Friday, April 2, 2010

Wearing the Headscarf?

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.....


Anonymous said...

From a Western woman's point of view it can be enlightening to find that - at least here - the headscarf can offer a different kind of liberation.

Henrick-James Borger said...

'Those who trade liberty for security, deserve neither liberty nor security'- Benjamin Franklin

Clare said...

Well, I have to say that I agree with both of you. However, is it really liberty I'm sacrificing in wearing the headscarf?

Or am I just gaining a little bit of extra comfort in my daily activities. I think it totally depends on the slant you decide to take.

Besides, those who are not women, cannot really understand what it feels like to wear the hijab or to not wear it in this society.

But I like the quote.

Mel said...

Wow I wish I was brave enough to try that. I am living in Al Ain UAE and have often thought about wearing an Abaya to attract less stares in certain parts of town. I have been here for 19 months now from Australia. Part of my frustration is that I cannot seem to enter the world of Emirate women - I am not working (my husband is a nurse) and the only time I experience the culture up close is when I enter a henna salon. This is an amazing experience... I go regularly just to sit in there and get a glimpse of what lies beneath all that black material and mystique ....

misschatterbox said...

Whether you decide to or not, I applaud you for giving it a go. Whatever anyones perspective on the scarf I think every(woman) (in a muslim country) should do it once. It can really be an eye-opening experience.
Re the whole oppression/liberty thing - what is it about a scarf that is oppressive? I think if wearing a scarf doesn't bother you, or if you enjoy it - then how is oppressive? However if you wore it (for whatever reason) but despised wearing it - e.g if you were living in Iran and you had to, and you really hated it - then it is oppressive.
When I was in Oman I would wear it on and off. For some reason I always get called egyptian in the gulf. Once or twice turkish or syrian, but almost all the time egyptian. Even though I have blonde hair and green eyes! Anyway if anyone actually asks if I'm Muslim (I'm not) and then asks, why do you wear scarf? I would usually just say I found it deflected a little attention and made me "fit in" more. People found that easy to understand and accept, and some were touched by the sentiment. Yes, the scarf does send make men treat you with a little more respect, but it also allows you to fit in a bit more, and interact with locals a little more. Is that trading in your liberty? People migrate or live in western countries all the time and adopt western dress, to fit in, and attract less attention. Why is wrong for westerners to do the same thing?
To be honest I think it is viewed as "going native" to some extent - there is still a culture of superiority with some westerners. Some ex-pats would never contemplate being friends with a local, or participating in local culture. And for them wearing a scarf would be the height of oppression. So they shouldn't do it.

Mel: This can be hard. Emiratis are harder to get to know than Omanis in many ways. I'm lucky because my tie with gulf countries have always been with nationals there. Maybe ask your husband to ask a female co-worker, or a male co-worker if he has a wife? Contact an english school or tutoring service and see if there are any locals who want to improve their english/meet some westerners. Ask other expats who have local friends. Most of all though I think put yourself out there. There will be times when attempts at conversation/friendship are rebuffed but you will be amazed how often these people open up once you make the first move. Learn a couple of simple words in arabic "thankyou", "how are you" "goodbye" etc. Hope that helps!
P.S I'm aussie too :)

Anonymous said...

I arrived in Oman after being recruited in Paris by a Lebanese palace architect to do a project for his company. I had 3 months before departing Paris so I took immersion Arabic and studied the history and culture of Oman before departing. When I arrived I was presented to the "Prince", owner of the palace being built. I remembered enough to do and say the right things and was he impressed! He invited me to lunch the next day and found it hard to believe that a westerner would bother to learn a little of the language and customs of Oman before arriving for the first time in the Sultanate... we became fast friends and used to walk hand in hand (as is the custom), for kilometers in the desert (very sad to lose him in 2002). The next day I went "native" in my new dishdasha and at lunch the next day, his son presented me with a fine wool turban and wrapped it onto my head! I eat with my hand and burp appropriately and even have been honored with the eye of the sheep! I love the Omani culture and history and stayed on for years as almost part of the "family". Every couple of years since, the princes' son sends me a ticket to visit for a couple of months and still treats me like family and I treat them with the same respect. And even tho I can only stay a month or two, it's like "going home".