February 26, 2014

Why I Used to Wear a Headscarf, & Why I Don’t Anymore.


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In trying to explain to me why my Arab-Muslim father was taking my de-veiling so personally, my old and wise therapist put it in perspective for me.

He said “Sara, in every culture in the world, some men are threatened by women’s sexuality. Man has been trying to control this force since the beginning of time.”

And there we have it: women’s rights issues, feminism, abortion debates…and the fact the Saudi Arabian women still can’t drive (lest they drive around and start sleeping with other men behind their husband’s back).

For Americans, it may seem like common sense that my father’s thinking is silly. Ironically, I was born in America but raised in a small multi-ethnic Muslim community. Living in a community that fears everything non-Muslim there was no tolerance toward outside perspectives and always pressure to keep different out.

I remember at six years old my mom threw out our TV and when the internet came along she would always take out the router when she left the house. I also attended a less-than-100-student Muslim elementary school until I was 13 years old.

This is how the cycle of women perpetuating their own inequalities continues from one generation to the next. In the Islamic tradition, it is widely practiced and believed that God commands the woman to cover her body, only allowing the face and hands to show. The idea is to have her judged by her personality and brains, not her physical attributes.

It’s a beautiful and honorable idea—in theory.

Having been raised and socialized around this culture at home and at school, I practiced covering my body and wearing the headscarf for 15 years. I myself felt it to be empowering and liberating to have the values I stand by printed (literally) on my head. This is what I told every white women that looked at me with pity or any uncultured ignorant American that had never met a woman who covered her hair. I was taught to feel happy to look unique (alien-esque).

I wasn’t oppressed. How could I be oppressed if I had chosen to wear it, myself?

Going to Egypt was one of my first eye openers. The number of cases of women, dressed in black from head to toe being sexually assaulted and raped was heard of too regularly. Covering your body or not makes no difference.

One night, as a friend and I were leaving a coffee shop around 10 pm, I started walking toward the sidewalk. She yelled at me to walk in the middle of the street with her.

“Why in God’s name would I do that?” I asked her.

She told me that as a woman I should never walk on the sidewalk at night, for it was easier to get abducted into stores if we walked on the sidewalk.

“You will be taken into the store and never heard of again.” Covered or not made no difference. I told her I’d do fine walking in the street.

Egypt is just one country. It would be a shame to not mention Saudi Arabia which has one of the highest rates of rape, not to mention one of the most rigid rules on women’s dress. This is why I never felt oppressed. When people would say I was being forced to wear it I would imagine how in Saudi Arabia I’d be taken to jail or beaten if I didn’t wear it. So in comparison I always stood strongly by the fact that, “No I am not forced to wear it.”

“Oppression” is such a relative term. In Saudi Arabia it could mean being physically forced. In my small community in the US however, its a different type of oppression. In my experience its been more subtle—more of an omission or intolerance of ideas other than what’s  accepted by the powerful minority.

It wasn’t until recently that I started to recognize an irony in my own life.

Me, along with so many other women, are socialized into thinking that the way we demean ourselves is actually empowering.

It’s because the support around our oppressive behavior happens to come directly from other women. For example, any woman that says she is mistreated by a man is quickly hushed by other women in their communities and families in the Arab world. Fear, along with a lack of experience, combined with social seclusion leads the threatened group to become mercenaries of their own misery.

In Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, a woman who accuses a man of rape risks being killed by her own family, going to jail for adultery, or even in some cases is forced to marry her rapist. Similarly as women, if we are talking about abusive relationships or any other women’s self esteem issue  we are usually not aware of our own oppression. It is psychologically ingrained.

If we are aware of it, we think there isn’t much we can do. This is what makes us never fully understand the power, responsibility and beauty of our sexuality and our bodies.

This all comes back down to the most basic idea of education as power. Two years ago, I took a trip to the Sahara Desert in Morocco. There was one day where the men in the group went off to play soccer while the women had henna tattoos drawn for us by the village women. When my turn came up, she realized I also spoke Arabic. Through some give and take between our different dialects, I realized she was trying to ask me my name because she wanted to give me a tattoo of my name in Arabic. I told her and pointed my wrist at her but she kept pointing at the ground.

It took me a second to realize that she was asking me to draw out my own name in the sand in Arabic so that she could retrace the shape on my hand. She didn’t read or write. I’m not saying I was expecting to find a Women’s Literacy Seminar going on in the middle of the Sahara nor that every woman in the desert doesn’t read, however this explains perfectly how the cycle of oppression is contained by the oppressed themselves (women) when they literally know nothing else.

This is why—though we talk openly about issues of female oppression—the women themselves do not recognize it. And if they do, they live with it.

After years of covering my hair and body, I began to realize that it did not make sense in this country (America) and age (2014). It was causing the opposite effect. If the purpose of it was to protect, but instead was making me a target, being called a terrorist just for wearing a headscarf, how much sense did it make to keep it on? Although it seems like a rational and sensible decision to take it off, I’ve spent years debating it, going back and forth in my head.

When I recently came close to losing my sanity, I decided that I, unlike others in the world, would not be risking my life in making this choice. Yes, I might be shunned by the community and family, but my life was not on the line, and my psychological health was not worth a piece of cloth on my head.

So I took it off.

Naturally, the men in the community took it the hardest. My father could not understand why his daughter would do such a thing and told me to not come back home: I was no longer his daughter.

It’s interesting to me that it is always the female that must be controlled, regardless of the problem. Yet even with all the hype around female empowerment, we still see women go to different extremes in trying to express themselves.

In protest of rape, we have naked parades around the streets. Then on the other hand we have women in France protesting their right to wear a burka. On both ends, the woman fights for how she chooses to dress. On both ends she is struggling.

With all the focus on women, the only thing I can think is: we should not be focusing on how treat women, but rather how we are raising our men.



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Editorial Assistant: Dana Gornall/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo Credit: Yuni Khan/Pixoto

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