It is late in the afternoon at the University of British Columbia and I have been cooped up in this library for hours, trying to compose a thesis for my American Literature term paper. Deciding that a break would help clear my thoughts, I leave the confines of the library to sit outside, only to hear a female voice come up from behind me to ask:
"Just how is it that you can live with yourself from day to day wearing that THING on your head and letting THEM control your life?"
Granted, it is an original line, a creative way to break the ice, yet why the code words? Only because I've been yelled at in public before for reasons connected to my appearance do I know what this woman means.
Code word #1: "head thing"= 30inch X 30inch yellow and maroon flower patterned polyester blend, a piece of cloth I happen to be wearing to cover my head and neck.
Code word #2: "them"= all Muslim men who, sinister-like with their dark beards, heavy accents, and hidden Uzi's get a rush out of making women their life-long slaves.
Having deciphered all this quickly, I turn to face the stranger- a cross looking thing. I smile politely and signal to the empty chair beside me: "Would you like to have a seat?"
HIJAB, the head to ankle covering that leaves only the face, hands, and feet visible in public, has made me a very patient Muslim woman. The brave individuals who have mustered the courage to verbally express their opinions about my scarf haven't been the most trying. There are many who can't formulate words coherent enough to communicate their disapproval, and so, rely on simple gestures and sign language.
Walking through downtown Vancouver, Canada, I've been fingered, spat on, scowled, and cursed at. Stepping into an elevator, I once traumatized a man who could do nothing but shuffle into the corner of the empty lift and mutter "What the --? WHAT THE --?!?!?!?!" I have to take the agitation, the horror, and even the hatred in a stride. But never will I be silent about it.
I can ignore the flagrant distortions no more than I can deny the fact that I am a Muslim living in Canada. Who I am and what popular culture thinks I am, has become a tug-of-war-competition of who can explain the status of the Muslim hijab-wearer convincingly.
The media tells the public that I am a weak freak of nature who has been forced to subject herself to the tyranny of Muslim fundamentalists. Catherine Meckes assesses that wearing hijab is "some kind of twisted logic" because it entraps women like animals in a cage.
The Muslim dress code, she argues, is a form of hiding from society so that I don't have to deal with the realities of my "natural habitat." Ms. Meckes seems to be familiar enough with the Western culture to know that women are constantly objectified, used as commodities, tools to sell beer and boost sales for the next football season. Sadly enough, though, she views women who wish to distance themselves from this commercial degradation with fear.
She finds women who cover "disturbing" and wished that she didn't have to confront them on their "home turf."
Pardon my feeble-mindedness, I've pinned my scarf on too tight and squeezed reason out of my brain....just WHO is running away from the truth? I have chosen to set myself apart from millions of Canadians, placed myself in the way of ridicule by a society that demands women to conform to certain ideals. I have refused to hide in the crowded university hallways and malls by looking the way Cindy, Cosmo, or Calvin Klein think I should - all because I'm a spineless caged rodent?!?!
I have rejected the hip-hugging jeans, the breast-enhancing halter tops, the poofy hair and made-up face, and accepted hijab so that I can be appreciated for my intellect and personality rather than my figure or fashion sense.
When I face a classmate or colleague I can be confident that my body is not being scrutinized, my bra-strap or pantyline visible. I have repudiated the perverted values of our society by choosing to assert myself only through my mind. I understand my "natural habitat" very well thank you!
I fully comprehend the distorted image of the "ideal woman," but the difference between me and the Catherine Meckes's of the world is that I am NOT afraid to defy those standards. Islam liberated me from THAT prison.
Perhaps hijab is so misunderstood because it is prescribed by a religion that makes a bold and shocking statement: Women are precious creatures who have the right to be valued for who they are, and not what they can juggle.
When I decided to start wearing hijab, my mother pulled me aside and posed this question: "If you found a diamond that was exquisite in every way, would you show it to all your friends, let them gawk at its dazzle, caress it, or would you covet the stone and protect it by preserving its natural splendor?"
Once you bear something for all to see, the second you display something for its beauty, you objectify it and diminish its value. Because its worth is built on its ability to attract, when it no longer elicits awe from onlookers it becomes worthless. Is it a wonder that neck lines keep plunging every year? - more cleavage means women won't bore oglers, the commercial industries, and the rest of society for awhile. But when will those skirts quit shortening?? For how long will women remain sex objects??
Islam tells us that every woman is a jewel and when she respects herself enough to preserve her beauty for herself and her loved ones, she rejects being objectified by a society which does NOT value her.
Only the dearest people in my life know me without hijab because they love me enough to value ALL of me. John and Jane Doe don't love me or care for me, so why must I meet their notions of an "ideal woman" if they are meaningless to me?
It is the desire to please popular culture that makes 15 year old girls want to fit into Kate Moss's jeans by sticking their fingers down their throats and wretching (throwing up) three times a day.
It is the unattainable Perfect-Body society has conjured, that make "fat", "ugly" girls splatter themselves on sidewalks because they just are "not thin and pretty enough". AND THEY TELL ME ISLAM OPPRESSES WOMEN??
I am thankful that I am not suicidal or psychologically unbalanced because I can't meet the demands of my culture. I am fortunate that my concerns and goals in life lie on a higher plane than the dictates of a pretty fashion industry. I am quite content with my religion, for it values my power to achieve great things through my mind, not through my body.
Whether I am physically beautiful or not, you have no clue. Perhaps this fact is disturbing for Catherine Meckes and the library stranger because they are not ready to meet a woman who can get by without her looks. Then again, perhaps it is because they are just ignorant of the (WHAT IS IT?) facts. Either way, I don't need anyone's sympathy, I am not really that scary, and your anger does me no harm.
I am not under duress, or a male-worshipping female captive from the barbarous Arabian deserts.
"Your Lord Allah has decreed that you worship none but Him and that you be kind to parents whether one or both of them attain old age in your life. Say not to them a word of contempt nor repel them but address them in terms of honor and out of kindness lower to them the wing of humility and say - 'My Lord bestow on both of them Your mercy as they cherished me in my childhood.'" (Quran 17:23-24)
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