Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Mirror Test: Knowing When You're Ready to Wear Hijab

I wrote this response in light of Stephanie Luff's decision to take off her headscarf until she feels ready. I decided to post my own experience to show that everyone has their own struggles and time frame for when they feel ready to do something, especially the very visual aspect of hijab. 

My interest started when I took a course during my degree entitled, 'Harem and Hijab: Women in Islam.' It opened my eyes to a lot of issues, not just feminism (Western and Middle Eastern) and the issue of hijab but it also broke up the binaries of East and West which had been in my head. I joined the class primarily because I was interested in the Turkish aspect of the course because my financé is Turkish. Ironically, he became more interested in faith and became a practicing Muslim as a result of meeting me, a Christian. After a year of learning more about Islam and fasting for Ramadan last Summer, I decided that I wanted to become a Muslim myself. Or more accurately, that I felt I'd been a Muslim for a long time without realizing that was the case. 

That was all well and good. But then came the issue of wearing hijab (or headscarf). I’d been defending Islamic feminism and women's rights to wear hijab or the burqa in all of my course essays but when it actually came to me wearing it myself, I suddenly had a huge problem. For months I had a huge struggle with it because I thought why on earth do I need to cover my hair to be a Muslim? If you have then surely that's all that matters. Hijab's fine for everyone else, but I'm fine without it thanks. I began to study the importance of hijab theologically (as a daily sign of faith and modesty) and that made me feel even more stressed because I knew the issue wouldn't go away. 

To be honest, I felt like a bit of a fraud because I was doing all the ‘easy’ bits of Islam without the difficult parts. It's easy to hide fasting and praying - but covering your hair is so obvious (and Islam isn’t exactly portrayed in the media as the most huggable of religions). I was particularly worried about the reaction of my family (several of whom are Christian ministers). A part of me really wanted to wear it, to have the courage to wear something for a reason of faith but the other part of me was saying ‘you’ll look so stupid’. That went on for ages. I got stressed whenever I saw a veil on TV and became very defensive. I would put it on it secret and start crying because I didn't like my reflection and would have gollum-style arguments with myself. 

One day last summer I got fed up with myself for fretting about hijab when my lack of a job was a far more pressing issue. So I went for a walk to clear my head but decided to cover my hair with a bandanna. No one stared at me me in the street and nothing worthy of report happened. I felt silly that I'd got myself so psyched up for a battle of some kind. When I returned home, I found an offer of a job waiting in my inbox. While I was praying about it, I suddenly felt at peace about the situation and knew that I wanted to cover my hair and was ready to do that. I started to wear it at work (starting out with just a bandanna and then becoming progressively more obviously 'Muslim'). 

If it weren't for that feeling, I wouldn't have had the courage to wear hijab. It's impossible to wear something confidently, whether it's a headscarf, ball gown or a swimming costume at the beach, unless you feel comfortable in it. If you look in a mirror wearing a headscarf and think 'I look so ugly' I'd take it as a strong sign that you're not in the right frame of mind or heart to wear it yet. Putting it on when you feel that way could be the straw that breaks the metaphorical camel's back and puts you off your religion all together, especially if you feel you are being pressured into it. You have to be able to have the confidence to wear it without worrying what people think and then others will see and respond to that. There would be nothing worse than seeing a young woman wearing a scarf and looking as if she had no confidence or was unhappy. 
♥    ♥    

Six months later I'm incredibly happy that I made that decision. When I'm wearing the hijab and look in the mirror now, I actually feel more myself. I've had to overcome paranoia about how my face looks because that's the only thing people see. It's strange but actually that has made me more confident than I was before. Perhaps it's because it takes a certain amount of psyching up everyday to face the world knowing that you will probably get some funny looks during the day.  Although in fairness to Italian passersby, I openly stare at hijabis myself. I just get so excited! Spot the Hijabi has even become an official game when I'm on the bus and I need a way of passing the time.  

I hope inshallah (God willing) that this blog is useful to anyone struggling with similar issues at this time. Also, in the case of Saluff, I hope that it can be a reminder to myself, others and especially "Gung-Ho Hijabis" that only Allah (God) knows what stage of their journey a person is on in their faith and it's our responsibility to meet people where they are and be supportive. The most important part of hijab (modesty and faith) is internal and isn't affected by what we wear. That's the vital part that we should be nurturing in others, not worrying about what's on their head.   

★  ★  
Some afterthoughts...

There's a great video called You Took Off Your Hijab? Unsubscribed!! by Sister Dee from Imaan & Beauty where she sums up some of the negative responses towards sisters who took off their hijab in 2012 and encourages people to be less judgmental in their attitudes towards fellow muslim women. 

Update: For a more recent decision by a Muslim lady to remove her hijab, read her article explaining her decision here: Winnie Detwa: 'The Elephant in Room - Removing Hijab I particularly respect her encouraging others to continue on their own path and not to think of hijab as a fashion statement.

