For those of you who haven’t read my first article, I’m an author living in a suburb of Denver who is writing about world religions. To jumpstart my study of Islam, I donned a hijab and abaya for a week.
People call me a stay-at-home mom. The exact opposite is true. My toddler, Joe-Joe, and I love to explore. The only time we’re actually in the house is naptime. So when I woke up this morning dreading the prospect of going out, it was a new feeling.
Stepping into the bathroom and spying my makeup bag increased my discomfort. While I’m sure many Muslim women wear makeup, it’s not encouraged by the Koran. I gave my mascara tube one last longing look, and picked up the blue fabric of the hijab instead. A feeling of dread slipped over me as the knit slid over my head.
I planned to keep to my regular schedule: go to the gym and then the grocery store. But I didn’t want the stares or the awkward conversations. There’s a passage in the Koran that tells women to stay at home as much as possible. I suddenly found myself desperately wanting to embrace that verse.
And I’m not alone. Fifty-one percent of American Muslim women choose to wear the hijab and many have written stories about how awkward it can be. Unlike in many Middle Eastern and African nations, the U.S. government doesn’t force women to wear the hijab. But many Muslims feel that to please Allah and earn their way to heaven they must wear the hijab.
When countries like France try to outlaw the veiling of women, it encourages a passerby to ridicule or even assault Muslim women who veil. If you believe head covering to be oppressive, take up your argument with the Imams who interpret the Koran, or the Koran, or Mohammed himself. Don’t oppress Muslim women further and essentially put them under house arrest by not allowing them to appear in public dressed the way they feel they must.
It would be wrong of me to forget to mention the moderate Muslims, such as a husband and wife I know who both have graduate degrees and wear jeans and t-shirts. Many Muslims berate moderates for not taking the Koran seriously. Non-Muslim Americans, though they agree with moderate Muslims’ political stances, often think of them as less Muslim. This is a wrong attitude. I love when Muslims make women and children’s rights a priority. I’m not going to call a moderate Muslim less religious for protecting the rights of the vulnerable.
But back to the gym. My son’s diaper bag is camouflage in honor of my husband’s military service. While I was walking into the Apex gym, camo backpack slung over my shoulder, I got some puzzled smiles. Overall, though, everyone was much more friendly than yesterday. Several women stopped to talk to my son and a few older men waved to him. So far, the Apex Center wins for most multi-cultural friendly spot in Arvada.
Inside, at the childcare, I saw some women I recognized. But they didn’t recognize me. I am amazed how much we depend on clothes and hair when recognizing a face rather than the face itself. I told the women my investigative journalism story and asked for their impressions when they see a woman in a head-covering. They both said they are very appreciative of other cultures and in the winter months respectfully change the Christmas music playing to another soundtrack if a Muslim woman walks in.
The childcare workers did say that the veiled women who come in usually do not strike up a conversation, but that if the women did they would feel very comfortable chatting. I found this to be true during my time at the gym. When I initiated conversation with other women at the gym, they pleasantly engaged. The older men also interacted with me freely. But the younger men, and by that I mean any man under 60, were a different story.
At my gym, there’s a three or four foot gap between exercise equipment. In this gap stands a station with paper towels and Lysol for machine-sanitizing. Normally, if you are getting a paper towel, other gym members pass freely back and forth behind you. There’s also a tendency to crowd and push. Sometimes you can barely grab your paper towel before the person behind you reaches around for theirs. Not so today.
As I reached the paper towels, a man in his late 30s swung around a stairs machine. Seeing me, he stopped in his tracks and waited several feet back the whole time I collected the sanitizing equipment. There was no way he was brushing by me in that hallway.
I chose a treadmill set at an easy pace since I knew I would trip over my skirt if I tried the elliptical or stair machine. How a Koran-based dress code limits physical activity for women is a discussion for tomorrow, but I certainly have a lot to say on the issue. After a half hour workout, I told the woman beside me my story. It took the woman a few minutes for what I said to sink in.
“I’ve been coming to the Apex gym for almost a year now,” I told the woman.
The woman looked at me, puzzled. “But I’ve never seen you before.” She paused and then asked. “Do you normally dress like this?”
“No, I normally wear a bikini in the indoor pool.” Actually, I more often wear sweats on the elliptical, but a bikini was the least Muslim article of clothing I could think of.
“Oh, that’s why I didn’t recognize you,” the woman said.
I had been at the gym week after week, yet one half yard of fabric on my head made no one recognize me. Is this a commentary on how Americans tend to overlook women who wear head-coverings?
One commenter on my previous article asked how the hijab made me feel inside. First off, let me say to all the hijabis I offended with my last article—I’m sincerely sorry. And I need to apologize again because I’m sure this article is going to offend you even more. But, while wearing a hijab I felt completely walled off from the opposite gender, and not in a good way. I think the gender divide that goes along with the hijab is a terrible idea.
While I’m sure the man at the gym didn’t say “hi” or walk by me out of respect for my feelings, I didn’t feel respected; I felt like my humanity was taken away. He couldn’t acknowledge me as a fellow human, a fellow American, a fellow Coloradan. No, because of my hijab, I was a woman and he was a man and nothing could bridge that gap.
To be fair, Muslim culture isn’t the only one to have gender gaps. Just look at the American Zumba class I’m going to tomorrow night. There will be dozens of women with scarcely a man in sight.
And everyone has, or should have, some boundaries for interacting with members of the opposite sex. I counseled juvenile delinquents for a few months and I remember a 14 year old girl who told me that when she stayed at a 30 year old man’s house they slept in the same bed. They weren’t sexually active; she just thought it was normal to share a bed with your host.
Obviously, none of us would want our teenage daughters to have so few gender boundaries. But the gender divide can also be too deep. How can men and women learn from each other if they’re not allowed to even make eye contact as the Koran says? How can both genders be fully engaged in the political or business world when they are scarcely allowed to intermix?
I spoke to a Muslim man who said it is natural for people to segregate by gender and thus the hijab is no real imposition.
“Just look at an America party,” he said. “The men are clustered in one group and the women in another.”
If anything, I’m a prude as far as gender relations go. I’ve never had a best friend who was a guy, my husband and brothers excepted. And I thoroughly enjoy my females-only Bible study, moms’ groups, and get-togethers. But I interact with men every day. How could I not quiz the seminar teacher on his understanding of 1000 B.C. archaeology? How could I not strike up correspondence with magazine editors, who happen to be male, with the goal of marketing my writing? And if my two-year-old son plays with another toddler at the park, am I going to not say hello to the child’s parent because he’s male?
That said, it’s a free country. And I hope it stays that way. I am thrilled that, unlike in France, Muslim women have the right to wear veils and that American men respect that symbol by giving a hijabi space, avoiding eye contact, etc. But while 49% of American Muslim women choose not to wear the hijab and perhaps accordingly interact more across genders, not all Muslim women do get a choice. Countries like Saudia Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan regularly force women to wear not just the hijab, but in the case of Saudi Arabia, black veils over the entire face.
International women’s day is March 8th every year. Maybe we should start a new tradition. Ask all Americans, Muslim or non-Muslim, women or men, to remember those women and remember to fight for reform by all donning a head-covering on March 8th. Perhaps too, after wearing a hijab for a day, Americans would realize that half a yard of fabric doesn’t affect who anyone is on the inside. I’m game.