I recently finished reading Margot Badran’s collection of essays and lectures Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. As I read the book I could not help but reflect on my relationship with Islam and Muslims.
Badran talks extensively about feminism as not an exclusively Western phenomenon, but one that found roots in varying cultures and religions. Islam is typically thought, in Western culture, to be anti-woman and anti-feminist, but the fact is that Islam has several feminist ideals, and it could be argued has feminism at its roots. For example, the story of Adam and Eve is told differently in Islam: both Adam and Eve are responsible for the fall from grace. And Eve was not made from Adam’s ribs. In fact, according to the Qu’ran, all people are made from one single nafs, or soul. And the Arabic word has a feminine root.
One thing Badran stresses is the fact that feminism does not mean abandoning Islam or Islamic practices, including the head scarf. There were activists in Egypt who chose to remove their face veils and others who kept them on – either way, these were personal decisions based on the individuals’ relationship to Islam, not patriarchy. And again, this is the face veil specifically, not the head scarf.
So, as I read about these women I started to think about my decision to remove my head scarf. I wore my scarf in a style that encircled my face and covered my hair and neck. Though, the year before I removed it I also began to wear it in a style pulled back like a bun with my neck exposed. I knew women who covered all of their face save the eyes, some who covered their faces entirely, others who covered their chins, some who wore full-length chadors, and Muslim women who chose to not cover.
For as long as I can remember I have had the mindset that wearing a scarf is a personal choice. It is not something that is required, and I was also taught that by my parents. I loved wearing my scarf. Years before most girls began to cover I wore a scarf, at least to school. I felt comfortable in it, and despite torment from other children including one boy’s multiple attempts to remove my scarf, I did not take it off. I remember a lot of women began to remove their scarves after 11 September 2001. People were being harassed and threatened and attacked. It was suggested to me by a co-worker that I wear a US flag as a scarf, an idea I found insulting. Why should I prove myself to anyone? Those haters of Muslims and Middle Easterners should prove themselves to me! They should prove to me that my life was not at risk. That I had nothing to fear in a country so hell bent on sending anyone who even looked like a terrorist (you know Aye-rabs) to some far off prison camp.
The point is, I would not allow the words or actions of anyone else force me to take away a part of myself. Not wearing a scarf was not an option. I felt at home in my scarf.
And it was something I questioned constantly. I questioned my beliefs and my practices and this thing on my head. This small piece of fabric that caused some people to avoid me and other to gravitate towards me and others to tell me I needed to be liberated.
In July of 2006 I stopped wearing my scarf. I had gone out a few times before that without it. Tried the world from a new perspective. I had come to the conclusion, perhaps a year earlier that I no longer believed in Islam and the fundamentals I had been taught. It took me a year or more to actually remove my scarf because it was such a part of my identity. Coming to these conclusions about Islam was not easy, let alone changing my outward experience. I was afraid. I did not want to deal with people’s reactions. I did not want to see my parents’ reactions. I did not want to exclude myself from my Muslim community.
Nevertheless, I decided that I could not keep covering. Wearing a scarf without considering myself Muslim seemed like a betrayal, an insult to other Muslims, particularly those women who do cover.
The truth is, I still think of myself as wearing a scarf. I forget at times that it not on my head. I am sometimes taken aback by my scarf-less reflection. If and when I am mistreated by someone I automatically go to that record in my head: that I am being treated in such a way because I am Iranian and I am Muslim. I have grown accustomed to that specific discrimination. I also still navigate through my daily routines as if I am wearing a scarf. Yes, there are things I now do that I once thought were not appropriate as a women who covered, but for the most part, my actions remain the same. I see myself as set apart. And I catch myself getting excited when I notice other Muslim women. But then that is most often when I remember that I do not cover anymore.
One thing that kept coming up for me as I read Badran’s collection was the realization that after having removed my scarf I have in many ways grown more isolated and inward. I have always had social anxieties and awkwardness, but there was something about my scarf that made me more confident. I was more outspoken. I was more interested in engaging in conversations. I know part of it was that having this scarf on my head meant needing to be ready to defend myself at all times and to prove that I was not ignorant, rather a highly intelligent individual with strong opinions. I made sure my opinions were heard. Now, without the scarf, I blend in. And I think part of the discomfort is that I blend in most readily with the same people who have always mistreated me. There are other Middle Easterners and the occasional other person of colour who recognizes I am “different,” but for the most part, I pass for white. And yes, my discomfort with that, is my own issues.
Let’s be honest, I am half Irish-American, but I have also always been on the outside of that world. And the discomfort I feel is also based on those same records. I am now privy to some interestingly racist and prejudiced remarks. Until folks hear my name they assume I am “one of them.” Or they just don’t even bother to pay attention to the fact that my name is “different.” And when that goes unnoticed I hear some real choice things. I will admit that I have not always spoken up. When I am the only non-white person I feel cornered and alone and admittedly scared. But then I wonder how the hell I let myself end up in a space with only white folks to begin with! And at the same time I have to always remind myself that half of my biology is the same as theirs, which then also puts me in a place of similar if not equal privilege and a place to speak up. So what if all they hear or acknowledge is my Iranian identity. That’s their issue, not mine.
I have thought about putting my scarf back on, for that taste of separation. So that I know why I am getting stares, so that I can make myself stand out on my own terms. But I would be wearing it for the wrong reasons, or what I think are the wrong reasons. And besides, this is an opportunity for me to acknowledge what I have learned and to now learn how to be that same person in this new shell.