How I wore hijab and how much it sucked for me

Up until recently, I lived in Jordan. I worked. I played. I was in love. I had two cats named Fanty & Mingo. I also got sexually harassed. I got sexually harassed so much that I’d sometimes sit in my apartment after dark and seriously consider not doing an emergency tampon run, because I knew that inevitably, some dudes would wander into my path and have a field-day. Trying to prevent said harassment, I wore hijab for a while. The results of that little experiment were recently published in JO Magazine.

I tried to go for nuance. Hijab, for me, wasn’t a “wonderful cultural experience.” Neither did I emerge from that particular episode screaming about how it’s time to “liberate” Muslims from their headscarves. I tried to apply similar logic to the proposal to ban the burqa in France. I felt I could draw some parallels there, or maybe I was wrong to have done so. You guys can draw your own conclusions.

The saddest part for me today is that while that article hints at a happy ending, the reality is different. I had to leave. I let my ex keep Fanty & Mingo.

Having dealt with assault, I found I wasn’t coping with the aggression too well. It caused too much self-doubt. Like, “wait a minute, for years now, I’ve been telling myself – Natalia, you’re a human being and not a lump of meat, you deserve to breathe the same air as everyone else and walk on the same sidewalks and stuff – but the things in your head that you were running from, they’re now coming out of the mouths of the little kids outside. In the immortal words of Armageddon: ‘Wow, this is a goddamn Greek tragedy.’ ”

I’m in Ukraine right now, and I do miss Jordan. I miss what we had with my ex, I miss my Jordanian friends, I miss the kind of weather that doesn’t give me a hacking cough. I miss the way the people at the mini-market knew me by name. I miss the ancient history beneath my flip-flops. I don’t miss being a fake hijabi – in the end, I simply hated having to pretend to be someone else for a scrap of respect – though I must acknowledge that in Kiev, in the doldrums, it would keep the ears warm.


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17 Responses to How I wore hijab and how much it sucked for me

  1. jemand says:

    I’ve seen beautiful scarves, I’d love to wear one occasionally if it weren’t for the fairly strong religious statement it makes in this country. I just think it’s pretty. And hey, can we trade away heels plz, and get bright scarves for fancy dress plz?

    But… as it is hijab cannot be separated from the social, political, and religious fractions in our modern culture. I can’t just say *it’s pretty* and ignore all the other aspects, and many of the women wearing it aren’t doing it just because it’s *pretty.*

    Someday, maybe.

  2. Sojourner says:

    Ah but Natalia this is so sad! Couldn’t he move to Kiev with you? Couldn’t you both move back to the US? I’m sending you anonymous internet hugs across the Atlantic.

  3. Fatemeh says:

    *hugs*

    Your article at JO was really, really good (and not just ‘cuz I was in it-wink!)–and I think it fleshed out the burqa & hijab issues really well.

  4. LeftieLeftist says:

    Maybe we should take Islamic cultures as they are without trying to shoehorn western values into them. If they think women without hijabs are ripe for harassment, is that so different from a woman without a top in NYC?

  5. Irene says:

    Plus, it’s not necessarily “Islamic culture”. I just got back from yemen where I spent the last 8 months for my fieldwork. I did wear hijaab and a’baya, and although it’s annoying sometimes

  6. Irene says:

    oops.. continued:
    it is a way to pay your respect to people who are receiving you in their country. Yemen is in many ways more “traditional” than jordan (i.e., tribal), yet the pressure to veil have never before been as high as now. My contact would always tell me of how their mothers were not required to wear niqaab (the veil that only leaves a slit for the eyes); and that in warmer areas of Yemen (hodeida, aden), women would not be required to wear the all-black balto/a’baya. I have the feeling these pressures are not so much traditional as they are localized reactions against what is perceived as the erosion of tradition and values – all under the pressure of new media, lebanese and american movie stars, hiphop, etc… I just wanted to argue: these are not islamic traditions – they are relatively new phenomena, pushed on the political agenda in these countries by elites seeking to divert attention away from more pressing problems, that actively re-invent a notion of the past and traditions that was never in place to begin with. Every country has its own particular past and offers a particular context. Wearing a veil in Yemen has a different meaning from doing that in New York; and in this way, the meaning of veiling differs per Arabic coutry. In a few, it is mandatory; in others, it may be a sign of political resistance against the ruling, secular parties (Egypt, or Syria); in countries like Yemen, it may also be a fashion statement, what with Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region…

    I think feminists should not pay too much attention to the veil. If I’ve learned something from the women I spoke to that sure, it is something they resent, now and then, and they are eloquent about their reasons for wearing niqaab or not wearing niqaab (under the niqaab is a hijaab. not wearing this in Yemen is not an option, so your hear will always be covered). yet in the end, all of them are more concerned with their access to the labour market; their access to marriages they want to be in; their access to education. The veil in the end is just a piece of fabric, and I always think Western people and feminists are making too much out of it. Most women face more pressing concerns, and althoguh I believe it can be difficult to cope if you’re not used to it (plus the issues you mentioned in your post), all this talk about the hijaab does not really seem to contribute to the discussion anymore.

    anyway.

