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Modest Appearances

Modest Appearances

The hijab is the most powerful item of clothing in secular Western society—and the least understood.

Photographs by Arwa Abouon.

I bought a long black coat the summer I was twenty-four. It was August and I was feeling unseasonably morose. Standing before a mirror in a shop called Tristan et Iseut, I could see the coat was too big; its draping folds made a cave I could retreat into. I didn’t want to take it off. The salesgirl helped me fold back the sleeves to make cuffs. “I’ve seen you go by here a few times,” she said. “I like how you always wear a scarf. It makes you look so mysterious. Here, the fitted sleeves work better, don’t you think?”

This poised young woman wore a crisp white shirt—easily more sophisticated than all the glum, bare-shouldered girls trawling the Rideau Centre—and thought I looked mysterious. I was thrilled. In seven years of covering my hair in public, I’d never received such a compliment.

Why was it so much more gratifying than the uninvited effusions of Muslim men—strangers who often stopped to praise me for setting such a good example for all womanhood? Scarf-wearing Muslim women never smiled or called out salaams to one another just for adhering to the dress code. If anything, they avoided each other’s glances. On my small university campus in Kingston, Ontario, Muslim students had exchanged friendly nods when our paths crossed; we’d known each other at least by sight. The streetwise wariness of Ottawa’s much larger female Muslim population baffled me when I began my first job downtown, but I caught on quickly. It was the men whose hearty presumptions too often interrupted my commute, whose pleasure at the sight of my covered hair was faultlessly courteous but unearned. They thought my scarf was all about them.

Looking away from each other was the one dignified way scarf-wearing women could maintain a shred of individuality on the street. Like them, I became cold and jaded. Yeah, I cover. Get on with your shopping. The salesgirl’s gaze, on the other hand, was a respectful appraisal not only of my style, but of my independence. She didn’t know what covering meant—that was the point. In her eyes, my scarf belonged to me alone.

Her compliment reminded me that, like shopping for clothes, wearing a scarf was especially enjoyable in the company of women. Standing in front of bathroom mirrors in lecture halls, mosques, hotels, offices, shops and train stations, we watched each other wrap and fold fabric in ways we wanted to try: layered over a headband, pinned above an ear, a long scarf loosely flung over a shoulder, a neat little kerchief tucked into a dress shirt. We covered ourselves the way other women fluff their hair and spray perfume across their wrists. Our gestures were no less absorbing, and gave us no less pleasure, than other forms of feminine self-adornment.

I was far more fluent in defending my dress code with the strident language of feminism than with the breathless enthusiasm of fashion. But it is fashion that aims to turn a person’s appearance into something exciting and important. In any diverse, secular city, the visual impact of a headscarf is still more arresting than almost anything you can name. When I walked into politics class at the start of the semester, or down the aisle of a train, I felt it: just for that moment, I had everyone’s attention. What Hermès handbag or Prada shoe could ever claim the same power?

I became less interesting to look at when I stopped covering my hair. Walking around Vancouver, bareheaded for the first time at nearly twenty-nine, I felt strange. Nobody gave me a second look in shops and buses; no one seemed surprised that I spoke with the same Canadian accent as everyone else. No one wanted to jeer at my submissive delusions or dispute my right to call myself a feminist. Young Muslim activists no longer thought it would be great to have Sister Rahat speak at their summer camp or conference.

Devout Muslim men were no longer drawn to me. In Ottawa and Toronto and Montreal, they had stopped and smiled and swooned and crooned with approval. They had opened doors and offered seats on public transit, recited the Shahadah, mentioned sisters or daughters, discussed religion in either of Canada’s official languages, murmured questions: how long had I been Muslim; was I married; did I need anything; I was like a daughter to them; would I like free Arabic lessons? A young man had unbuttoned his shirt to reveal the miniature Quran he wore around his neck. An older man had rolled down his car window, given me a thumbs-up and called out, “Good for you for wearing the hijab!” One soft-spoken man had said my scarf was very nice. “No, it isn’t!” I’d snapped, miserably.

Without my scarf, I was no longer asked to talk to radio, TV or newspaper reporters; I no longer felt entitled or obliged to share my earnest convictions. Most journalists had no frame of reference for my argument that a Muslim could cover her head and still be a feminist. Their reports would invariably ask whether the scarves my friends and I wore proved that Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise in Canada. A few witty quotes establishing my feminist credentials made my family laugh with pride, and momentarily upset the suffering-victim stereotype.

Eventually, getting media attention for this flimsy, superficial thing I wore felt unsatisfying. I had done little, really, but feed the fickle news beast. My photo reinforced the impression, no matter how much I protested otherwise, that an authentic Muslim can be gauged simply by her appearance. Nothing I might do, say or think would ever draw the kind of interest—the open scorn, the warm approval, the wrathful accusations—that my covered head attracted.

