I’m about as Pennsylvania Dutch as they come, blonde hair, blue eyes, with ancestors that came over on the Mayflower. So when it comes to women in head-coverings, I’ve always been the observer, not the observed. But that all changed the day I decided to write a book about world religions. In my book, I’m not just researching religions, I’m living them.
I live in a 90% European-Caucasian middle class suburb of Denver. So the last time I saw someone dressed in Islamic attire in my town was — never. Fortunately, you can buy anything on Ebay.
My hijab came in the mail at 1 pm today. The blue head-covering consists of two pieces of knit fabric roughly resembling large socks. Then there is the abaya, the unfitted, plain-colored robe mandated by the Qu’ran.
While I’ve seen pictures of exquisite, jewel-bedecked abayas, my research told me that an attention-getting abaya defeats the entire purpose of the modest garment. I could have sewn one, but as I’m already knee-deep in shiny green fabric for the sari I’m making to wear to a Hindu temple next month, I opted for simple. I bought a floor-length knit skirt in the Junior’s department and paired it with a black, long-sleeve sweater. While it might not be quite authentic, it feels pretty modest to me.
After my hijab arrived, I spent the rest of my two-year-old’s naptime studying proper hijab wearing. “If you look attractive in a hijab, you have failed,” one web discussion informed me. Check, avoided that pitfall.
Another website described the skanky Muslim women who are so immodest as to let their ears show out of the hijab, and wear earrings. Horrors! They might as well be naked. Then I tried to search for appropriate body language for a hijab-wearing woman.
I started out with some pertinent passages of the Koran about avoiding eye contact with men before Google repeatedly started throwing me into BDSM/wife-spanking sites. While I’m pretty sure the ancient Caliphs would roll over in their graves if they knew what modern web search engines were spitting out, it is an interesting commentary on Americans’ perceptions of head-coverings.
Now thoroughly traumatized, I went to get my son, Joe-Joe, up from his nap and embark on the grand adventure.
The first fifteen minutes of hijab-wearing revealed more about my prejudice towards head-coverings than America’s. I grew up a tomboy with a brother on either side. I distinctly remember the temper tantrum I pitched at age seven when a swim instructor tried to get me to cover my hair with a swim cap. My brothers weren’t doing it; why should I have to? (I won.)
Hijab and abaya on, I snuck into the garage. Once Joe-Joe was strapped securely into his car seat, I slammed my foot on the gas and went speeding out that driveway fast enough the neighbors never saw me.
I got my first funny look while driving down the neighborhood street. A middle school girl stared at me. Never have I wished so dearly for tinted windows.
I could barely focus on the road as I drove on. I could tell the moment a driver’s gaze shifted from my car, to me. Their eyes would widen and then embarrassedly shift away. My heart was pounding by the time I parked at the library.
It was about then that I desperately wished that my husband was a few inches shorter and had less reservations about cross-dressing. Then I could have made him don the hijab and report back and thus gotten all my investigative journalism material without any of this embarrassment.
I am an English-speaking American who’s been going to my library for two years now. But you never would have known that from the way people acted. I felt like a foreigner.
Normally there’s a rapid exchange of conversation between me and the other moms who hang out at the kids’ train table. “How old is your baby? Aww, 18 months. Is he talking yet?” and that kind of thing.
Despite the averted gazes, I was still me and more than willing to talk. But when I tried to strike up a conversation, the other moms could scarcely disguise their surprise. They were very nice. But the normal half-hour conversations I enjoy as Joe-Joe plays, lagged after a minute or two. Moms just didn’t know what to say to me.
Then my husband showed up on his way home from work. Though I had told him of my experiment, his jaw sagged when he saw me. He and our son were dressed in average American clothing. English is all three of ours native language. But because of the half-yard of fabric on my head, we got as many curious stares as if we were just-off-the-boat immigrants dialoguing in a foreign language.
Next stop was the grocery store for on-sale frozen pizza. While I haven’t started my Islamic research yet, I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Koran about cooking your husband dinner. But I only have so much creativity in me, and today that went to styling hijabs, not cooking gourmet.
In the parking lot, I spotted two men in their late 20s. One was holding a cigarette. The other had an exaggerated five o’clock shadow.
These days with a wedding ring and a toddler I, thankfully, don’t get hit on at the grocery store so much. I’m more than happy to leave scarring pickup lines, such as the man with a foot fetish at the Barnes and Noble who complimented my toes, to my teenage sister.
But even when I was nine months pregnant and wore flannel PJ bottoms into the grocery store, I didn’t get greeted with as much dismay as these young men showed me. As soon as they spotted me, they split, giving me a ten foot berth on either side. Staring at the ground, they broke into a near-run until they were out of sight.
My husband said when he was deployed to the Middle East the soldiers were instructed to not make eye contact with Muslim women lest they start an international incident. But this is America. Just because you are wearing a head-covering does not mean you are into stoning men for looking at a woman. That goes for the man ahead of me in line at the library too. When he opened the door for me, I said, “Thank you.” And he gave me a weird are-you-sure-you’re-allowed-to-speak-to-men look.
The only person that treated me the same today was my two-year-old son, Joe-Joe. This is the OCD little kid who comments on the shoes I’m wearing and tells me when I make a wrong turn on the roadway. Yet, he had zero commentary on the glaring blue sign on my head that everyone else in the city was staring at.
“Mama, Mama, I want to play trains. Mama, Mama, look at the bulldozer,” he prattled on, looking right into my eyes while completely ignoring the hijab.
So I guess some of the drama about head-coverings is culturally contrived. If I had been wearing a Broncos hoodie that covered all my hair paired with an ankle-length black skirt, no one would have given me a second glance, just like Joe-Joe.
On a positive note, all the surreptitious glances and awkward looking away made my shy heart pound so fast that it erased the scarring wife-beating websites Google took me to this afternoon.