Because of the dialect of Arabic that I speak and because what I look like, most people from here assume that I'm Arab. When they guess, first it's Lebanese, then Syrian, then Tunisian, then Egyptian. After that they push for Turkish or Iranian, but rarely ever get out of the region, let alone all the way across the Atlanic to America.
I'm not blonde and blue-eyed. I don't stand out as much as a lot of Westerners, but I still get plenty of stares. A lot of them are inquisitive stares. I can see the questions spinning in their heads: "Is she from here? No, can't be. But...where? Not western....does she speak Arabic?" Sometimes I don't have to see the questions, but I hear them talking about me in Arabic. It always makes my day when I am standing next to people who are talking about me in Arabic, asking each other if they think I understand Arabic or not. I just pretend they are lucky and I don't understand what they are saying.
I used to be totally opposed to bending to the culture and covering my hair. I saw it as a sign of the voluntary subjugation of women. I didn't want to send the message that I think women are pearls that should be protected by their oyster shell (a common metaphor here) or that I think men can't control their sexual urges, which will be inevitably inflamed by my irresistible hair.
But I've gotten to a point in my expat life where I don't think like that anymore. It's a custom. Women cover their hair here. Is it really necessary to delve so much deeper into the meaning and the consequences? Women still have rights, they still make decisions, they are still beautiful. Does it really matter that much?
Today I decided to "respect the culture" and cover my hair. Fine, I admit, it was more just curiosity about how I would be treated differently. I am writing this now from a cafe in Barka, a town in between the conservative backwaters of my hometown, and the much more open capital, Muscat.
I have to say that I like it. Men are keeping their distance more, I have been attracting fewer stares (although I feel terribly conspicuous--like everyone knows what I'm doing), but the most noticeable difference for me is they way I am treated by other women. I am just one of the women now. Even though I am wearing jeans and a long sleeved tee shirt with the headscarf, it makes all the difference. In the bathroom, we all fix our headscarves together. Say "Salam 3leykum. Kifish?". And go on our way.
I'm not Muslim, and don't plan on converting, but is bending your ways to fit in better and make people that little bit more comfortable around you really so bad? I won't wear it at the college where I teach, because there part of my role is to represent Western culture, but outside, why not?
Something to think about, as I sit here sipping my cappuccino and watching people watch me (or not) out of the corner of my eye.....