Ask any secular English-speaking public affairs expert what that thing is that devout Muslim women wear on their heads. “It’s the hijab,” journalists and politicians from Toronto to London will promptly tell you. “Hijab” is seldom even italicized in English. It is, however, often preceded by a definite article—the hijab—thereby assuming the sort of weight and gravity we most often ascribe to singular, universally known entities, like “the Bible” or “the Parthenon.”

The hijab has no history, no origin, no connection to geography or climate or season. Whether in Islamabad or Indianapolis, the meaning of the hijab (Arabic for “curtain”) goes unquestioned; it is everywhere recognized as a fixed symbol of obedience to a religious dress code that is fourteen centuries old.

If someone says, “That woman always covers her hair in public,” we imagine an individual with a specific story—someone we can ask questions about and, perhaps, understand. “That woman wears the hijab,” in contrast, invokes the authority of a religious precedent that, in its apparent lack of an English translation, seems permanently foreign and must either be accepted or rejected whole. The woman herself is immediately subsumed by questions about international politics; the hijab is almost impossible to discuss in intimate terms.

Consider, for instance, a sixteen-year-old Canadian rollerblading home from school in a prized sky-blue scarf, stopped by reporters and asked about her choice of clothing. How useful is it to demand that she explain her decision in terms of post-Soviet tribal warfare in Afghanistan? What if, instead, the girl were to talk about her cool aunt who studied engineering, who helps her with her math homework and taught her to stare down rude people in the subway? What if the girl says she dresses like her aunt because it makes her feel brave?

Perhaps literature can answer the questions that news reporters overlook. I read the Booker Prize–winning novel Possession by A.S. Byatt, an author new to me, when I was twenty-one. The story begins in the British Library, where Roland Michell, Ph.D, discovers half-finished letters to an unknown woman written by a late Victorian–era poet. The intrigue of this opening scene persuaded me to buy the paperback. Soon, I was deeply absorbed in the story’s vast erudite scope and thrilling romantic depth; its pages are lavishly stuffed with fables, poems, hidden letters, stormy nights, spartan meals and ornate bathrooms. I reread Possession several times, bought copies for friends and generally raved about it to anyone who would listen.

The novel is completely empty of explicit reference to Islam or Muslims, except for a British Museum poster in Roland’s living room of an illuminated page from the Quran—a detail I found delightful. (Islam’s holy book is unlikely ever to appear in English literature again as mere decoration.)

When two new collections of Byatt’s short stories were published in 1994, I snapped them up in hardcover on a weekend visit to my father in Hamilton, and cracked open The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories as soon as I boarded the train back to Ottawa. I was eager to discover any Muslim cultural references the magical-sounding title story might contain.

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” revolves around the art of telling stories. It opens with Gillian—an Englishwoman in her fifties and a narratologist, or scholar of narrative structures—on a flight to Ankara during the first Persian Gulf War. Orhan, her Turkish friend and colleague, greets her on arrival. The two academics have come to Ankara to speak at a conference on the topic “Stories of Women’s Lives.” Gillian has chosen to recount “The Clerk’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. As she takes the stage, she watches the students in the audience:

Most of the Turkish students were like students everywhere, in jeans and tee-shirts, but conspicuous in the front row were three young women with their heads wrapped in grey scarves…In the secular Turkish republic the scarves were a sign of religious defiance, an act of independence with which liberal-minded Turkish professors felt they should feel sympathy…The three scarved women…stared proudly ahead, never meeting the speakers’ eyes, as though completely preoccupied with their own conspicuous self-assertion…Orhan had asked one of them, he told Gillian, why she dressed as she did. “My father and my fiancé say it is right,” she had said. “And I agree.”

The women are briefly mentioned again: “the grey-scarved women stared fixedly ahead,” and, later, “the scarved women stared ahead motionlessly, holding their heads high and proud.”

I first read these words with my own head wrapped in a scarf. I had keenly hoped to find some mention of Muslims in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” and, well, here they were. The “grey-scarved women” have no interest, Byatt makes clear, in the art or meaning of stories, whether in Chaucer or The Thousand and One Nights. Their purpose in showing up is “conspicuous self-assertion”; their motivation turns out to be unthinking submission to male authority. The unflattering portrayal was not exactly a surprise, but it was certainly a letdown. Could Byatt really think so little of all women who covered their heads?

Suddenly, with a shock, I remembered the green silk scarf. Maud Bailey, the main female character in Possession, wears it when Roland first meets her. And I further recalled that throughout the book, Maud, a feminist literary scholar, almost always covers her hair—that this eccentric practice actually provides a key to her past and personality:

She was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic, Roland thought, rejecting several other ways of describing her green and white length, a long pine-green tunic over a pine-green skirt, a white silk shirt inside the tunic…He could not see her hair, which was wound tightly into a turban of peacock-feathered painted silk, low on her brow.