  7. Natalia says:

    Maybe we should take Islamic cultures as they are without trying to shoehorn western values into them.

    Sexual harassment is not an Islamic value. Hijab is, but, even in Jordan, it comes down to a number of questions – whether to wear it, how to wear it, what it means, what it doesn’t mean. There are people who think that a woman who shows her eyebrows is a “slut” who’s headed straight for hell; there are those whose idea of modesty is never leaving the house unaccompanied. Islamic cultures are themselves multi-faceted and multi-layered, and in conflict with each other, not just the nebulous “Western” world outside (interesting that you should use “Western” here though – in Jordan, most of my perceived sexual availability was based on the fact that I am obviously Slavic – the “West” isn’t the only monolith you can invoke here, you know).

    If they think women without hijabs are ripe for harassment, is that so different from a woman without a top in NYC?

    I would argue that yes, it is pretty different, though that doesn’t excuse harassment in any instance. Sexual harassment against women in hijab is just as much of a problem in Jordan, it’s just excused differently – “she was smiling,” “she was walking by herself,” “she was walking like a loose woman,” etc.

  8. chocolatepie says:

    I think an issue you brought up that isn’t often discussed is that we take for granted that a woman is going to be “safer” when they wear hijab, but that’s not necessarily the case. Just because a woman is wearing more clothes doesn’t mean men are going to treat her as more of a person. If they want to fetishize and objectify her, no amount of fabric can damper their imaginations.

    If I can see women in full Chicago Winter regalia getting wolf-whistled at, it’s not a question of how “conservatively” you dress. It’s whether the man harassing you thinks you’re a human being or a piece of meat.

  9. Sheelzebub says:

    LeftyLeftist, a woman going topless in NYC (really, does this even happen?) should not be harassed. It’s not as if topless men have to worry about getting harassed. Men who walk alone or somehow “seem” inviting aren’t harassed and don’t have to worry about this.

    And from what I’ve read, even women wearing the scarf/veil have to deal with street harassment in certain countries. I’ve had to deal with it when I was wearing a business suit and flats.

  10. Natalia: Sexual harassment against women in hijab is just as much of a problem in Jordan, it’s just excused differently – “she was smiling,”

    As you well know, Natalia, here in the south, it’s because you DIDN’T smile.

    “Awww, give us a smile!” is often the intro, as they plant themselves in your path.

    Throughout the world, it seems men use whatever excuse is (culturally) available, doesn’t it?

    Great article! ((hugs for my Natalia))

  11. The Nerd says:

    I notice people talking about how fasionable wearing the hijab is, about how there are practical reasons women should wear or not wear it that has nothing to do with the political statement. But could you imagine the response if a man were to wear a hijab? He would be beaten down in public for such a “degrading” act. If anyone thinks she can separate the hijab from being a sign of submission, she is dead wrong.

  12. Deborah Lipp says:

    I don’t wish to derail an important and touching thread, but I have to say, MUST say, that I have two cats named Fanty & Mingo: http://www.deborahlipp.com/wordpress/2008/03/28/i-suppose-youre-wondering-about-the-catblogging/

  13. Vidya says:

    “But could you imagine the response if a man were to wear a hijab?”

    In certain countries (Saudi Arabia comes to mind), men wear a headcovering in public which is somewhat similar to a hijab.

    Men would be ridiculed in Western countries for ‘degrading themselves’ for being seen in virtually any garment which is culturally labeled ‘female attire’.

  14. jemand says:

    are we talking a scarf here? A piece of fabric? How in the world is that an inherently degrading act! We aren’t necessarily talking Niqab here, erasing one’s identity in public, we’re talking about an often brightly colored piece of fabric one wears on the head.

    There’s something “inherent” about that piece of fabric, really?

  15. Tom Foolery says:

    Men would be ridiculed in Western countries for ‘degrading themselves’ for being seen in virtually any garment which is culturally labeled ‘female attire’.

    I don’t know if this is 100% true, given the tightness of the pants on display on Union Avenue.

  16. Angel H. says:

    If anyone thinks she can separate the hijab from being a sign of submission, she is dead wrong.

    Why is it that many “feminists” believe that a woman is intelligent enough to choose or not to choose abortion, but not intelligent enough to choose or not to choose hijab?

    As for it not being fashionable:
    http://hijabstyle.blogspot.com/search/label/islamic%20fashion%20show

  17. Shaden says:

    Hello feminists. Just wanted to bring to your attention that one of the readers had something to say about Natalia’s article. In her letter to the editor, she wonders how pervasive sexual harassment really is in Jordanian culture. Other readers joined the discussion too.

    On “The Fake Muhajaba”

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