A special thanks to @TheMaryFairy for being on my case and encouraging me to write another blog entry. I've also received so much support and kind words from friends old and new for which I'll always be grateful.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Feminism, Fiction and Turkish Delight

I came across this piece of fiction while having a clear out session and thought it seemed a bit of a shame to just leave it filed away on my hard drive where no one can read it. It fits in with the theme of my previous post and hopefully it might be of interest to some of you. I wrote it as part of my English Degree for a module entitled 'Harem & Hijab: Women in Islam.'  The objective was to write a piece comparing preconceived views of the East / Orient with modernity. The story looks at Western stereotypes of Turkey through the experiences of a British student who meets a group of Turkish students in Italy.  (All views expressed are fictitious and copyright of the characters themselves) 

AliBaba Lokum

Turkish Delight: Full of Eastern Promise. But as I held a piece of squidgy lokum between my fingers, I began to realise the failings of my Cadbury’s education.
 “But is this real Turkish delight?” I whispered, “It doesn’t have any chocolate on it”. Ali’s bemused look informed me this thought should remain between us.
“It’s only for tourists,” he said.
Yet there it was. Sugar-coated, rose-tinted and representing Turkey. It warmly welcomed us as we entered the party Ali’s friends had lovingly organised to introduce their Italian housemates to authentic ‘Turkishness’.
As I nibbled the little cube, I thanked God lokum was nothing like the perfumed jelly-slabs that British kids have to endure (along with parma violets). Not all things Turkish tickled my taste-buds however. While the Turks and Italians were raising celebratory glasses (“serefe!”), I was slotting raki alongside Gaviscon in the ‘awful childhood tastes’ compartment of my brain. As I deposited the barely-touched glass behind a convenient basil pot, I accidently caught the attention of a nearby Italian.
Ciao! So you are Turkish also?” he asked.
Non, I’m English”
He looked at me blankly, glancing at my brown curly hair, then asked,
“Really? English-English?”
His questions left us both perplexed. I would have blamed my shoddy Italian for the confusion were it not for the entrance of more of Ali’s friends from Istanbul. Dark hair. Dark eyes. As they introduced themselves I saw in each face an alternative reflection of my own. Kara-kahve.[1] No wonder I’d been mistaken for a Turk. I was essentially a full-length mirror to one of the girls who happened to be wearing an identical pair of Per Una jeans. I smiled, wondering if there was a Turkish woman elsewhere in the room being asked if she was English and feeling equally baffled.
While Ali scouted the whereabouts of helva for me to try, I wandered towards his friends, carefully avoiding stepping on the Turkish rug (“Carpets are sacred to Turks remember”, Ali had said). I was intercepted by a Turkish man who greeted me, “Merhaba! You have Turkish boyfriend now, you must learn belly-dance.” He escorted me to several girls, Italian and Turkish, huddled over an iPod choosing the next song. Tarkan’s ‘Şımarık’ won the Italians’ vote despite playful protest from the Turks that the song was ridiculously cheesy.[2] The Turkish girls began to shimmy regardless while I danced in my Anglo-awkward way. Their increasingly tongue-in-cheek displays of exaggerated and amateur belly-dance reduced us all to fits of giggles. Entrenched by years of Eurovision, I had believed all Turkish women belly-danced through life, hips jingle-jangling while singing Euro-English.
And those who couldn’t belly-dance wore the veil. At least that was what my imagination had decided when I was a child. Both images were equally exotic: the veiled allure of the belly dancer and the veiled piety of the devout Muslim woman. Neither extremes were to be found in that room.
After Tarkan, it was Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ that emerged victorious in the iPod battle. As the opening trumpets sounded, the man beside me leapt up. He grabbed a tea-towel, sending baklava crumbs flying, held it under his eyes and proceeded to belly-dance. His rhythmic swivels held us entranced as we realised he was unquestionably the most graceful dancer in the room. We cheered him on (‘Güzel Ahmet! Bravissimo!’) as he spun exuberantly among us like a whirling dervish. His eyes gleamed as he raised his bushy eyebrows provocatively along the veil. Indeed, Ahmet’s undeniable sensuality was only hindered by the occasional glimpse of an incongruously full beard beneath the make-shift veil.
When the song ended, I found Ali in discussion with his friend Deniz, and Patrizia, her Italian housemate. 
 “Conservative types usually wear veil in Turkey”, Deniz was explaining to Patrizia (characteristically dropping articles that are often lost in Turkish-to-English translation), “when they banned it in universities, some of the veiled women protested – they want to wear it.”
“Like Sarkozy’s burqa ban”, Patrizia commented, “It’s the women themselves who are protesting because they’re fighting for part of their identity. I mean, why should you have to choose to be either French or Muslim?”
“Exactly, is same in Turkey”, Deniz added, “To be Turkish, Muslim, or Turkish Muslim, it doesn’t mean you must wear veil but for some it’s their identity: religious, cultural, political. You know Hayrünnisa Gül, our president’s wife? She couldn’t go to university because she wore veil. The President always had two events for anniversary of our Republic so military wouldn’t have to shake his wife’s hand. Some think that gesture would undermine the secular state. When he merged the receptions last year it was seen as Islamist, bringing Islam into politics.”