In my numerous readings of this novel, I had never equated Maud’s habit of covering her hair with my own. I would probably never have made the connection, if it had not been for the anonymous Turkish women in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.” I read through Possession again carefully, noting descriptions of Maud’s scarves:

“Tell me—why do you always cover your hair?” He thought for a moment he might have offended her, but she only looked down, and then answered with a kind of academic accuracy…“It’s the wrong colour, you see, no one believes it’s natural. I once got hissed at a conference, for dyeing it to please men.”
“You shouldn’t. You should let it out.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because if anyone can’t see it they think and think about it, they wonder what it’s like, so you attract attention to it. Also because, because...”
“I see.”
He waited. Maud untied the head-square.

Possession interweaves big, complex ideas with passion and poetry. Maud’s unusual head cover is just one of its minor threads, an expression of serious commitment to her work. She fears her standing as an academic may be undermined by her appearance—by her long blond hair in particular—which, the author makes clear, is beautiful enough to spark professional jealousy. As she brushes her hair before a mirror, Maud recalls the feminist scholars who don’t quite live up to the shining ideals of the sisterhood:

The doll-mask she saw had nothing to do with her, nothing. The feminists had divined that, who once, when she rose to speak at a meeting, had hissed and cat-called, assuming her crowning glory to be the seductive and marketable product of an inhumanely tested bottle.

Maud also recalls how a former lover dared her to grow her hair, which in deference to feminist convention she had always kept short. The affair ended badly. “Now, for pride, she would not crop it, she would not so much mark the occasion, but instead wore it always inside some sort of covering, hidden away.”

I know this is strange. To make a point about what wearing a scarf once meant to me, I choose minor details from an English novel published in 1990 that has nothing to do with Islam. But this is precisely the nothingness essential to great literature: the avoidance of labels, the refrain from authorial judgment. By giving readers the freedom to create their own meaning from the words on the page, fiction can enlarge the world beyond even what the author might have intended. Possession—and not “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”—draws the most sensitive and believable portrayal in English fiction of the reasons why a modern, educated young woman might want to cover her head.

Maud’s scarf is an assertion of her will. It has no name, no predetermined public meaning. It can be worn for years, taken off and put on again, or exchanged for something else. As she strives toward an authentic, morally serious life, she alone decides that a head cover suits her purpose. Between Maud Bailey in “peacock-feathered painted silk” and the three unnamed Ankara women in grey, it is secular, independent Maud with whom I sympathized as a devout Muslim, and in whose nuanced experience I recognized something closer to my own.

This subtlety was rarely to be found in formal treatments of “the hijab,” whether in fiction or fact, by Muslims or non-Muslims, when I searched for cultural representation as a young woman. Until recently—before American novelist Mohja Kahf gave us Khadra Shamy in The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, and before Canadian screenwriter Zarqa Nawaz gave us Rayyan Hamoudi in Little Mosque on the Prairie—Muslim women were almost never portrayed as complicated and wilful human beings.

Instead, they served in news features or the odd melodrama as two-dimensional forms on which the scarf or coat or chador could be wrapped and displayed; impersonal, immobile, stiff-necked with absolute scarf-consciousness. That flat, humourless form still drives the legislation of women’s clothing—the recent ban on face veils and burkas in France, or the decades-old enforcement of dress codes in Iran—right over Muslim women’s own mocking, angry, laughing or indifferent voices.

In the last two decades, politicized images of Muslims have inflated and proliferated wildly out of control, perpetuating wars both real and imagined. I’ve realized that I do not have to look at these depictions in the way their authors intended, either; I can see your angry, Quran-burning Florida preacher, and raise you one Guantanamo Bay detention guard who keeps prisoners’ holy books decorously off the floor. Or I can refuse to play the game. I can stop looking at heavily foregrounded portrayals of “Muslimness” and the exhausting reactions they demand, and I can find all kinds of unintended, small-m “muslimness” instead, in the books, art, film and culture that most powerfully capture my imagination.

When the formal, deliberately “Muslim” image does speak truthfully, it underscores its local context—its immediate social and political moment. In the rigidly secular Ankara of the 1990s, for instance, perhaps female undergraduates in scarves really did strut around defiantly and ignore their professors. We’ve all known (or been) people who practice “conspicuous self-assertion” in public—shouting, marching, carrying placards, wearing slogans on T-shirts, using their whole physical selves as tools of communication.

But no one can hold such a pose all the time—not even the grey-scarved Turkish stiff-necks. Eventually their shoulders will slump. They’ll start worrying again about their mother’s medical expenses; they’ll yearn for a nice hot dinner. A Muslim woman wearing a scarf in public is always demonstrating, until her real life becomes too interesting, too difficult or funny, too fully demanding of her energy and wits. In those fortunate hours, she forgets what she looks like altogether.

See the rest of Issue 40 (Summer 2011).

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