms and it just gets worse when they apply to the same person.
let us make our own decisions. and stemming from that, let us make our own mistakes. these might be your laws and your rules but these are our victories and our conquests.
i mean really, this has absolutely nothing to do with you.