Or Why Is That man Shouting at Me?

It was not without some trepidation that I set out on my first ever journey to the Middle East this winter. I’d be visiting Istanbul first, with my husband, and then we’d be undertaking an extensive tour of Syria with our two sons, one of whom has been perfecting his Arabic during a year at the University of Damascus. Due to unforeseen difficulties in obtaining a visa for Syria, I’d be on my own in Istanbul for several days.

Americans are not exactly flavour-of-the-month at the moment in the Islamic world, albeit with extremely good reason, but my own personal beliefs regarding war and peace wouldn’t necessarily shield me from the hostility aimed at the government of the country of my birth. And then there’s the whole issue of the Hijab. To cover or not to cover – that is the question. For many western women I suppose the answer would be self-evident – not to cover. To cover is to submit to oppression, to deny one’s fundamental freedom and equality with men, to betray one’s sisters, longing for the right to feel the wind in their hair. But I wasn’t sure it was all that simple. On the practical level, I wished to benefit from my time in new and fascinating places without the distraction of unwanted attention. A bit of research on travel forums yielded the following highly interesting results: Among western travellers, the men reported back (for both Damascus and Istanbul) no special dress was necessary for women, as plenty of local women wore western dress. But, and here’s where it gets interesting, the women travellers universally recommended that you cover, cover, cover. Long sleeves, long skirts, and yes – a headscarf were advisable ‘if you don’t want to be harassed’. And who does? So, as a matter of sheer practicality, I decided in favour of the Hijab, and also equipped myself with a couple of jilbab, or loose-fitting ankle length dresses from the Whitechapel market, London’s place for all things Asian. These were not ‘bin bags’ but quite attractive and comfortable gowns, not unlike a beach cover-up, that you simply slip over your clothes. I wasn’t sure whether I’d need them, but I liked the idea of having them, just in case.

In the event, I did wear the Hijab, and the jilbab as well, and the experience was an enlightening one in many ways. I did not find it ‘oppressive’, but liberating, and , in some ways, quite seductive. Dressed in this manner I became, in the eyes of my hosts, something I am, namely a respectable woman who is not interested in sex with strangers. Dressed in my ordinary clothes, which are, I can assure you, in no way outrageous by the standards of twenty-first century London, I would’ve been a whore on the make. I was treated with respect and even courtly deference by the men, and with sisterly solidarity by the women everywhere I went. Did they take me for a Muslima? Probably. Was this dishonest on my part? I hope not. The message I wished to give, which was wholly honest and true, was simply this – I am a decent woman.

What is a decent woman? How do we know one when we see one? However far we may have wandered from such Christian ideals as chastity and modesty in the west, the idea of respectability or decency still has some meaning. Dress is a means by which we give out information about ourselves to the world, and the code is different in every society. When you change cultures, you risk giving out the wrong signals about yourself. Add to this the generally low opinion of western women in the Muslim world, and you can see that such misunderstandings are practically inevitable. It’s true that many women, in both Istanbul and Damascus, don’t wear the Hijab, although far more do. Do these women suffer harassment? I’ve no idea, but I suspect to some extent they do, although not nearly to the same degree that a foreign woman, and especially a foreign woman travelling alone, would do. It’s also safe to assume that local women are familiar with nuances of dress that are beyond the visitor’s ken. Exactly which types of western dress are appropriate and when and where – it can get pretty complicated. The unwritten rules are always the hardest to learn and the easiest to break.

But above and beyond the practical side of the matter, I’m a bit puzzled by the glib assumption in the west that the Hijab is an instrument of oppression. I felt no compunction about wearing it – ‘It’s only a scarf!’ I said to my husband, to my sons, as they looked on, baffled and bemused. We seem to have forgotten that, as little as fifty years ago in our own culture, no respectable person, man or woman, was seen in the street without a hat . It was not unusual for women to veil themselves in the west, particularly women of high caste, or women in mourning, or, significantly, women travellers. A last vestige of this practice can still be seen in the persistence of the bridal veil, nowadays often worn as the bizarrely incongruous accessory to a dress that leaves the bride’s shoulders and bosom bare. In the last fifty years our dress code has changed so radically that it’s difficult to tell, on a Saturday night in London, who are the streetwalkers and who the innocent suburban girls in town for a night of fun. Only the deadness in their eyes gives it away, their clothes certainly don’t.

