by Jean Gendreau
No one forced me to do it. My Muslim father in law’s only comment was that the Q’uran clearly says that Christians, Jews and Muslims are brother and sister, so there was no need for me to convert. A big man with huge hands, he was an imam and a mufti. People respected him.
But then a delegation of local people came to him and complained. “The women of your house have always been respectable,” they said. “Are we all falling so low that your women walk around with their faces out for everyone to look at?” He shrugged and asked me what I wanted. I was young and everything was new. I said I would try a burqa.
I was in a small Indian town, staying with my new in-laws. All the women wore black burqas when they went outside, but inside, in the women’s courtyard, we wore the usual Indian silks and shawls.
In fact, when I first arrived I didn’t even realize I was staying in the women’s part of the house. To me it felt like an American family room. Men came and went, and I didn’t notice that they were all relatives. A few male servants worked inside too.
It was lovely. For the first time since I had come to India to study language, I felt at home and safe. My sisters in law asked me about America, village women made all sorts of comments, kind and not so kind, about my looks, and my mother in law asked me if it was true that women in the west wore skirts so short that men could see their thighs.
This is where I learned to love shining black eyes. People teased me gently, laughed at my mistakes and taught me good Urdu pronunciation.
In the women’s courtyard there was a constant stream of visitors. The dark shapes came in at the gate, pulled off their burqas, adjusted their shawls, accepted a cup of tea and started to chat. The women felt familiar, like the ladies who ran church socials at home. Around us old servants chatted as they served tea and sweets. Quite a few of the women working in the house were poor and alone, and some were senile; the family supported them until they died.
I never saw violence, but I did see some strong, powerful women. One was my husband’s aunt, a devout Muslim who wore the burqa proudly. Widowed in her twenties with two small sons, she ran her estates alone until her eighties. I remember her severe eyes and soft cheeks. She was powerful; men respected and obeyed her.
When I went out into the village wearing a burqa, I loved it. No one realized who I was—so no one stared and no one harassed me. The only men I had to interact with were the cousins and brothers at home who ran errands for the women and laughed as they drank their tea.
It’s so hard for us as westerners to comprehend why Muslim women cover up when they are outside their homes. But I came to see it as a form of freedom.
First, it is freedom from sexual harassment and objectification. My Muslim women friends, many of whom are feminists, say that Muslim women are freer than western women because their bodies are never put on display. Several Muslim women have told me that they have never wondered—not even once—whether their thighs were too fat. Can we western women imagine being free from worry about our bodies? Muslim women have told me they feel sorry for us because we think our value lies in how sexy our bodies are.
Some of my western friends want the right to be naked if they choose. But surely we can agree that our western obsession with airbrushed fantasy bodies oppresses us all. Of course veiling is not a solution for us, but it does offer a form of freedom for the women who choose it.
Second, veiling is a way to show pride in Muslim identity—so crucial nowadays, in the face of the world’s misunderstanding.
Here’s a blog by a feminist Muslim woman: http://www.lilpink.info .
She says, “Never think of a hijabi [a woman in a headscarf] as an oppressed person. They might have more freedom than you do.”
We are not Muslim women. We cannot say we know what veiling means. Even among Muslim women, veiling can be controversial, just as among western women, abortion is controversial. We need to be open to the idea that we might not understand.
What I know for sure is that the Muslims I knew were kind, gentle people. The women I knew were strong and free in many ways.
This is the beauty of travel—we see who “the others” are, and it changes us. We can travel to far places and meet the people. But the trick is to believe them when they show us who they are. To do that, we must allow our stereotypes to dissolve.
I learned to love black eyes. My in-laws learned that Americans can be silly and annoying and good.
The reward to the world is immense. We look into each other’s eyes and see the kindness. We look past clothing and color, and fear drops away. Our hearts open and we realize yet again that we are part of each other. We are One.