On the occasion of World Hijab Day, I am reminded of the day I donned a veil for eight full hours, which made me realize that freedom from judgment is an underestimated luxury.
I was playing investigative journalist in my hometown of Washington, D.C. where I had been working as a producer at Al Jazeera English. One of the network's shows on women's issues prompted a discussion between my colleague and me on hijabis, the colloquial Arabic term used to describe Muslim women who wear a hijab, a headscarf that, at the very minimum, covers the hair and neck (in pop culture, "veil" is the widely accepted umbrella term used to describe this type of garment, no matter the extent of covering). We surpassed the generic debate about whether or not the veil is a form of oppression, even though many Muslim women wear it voluntarily (and historically, the practice of veiling itself is not exclusive to Islamic culture). I had already attempted to tackle this contentious issue in heated gender seminars at the London School of Economics, where I was first introduced to the notion of Islamic feminism.
Instead, we began to wonder if hijabis are actually better off than unveiled women in some ways -- conceivably free from the harassment of male counterparts, perhaps taken more seriously in the workplace (or maybe even taking themselves more seriously), and thus ultimately more effective in their individual pursuits. We wondered if modesty -- in this context, dressing in a manner that suggests a certain chasteness -- could triumph over beauty and presumed availability.
Could the veil possibly enhance a woman's freedom instead of hinder it?
Curiosity drove me to test this theory. I decided to undergo my own sociological experiment -- I was going to wear a veil. The objective was not only to see if society would treat me differently as a hijabi, but if I in fact treated myself differently.
Although I am not a Muslim woman, I am a woman intent on exploring the subtle and extreme facets of being a woman. I want women to have equal rights, yet I am also comfortable embracing my femininity.
I knew that wearing a veil would bring all of these thoughts to the surface; all of these different elements of being a woman, often with adversaries looming on both sides of the fence. Yet I was prepared to delve in and discover.
So, one morning, after carefully tucking my stray hairs under a plain black headscarf, tightly wrapped around my face (traditional Sunni-style, with my face visible), I looked at myself closely in the mirror. Who is this person? With my long hair concealed, I immediately felt that my face was unequivocally defined by my eyes and that even the faintest shift in my facial expression would be detectable by the least discerning of observers. Most strikingly, I felt instantly de-sexualized. It was as if putting on the veil had melted away my sexuality, and I was left with just me.
Or so I thought.
I set about my daily activities, trying to conduct myself as I normally would. The veil was warm, black and comforting on that chilly day. I started driving my car and felt an onslaught of conflicting emotions. I felt weak, not strong or hubristic as I had expected. Furthermore, I felt extremely self-conscious. Perhaps because the veil was not yet a part of me -- I had been wearing it for less than thirty minutes. Many women wear a veil their entire adult lives. It must eventually become a part of them, like a second skin.
I began thinking about women and sexuality. Feminine sexuality was a dark issue -- a subversive thing with many layers and moods, often with insatiable thirst and fortitude. It was good and it was bad. How could such an ambiguous thing possess so much power? Maybe this is why our patriarchal world is obsessed with both controlling it and consuming it.
As I coasted down Wisconsin Avenue, I felt eyes on me -- or were they only my own in the rear view mirror? I pulled up at a gas station to fill my tank and parked next to a truck of construction workers who stared at me -- silently -- in unison. I felt more bare and self-conscious in those moments than I had ever felt in my life -- it was as if my appearance, my beliefs (fundamentally my being) were being dissected by five pairs of penetrating eyes. Normally, I probably would draw attention in the presence of a large group of men, but that was a different type of attention -- one that I was accustomed to handling. So I carried on quietly and methodically, avoiding eye contact (and only filling half of my tank), until I slipped back into my car and began breathing again.
I started to drive behind a Range Rover with a George W Bush '04 bumper sticker -- it careened in front of me after we pulled out of the gas station simultaneously, and I found myself struggling to repress my assumptions -- "the driver saw me wearing a veil and hates me/is angry towards me/hates Muslims/wants me to 'go home'...
Or did he simply have road rage?
Whereas veiled women are ubiquitous in the Middle East and even in London, it is obviously not as common in the US. A veiled woman in Washington stirs up intrigue; it raises a banquet of political discussions. At the time, the Iraq War in its fifth year and with the U.S. administration's seemingly endless mission to bring democracy to the Middle East, the veil was often associated with everything "wrong" in that part of the world. I would venture to say that many Americans viewed it as a symbol of antiquity, oppression, and sexism.