Now as a prelude to my journey I did more than check a few travel forums. I read the Qur’an , and read it carefully and seriously, and what I found there surprised me very much. I found nothing that oppressed or demeaned women, or relegated them to second status. I found much that was beautiful, respectful, and admirable. The Hijab, or act of covering, is described as obedience to God [S33:36], as modesty (to protect women from molestation) [S33:59], as purity of heart for both men and women [S33:53], as Shield: ‘Allah, Most High, is Heaven, is Ha'yeii (Bashful), Sit'teer (Shielder). He loves Haya' (Bashfulness) and Sitr (Shielding; Covering).’ The Hijab is righteousness, the Hijab is belief, it is the natural ‘bashfulness’ of women, and the ‘gheerah’ or natural dignity of the woman who does not wish to excite sexual interest inappropriately. These are beautiful virtues that take us very far from the mores of the secular west. However, they intersect closely with those of an earlier Christian tradition, which, while practically abandoned in Europe, still has some currency in the United States. St. Paul tells us: ‘In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array. But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.’ [1Timothy, 2, 9-10] Well, it’s hard to argue with good works, and handsome is as handsome does is an old but sound adage. St. Paul does spoil things a bit by going on to admonish us to ‘learn silence with all subjection’, and then to bring up that old business about Eve and the serpent, a convenient stick always. Still, while I’ve no intention of keeping silent so long as I’ve got something useful to say, I do rather suspect we’ve thrown the baby out with the proverbial bathwater on this one, that traditionally gender-specific virtues such as modesty and chastity have gone largely missing in our brave new world, and we are the poorer for that. There is an argument to be made that a woman has a right to her honour and dignity, to the beauty of her person as a private and sacred thing, to her sexuality and power over men as something serious to be taken seriously and used wisely in the service of God, not bartered in the marketplace. I’ve not space here to make the argument at length, but I’d ask the reader to entertain the possibility that such virtues, which have existed in most cultures and at most times, may not be intrinsically oppressive but rather enlightened and enlightening.

Whether you agree with any of this or not, you can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about a piece of cloth on a woman’s head. Why does it matter so much to so many people? Isn’t it a woman’s own business what she chooses to wear? Why is it always men kicking up a fuss about what we have or haven't got on, and never, ever the other way round? In Turkey women are not permitted to enter public buildings if they’re wearing a headscarf (a policy currently under review). This cuts off the education of all those girls who choose to wear one, and make no mistake, many do choose to do so, sometimes for the reasons outlined above, sometimes for other reasons which may include an identification with political Islam, an adherence to a tradition with which they are comfortable, and no doubt many others, as subtle and manifold as the complexities of the human heart and the individual’s intersection with society. In France too, the doctrine of so-called laïcité has been interpreted to mean that girls and women are not to wear the Hijab in public buildings, including schools. All this can seem manifestly unfair to one brought up in the American tradition of ‘freedom of religion’, where the Amish children attend school in the quaint garb of yesteryear without raising a murmur. Meanwhile, women from the streets of Iran to the classrooms of Anatolia to the bainlieue of Paris and the airport queues of London are fighting for the right to wear the Hijab or the right to take the damn thing off.

At the heart of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow lies the dilemma of the Hijab. The plot centres around a writer who has come to a remote town to investigate reports of numerous suicides among the so-called ‘headscarf girls’, high-school girls who are killing themselves under pressure from the authorities to remove their headscarves. He puts the following speech into the mouth of one such girl. ‘If a lot of girls in our situation are thinking about suicide, you could say it has to do with wanting to control our own bodies. That’s what suicide offers girls who’ve been duped into giving up their virginity, and it’s the same for virgins who are married off to men they don’t want. For girls like that, a suicide wish is a wish for innocence and purity.’ (trans. Maureen Freely). Now, there are real problems for women living in Islamic cultures, there are evil traditions of oppression and domination, false and murderous notions of honour, a whole catalogue of horrors, sometimes justified, however unjustifiably, in the name of religion. But I don’t think we can just ignore the voice of that girl. We ought to listen, and try to understand what she is telling us. Salma Yaqoob, a British-born Muslim and political activist, has spoken eloquently of the ‘woman’s right to choose’. She sees the banning of the Hijab, rightly, as racism and xenophobia in the west, and insists that both banning and enforcement are equally oppressive, as both deprive a woman of the right to choose for herself what she will wear. [Salma Yaqoob,‘Hijab - A Woman's Right to Choose’, If you doubt the racism and xenophobia, just try a little experiment - put on a headscarf and go for a walk in London. I sometimes wear one, just to keep my hair dry – it rains a lot in London, not generally a steady downpour but more of a persistent drizzle that soaks gradually into your clothes and hair, and a headscarf makes sense. The Queen often wears one, for example. And more than once I’ve had strange men shout insults at me such as ‘Go back where you came from!’ or ‘OOOOHH I can see your HAIR!’ and so on. There you are, men shouting at you again. In one part of the world they shout at you because you’re not wearing a headscarf and in another part of the world they shout at you because you are. Can’t win.

I spent a few days in Istanbul and a couple of weeks travelling in Syria – this hardly makes me an expert. But I discovered something by wearing the Hijab than I could not have discovered in any other way. When I had it on, I was exactly the same person as I was when I didn’t have it on. I was just as intelligent, just as curious, just as funny, just as observant, just as critical, just as everything, just the same! I see women in Hijab differently now. I’ve tumbled to their secret. They’re just like the rest of us.

This article first appeared in Her Circle Ezine.


Pictures: Hejaab by Please! Don't Smile cc on flickr.com, Whitechapel Market by Cactusbones cc on flickr.com, la Donna Velata, Raffaello Sanzio 1516, Saturday Night Fever by banoootah-qtr cc on flickr. com, Virgin Annunciate, Antonello da Messina 1476, Two Women by Indigo Goat cc on flickr. com, Audrey Hepburn in a headscarf circa 1960's.