When we face stereotyping, a common response is to try to transform our own identity. But as I discovered, sometimes that cure can be worse than the disease. (Originally published in JO Magazine.)
SOMETHING INSIDE OF ME died when I read about French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a ban on burqas on the streets of France.
Beyond the usual platitudes about “respect for other cultures,” or “but what if the women choose them freely,” what upset me was the possibility that the women wearing whatever it is that Sarkozy deems objectionable—he wasn’t even specific about what he meant by the word “burqa”—might face harassment from law enforcement in addition to the stereotyping of mainstream society.
If a woman knows what it’s like to be harassed and stereotyped, if she has experienced the scorn of people who, based on just a few silly outside markers, have decided to debase her, how could she not worry about it happening to someone else?
I am the least likely person to support the total veiling of a woman’s face and body. Yet my experiences with sexual harassment in Amman have cemented my belief that there is something fundamentally violating about being bullied into trying to pass as someone you’re not.
In the early spring of 2009, I began wearing the hijab when leaving my house in Amman. I am a non-Muslim woman with a drawling American accent and Slavic heritage—and no, I don’t think “Russian Natasha” jokes are cute, just so we’re clear. I was trying to appear to be someone else. It started when I realized that the compromises I had originally expected to make when coming to Jordan—more conservative clothing, no alcohol on my breath, no smiling at strangers in public, and so on—were not enough to allow me to feel safe.
After a number of increasingly scary experiences in comparatively nice neighborhoods like Shmeisani and Abdoun, I was nearly run over by a man who was pursuing me in his car. He must have realized I was set on ignoring him as he shouted the standard lines: “Where are you going?” “Five JDs, baby!” Then he decided to impress me by turning sharply into my path at an intersection, screeching to a halt inches from my body. As it happened, all I could think was: “Am I really about to die or get maimed because of some guy trying to pick me up?”
I broke down in front of my Ukrainian hairdresser later that day, and was gently reminded that many people in Amman “think they know everything about you” if you happen to be young and conspicuously foreign. Out of desperation more than anything else, I decided to try getting around that.
I DIDN’T WANT TO appropriate anyone’s lifestyle, and definitely didn’t want to act like those non-Muslim women who put on Muslim garb to play at being the “exotic” princess they read about in the Arabian Nights.
So I got Fatemeh Fakhraie, the editor of Muslimah Media Watch, a website that critiques the portrayal of Muslim women in international media, to speak to me about the practice of being a “part-time hijabi.”
“I don’t like how the idea of hijab is fixed, as if once you take it on or off, there’s no going back,” she said, when I asked her about what it meant to put it on as a safety measure. “It doesn’t allow for the realities and differing circumstances of life.” We talked about how, beyond being a sign of religious expression, the hijab can function as a “do not approach” sign when one is surrounded by strangers.
I’m cool then, I decided. Sure, I’d known plenty of women who’d been coerced into wearing the hijab, and they all told me how unpleasant it was, but my situation was different, right? I’d be OK. Right?
Indeed, I felt the more aggressive episodes of harassment did become less frequent. But in my scarf I became even more miserable than before.
I could see the confusion in men’s eyes as they sized me up, and overheard hilarious debates as to the subject of my identity. I never ceased to look out of place, but I was no longer conforming to their expectations. I would have thought this would bring me some relief, but I began to feel lost and defeated, as if some fundamental part of me had come unmoored and was floating away.
Looking at my reflection in a shop window at one point, I asked aloud: “Who are you?”
The woman staring back was like a chimera. It was a small relief to find out that it wasn’t just me, when I spoke to foreign women who hadn’t had much success with wearing scarves either. One woman said she didn’t even see a difference in the level of sexual harassment. Another did, but said she felt there was something really wrong with having her inner person validated through dressing like someone else.
I quickly came to learn that when we try to disguise ourselves as someone else, the experience of being “found out” can be even more traumatic than whatever it is we were trying to escape in the first place.
Once, I found tears streaming down my face and destroying my over-priced mascara as I yelled at a construction worker who had whistled at me on the street as I passed by in my scarf.
“I’ll get my husband and he’ll beat you up!” I shouted. (OK, I’m not married, but I knew by then that jealous husbands are the scariest specter women can invoke on the streets of Amman). The construction worker looked genuinely shocked. Although I’m sure he eventually got over it, and maybe even learned a valuable lesson, I realized that my grief and pain had little to do with him.
IT’S EASY TO BELIEVE that one is fundamentally “safe” in a hijab. It’s a pleasant fiction propagated by those clerics who compare uncovered women to “uncovered meat” or candy, and by people who romanticize Muslim dress. Yet more often than not, the muhajabat I “came out” to in Amman when asked if I was also Muslim completely undermined this fantasy.
“My family didn’t believe me when I told them I was being harassed at my new place of work,” said Layla, who asked me not to use her real name. “My aunt finally said, ‘But you’re covered. You must be attracting attention by misbehaving.’ I didn’t talk about it anymore. I gave up.”
Only after Layla announced she was thinking of switching jobs did her boss threaten her harassers, and the behavior abated. Of course, it still took a male authority figure to demand dignity on her behalf.
So, seeing France’s anti-burqa rhetoric through the prism of my experiences in Amman, and the experiences of the women I have spoken to, I can’t help but return to the dreadful condescension behind the assumption that a woman does not have a right to construct her own identity and—horror of horrors—expect that identity to be respected by men in particular.
As for my own hijab, I took it off. In Jordan I have the freedom to do as much. Police officers don’t approach me and tell me to cover my hair. Aside from the usual harassment, I sometimes even get random compliments from passing women on my particular shade of straw-yellow hair (blame the bleaching effects of the Jordanian sun).
I can’t say that I’ve somehow learned to stop worrying and live with the assumptions made about me and women like me, but what I understand now is that you can’t challenge such assumptions when you’re compromising an integral part of your identity.
A fake muhajaba is merely participating in a charade, no matter what appearances may tell you. Perhaps, in time, President Sarkozy may also realize that appearances can be deceptive.