 “It’s really complicated”, Ali commented, “women can wear headscarf in some universities now but theoretically it’s still not accepted. I heard there are girls who rebel by wearing cheap wigs over their scarf so they can attend university. Saying someone can’t wear something is oppressive but it’s difficult because Turkey was founded on secularism and now veil represents Islam. People assume the veil is a Muslim thing. But is the miniskirt part of Christian culture? No. Then headscarf isn’t automatically Islam. Christian Armenians in Turkey wear headscarfs.”

“Even the Queen wears one when she goes out in the countryside”, I said, “Although that’s more to do with English weather than identity.”

“Exactly”, Ali chuckled, “The West assumes veils oppress Muslim women but they don’t think twice when they see wimpled nuns wandering across the piazzas here. Are they oppressed by their headscarf?”

Si, here in Italia, it’s not the nuns who have problems” said Patrizia, “This country is Berlusconi’s empire and as a woman, you can’t get on TV unless you squeeze plastic double-D’s into a bikini. I mean look at that”. She pointed to the mute TV screen next to the unveiled figure of Ahmet inhaling nargile.[3] The TV screen revealed two high-heeled, thong-trussed showgirls dancing either side of seated male presenters on Italy’s primetime news programme.[4]

“We are not in veils perhaps”, Patrizia continued, “but isn’t exposure just as oppressive as concealment?”

[1] ‘Black Coffee’ is a Turkish expression used to describe people with dark hair.
[2] ‘Spoiled’ (1997) released by Tarkan sold two million copies across Europe.
[3] The Turkish name for shisha inhaled from a hookah.
[4] ‘Striscia la notizia’ (‘The News Slithers’) is the flagship news programme of Berlusconi-owned Mediaset. The two women, called veline, are models and/or dancers in their early twenties: one blonde and one brunette. The veline have become the most popular female icons on Italian television. They do not speak.

3 Unexpected Effects of Wearing a Hijab

Electric Shocks!

I've always seemed to attract static generally but that appears to have been magnified since I started wearing a scarf. Now whenever I shake a student's hand for the first time they almost always get a shock! It does work however as a great defense against overly-curious children. I had an incident of a little Italian girl deciding one day that she had had enough and she wanted to see my hair ( "basta! voglio togliere!"). She rushed forward and grabbed my scarf only to find herself being shocked by visible sparks flying everywhere! Now she thinks I'm some supernatural being (I suppose I am partly to blame for the propagation of this myth as I once said to a class of particularly rambunctious pre-teens that, "I actually cover my hair because I'm Medusa. But the snakes only come out when children don't do their homework..."

Nationality Confusion

It's funny that by simply covering my hair, people who meet me for the first time have become unable to place me anywhere on the map. Generally, Brits think I'm 'foreign,' Italians think I'm Arab, and the local community of Muslims think I'm an Italian convert...  One Italian lady said to me, "So where are you from?' When I replied, 'England' she looked very confused but responded, 'Oh... yes... in England they have people from everywhere don't they?' She paused, then added, 'but you speak English very well.'

Only last month, I was stood waiting for an airport shuttle bus in Bologna when a confused English tourist passed by trying to work out how to buy tickets. She asked in a loud voice, 'does anyone here speak English?' Before I could answer, she had already looked me in the eye, began to ask 'do you spe...?' but trailed off, shaking her head as if there was no way I could possibly help her. Straight away (and on the defensive) I went into 'posh telephone voice mode' and gave her an overload of information just to prove that I was no less British than her.    

Later that day, I arrived back in England and hailed a taxi. Using my official telephone voice once more, I said, 'Good morning! I'd like to go to Ennerdale Road please' and got in. The first thing the driver said was, 'So were are you originally from then eh?' I wasn't sure if he meant my home city (and not really having one) I said, 'my family originally came from Northampton actually.' He continued, 'yeah but where are you originally from?' I realised what he meant and responded, 'I'm English.' 'But you're Muslim,' he said, furrowing his brow in the rear view mirror, 'A British Muslim? That's not right though is it?' I inhaled in anticipation of an awkward journey and squirmed in my seat as he went into a rant about 'Asian Islamics.' He defended his position with the awkwardly phrased, 'I mean, I'm from English yeah? and I'm Christianity. But I don't want no Iraqi law. I can't be a Muslim anyway. I'm an alcoholic me.' So I just smiled at him through the rear view mirror and tried to neutralise his comments in such a way that he would say, 'yeah I agree with you there'. By the end of the journey he seemed slightly calmer, having realised that I wasn't a terrorist and wished me a Merry Christmas.I gave him a tip in good faith that in the future he might remember meeting a friendly Muslim who wasn't "oppressed."

Coming to Terms with my Face

As strange as it sounds, the hardest thing about starting to wear hijab was I didn't have anything to distract from my face and I had to get used to what I actually look like. I've always been a bit paranoid about my appearance (some of us being blessed with more cheek, chin and nose than most!) but I've found that now I feel far more confident in my own skin. I'm far happier with how I look now without worrying about frizz and makeup. I guess I came to the conclusion that a big smile on your face is more than enough.

Finally, just a little side note: My favourite reaction to my hijab so far has been my Grandad who said, 'Well Sarah, you know we love you whatever you wear. But to be honest... I've always thought your hair was a bit strange anyway.' : D

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