Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cultural Clash: The Woman in the Niqab and I

During a summer trip to Southeast Asia in 2001, Josh, Nina and I spent about a week in northern Malaysia. In Georgetown, the former colonial town with an intoxicating mixture of British, Chinese, and Indian influences, we took a funicular up to the top of Penang Hill. It was a rather ordinary touristy thing to do: a cool mode of transportation, with a view at the top.

I remember that day not because of what we saw out the window, but because of our fellow tourist passengers inside the car. We travelled up the hill with what seemed to be an extended Saudi Arabian family. The men were dressed like tourists from anywhere: plaid short sleeve shirts, jeans, sneakers. The kids--both boys and girls--also looked pretty typical, as I recall, wearing shorts and t-shirts. But the women looked different. They were each wearing a black niqab: full body, head, and face coverings, leaving only their eyes exposed.

The woman sitting directly across from me had carefully made-up eyes, with dark eyeliner, sparkly eye shadow, and thick mascara. As she spoke to her family in a language I couldn't understand, those eyes, huge against the vast blackness of her coverings, seemed to keep tabs on me. I wondered what it was like to be her. And on her behalf, I felt angry. Angry that she had to hide, as if in shame, while the rest of her family was free to live in daylight.

And at the same time, I imagined that she was doing the same to me. I felt her eyes looking me over. I can't remember but I was wearing, but my best guess would be shorts and a tank top. It was summer in Malaysia, after all. Was she scandalized by my exposed skin? Or was she desperately jealous of my freedom?

I'm thinking about all of this today because the New York Times has a Room For Debate discussion on the recent feminist protests against the hijab, or Muslim headscarf. A counter-protest by a group of Muslim women defending their right to wear the hijab points to the problem with outsiders like me engaging in the fantasy of imagining that we understand the motivations of people of other faiths and cultures.

I believe in women's autonomy, so if women want to wear a covering or veil, that is their right. But sometimes practices are so culturally entrenched that the people most hurt by them will argue in their defense. (See: women spitting and shouting at other women praying aloud at the Kotel in Jerusalem).

I can't help but having a strong reaction to seeing women (and girls) hiding under fabric. My understanding is that females in Muslim societies cover themselves at least in part to protect men from sexual longing and/or misdeeds. Because of course, men are animals who can't control themselves, and of course, that problem falls squarely on the shoulders of women.

Here's when I admit that I don't understand Jewish women who cover their heads after marriage, either. I don't believe that women belong to men; I do believe that men are capable of controlling their sexual impulses; and, most importantly, I don't believe that whether or not men are tempted by women is at all a woman's problem. I have trouble seeing women covering and/or shaving their hair after marriage as anything but a sign of old-fashioned patriarchy. Unfortunately, patriarchy is woven deeply into the fabric of Judaism, and it's those aspects that are hardest for me to reconcile as a modern woman and as a feminist.

That said, I fully admit that I am limited by my own world view. That day in Malaysia, sitting across from that intriguing pair of unknowable eyes, there was no conversation between us tourists from opposite parts of the world. But there was an abundance of wonder.

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