As my day continued and I frequented various places, I noticed that having to deal with myself -- solely with myself -- my thoughts, my intellect, my emotions, my impressions of the external world -- disguised as a "different person" was draining. I felt overly aware of everything. It was as if, my sexuality was turned off and in effect other things were turned on. But I couldn't quite figure out how to be.
While wearing the veil, however, I felt like I had become a symbol. That I was no longer a woman standing for whatever I wanted to stand for, with my own complex and mysterious identity, but that I was a person with a conspicuous identity -- almost a communal identity. It was disconcerting -- the notion that people could look at me and believe that they could ascertain everything about me and make judgments just based on the fact that I was wearing a veil.
I felt like a walking statement with only one thing to say.
This was the most difficult thing to adjust to. Because more than anything, I value my privacy, my enigma; the fact that normally people would look at me and not be able to determine anything about my ideals, my politics, my religious beliefs -- until I allow them to by vocalizing my views (or writing them). But at least from the beginning, I get some space -- a chance to simply be an anonymous stranger, faintly judged, if at all.
I went to meet a girlfriend at a crowded Thai restaurant for lunch where I was absolutely stunned by the transformation in myself, more so than the way people were treating me. As ridiculous as it sounds, I felt myself becoming more demure, which is not my personality at all. As a journalist at heart, I'm naturally adventurous, even flirtatious, so it was strange to feel this wave of shyness creep over me. I think I became that way because the strangers surrounding me -- the server, the hostess, the patrons -- expected me to be that way.
I also noticed that I felt more grounded and intellectual. For three hours, I sat discussing some of the most profound subjects with a friend of mine, a Muslim American journalist who had just returned from Saudi Arabia where she had to be physically covered from head to toe. She likened it to a fasting of one's "sexual" self and described herself as feeling a lot more "in her head" when she was covered:
"It makes you more focused because the physical barrier puts a social barrier in place that keeps you isolated from the regular over-sexed world."
That is exactly how I felt, more focused on her, our conversation, the weight of the words floating between us. It was as if being "stripped" of my sexuality made me more academic in some ways. There was no point in allowing myself to get distracted by the surrounding tables of men. I was not sure of how to flirt hijabi-style anyway, considering my hair was my primary seduction tool (I also made the assumption that most likely these men would not be interested in me). However, despite this newfound focus, I felt like a significant part of me, of my humanity as I had come to know it, was missing.
Later that evening, I went to a bar to see how people would react to seeing a veiled woman knock back a pint. I felt ridiculous, and also a little scared, as everyone knows Muslims are not supposed to drink. As I lifted the foamy beer to my lips, I looked around nervously, forgetting that I am not actually Muslim. I was secretly relieved to find that the bar was not that crowded. I started chatting to a guy sitting alone next to me. He was not interested in making small talk, or in getting to know me at all for that matter. I felt a pang of rejection.
At first, I couldn't understand why I was having such a strong reaction. I started to wonder -- is everything ultimately about sex? Sexuality is undeniably an integral part of the human experience, just like it is for every other living thing in the animal kingdom. I couldn't help but conclude that men, more specifically Western men, have no incentive to talk to us (veiled women). At least not men in bars. Perhaps this is unfair to say, but it is almost as if they know there will be no "treasure" at the end of the rainbow of discourse.
All of a sudden I realized what was bothering me; it was so simple, so obvious -
I was bored.
Being a woman, with the ability to evoke desire in another being, is a fun, exciting thing. It is not a shameful thing or a fundamental flaw in humanity. Call me a romantic or a dramatic, but the "not knowing," the potential to meet someone interesting, the love of my life, a lustful encounter, whatever it may be at any given moment -- is actually thrilling. I realized that for me, holding back or "covering up" my sexuality was exhausting and unnatural; it went completely against my most basic instincts.
I left the bar and took off my veil (which I did with dramatic gusto); my long hair unwinding down my back. I felt immediately at home. I felt free. I had missed myself. The human being I had known for 30 some years.
In the end, having only worn the veil for a day, it would be too premature for me to conclude whether or not it enhanced my freedom or access to opportunities, but what I can say is that I felt less approachable, an impervious being on the fringe of society. And yes, I did take myself more seriously (maybe even too seriously at times). Was I more effective in my pursuits? Again, unable to tell, yet I could sense that the journey towards these varied pursuits was not riddled with as many encounters or exchanges as it might have usually been; the veil seemed to impose a visible barrier between me and the rest of the world. What I do know is that my journey was slightly marred by the unsettling feeling that people were inadvertently judging me on a constant basis.
Veil-less, I walked back to my car. A sense of freedom overwhelmed me. I realized that I had sincerely missed being a symbol of nothing but myself.