Last weekend, my friend Nour was walking down Broadway in New York City when a car drove by, from which someone yelled at her, “Go back to your country, raghead!”
Like me, Nour is Muslim. She covers her head and the rest of her body in an effort to adhere to the Islamic code of modesty explained in the Qur’an.
In her jeans, long top, and with her head covered, Nour walks down Broadway the way any other girl would. She was born in the US, went through the mandatory *NSYNC phase, and did rebellious things while dealing with rebellious acne in her teen years. All of that, along with her shiny blue U.S. passport and love of Old Bay, has her pretty convinced that she’s about as American as apple pie.
“Go back to your country? Where the hell do they even want me to go?” she asked me later.
We're both confused by that term, “raghead.” Often, the rags we raggedy heads employ for head-covering purposes are the same ones displayed on the mannequins and shelves of very American stores like Express, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Nordstrom. People who aren’t ragheads often buy these rags to wrap loosely and stylishly around the neck. In these cases, they are commonly referred to as scarves, guys.
Hijab, which literally means “curtain,” encourages Muslim men and women to maintain a sense of humility and decorum around members of the opposite gender through their words, actions and dress. The concept of modesty in secular society might keep you from wanting to bring up your UTI in front of a guy, and it's why you probably change in a women’s only locker room at the gym. Hijab takes this spirit of modesty and finds a place for it in almost every facet of a Muslim’s life. And though forced hijab and the suppression of women do exist, these are cultural norms practiced falsely in the name of Islam. Islamic scripture and religious teachings grant women the freedom to make their own life decisions.
This is why you’ll notice that all Muslim-American women do not dress alike. I have friends who don’t cover their hair at all, whose headscarves are always slipping around their heads (guilty), who wear pants, who don’t, who wear burqas, who wear bathing suits, who cover their faces, etc. Islamically, the extent to which a woman is covered up is not a symbol of how religious, or how good or how oppressed she is. One’s relationship with hijab is as personal as it is visual.
The class act who hurled her unsolicited piece of advice at my friend, by the way? SHE WAS A WOMAN, which is something I can’t get over.
“Slut-shaming” and “body policing” are terms thrown around a lot now -- they describe a conscious effort directed towards making women feel inferior or immoral based on the choices they make in regards to sexuality and dress. Slut-shaming is demeaning, demoralizing, and a piece of crap for perpetuating the “blame the victim” phenomenon, which often comes up in discussions about rape and attacks on women.
Practicing the opposite, making women feel inferior for choosing to adhere to a code of modesty not overwhelmingly prevalent in American society -- it’s just as bad. It’s just as regressive and intolerant. I’d call this "anti-slut shaming," but I’m getting pretty tired of girls calling girls sluts to begin with. Tina Fey said it best in a little film called "Mean Girls": “You have all got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.” And ragheads.
Vice Magazine published an experiment a few weeks ago in which an editor decided to don a burqa for the day. (Terminology wasn’t right. It was an abaya and niqab, but, anyway.) She took to the city streets to see what life is like for a woman in America who covers herself completely. She ended up hating the experience, which she summed up articulately at the end: ”I will never do anything like this ever again because it suckkkkked.” Her reaction didn’t surprise me because the entire experiment was kind of a bust. It involved Googling, giving up on Googling, a sticky ice cream situation, references to marrying virgins (ugh), and something about a “burqa-dance,” which, no, I still don’t know what that is.
Women like my mom, like my old teachers and others in the Muslim community where I live, cover completely by choice. They have careers, they vote, they own property and raise kids and basically kick ass. They consider America to be their country, and, if you told them to leave, they’d probably curse you out in their mother languages and threaten to hit you with an all-American baseball bat. And this is the beauty of America.
Islamic customs may seem different, they may not always be easy to understand, especially our post 9/11 society. I can understand that. But in any situation, the key to working past what is difficult to understand is to ask. Questioning and establishing dialogue opens the doors tolerance and understanding, two things women in America need more than ever if influential men are going to continue spreading ignorant shit about our very bodies and who we are.
We're in the midst of a war on women, after all. If we’re going to get through this thing, we might as well do it together.