So I met this Muslim girl in grad school and she was from Kashmir, an occupied part of India, a conflict zone. She was about my age, wore brightly-colored flowy clothes and carefully matched headscarves. I didn’t get to know her too well initially although we had a class together. I thought she was nice but subconsciously figured we had little in common. Then later we worked on a group project and I realized we had similar perspectives on certain things, a sort of baseline level I found familiar and comfortable. We became good friends on a trip to Cape Cod with a couple other mutual friends. It was there that we traded beauty tips and gave each other mini-makeovers, mine on square cut manicured fingernails, hers on eyebrow threading and striking eye makeup. Then she asked “can I try my hijab on you? I want to see how it looks.” I said sure and afterwards she giggled, said it worked very nicely on me and if I wanted to, I could wear it easily when visiting her country.
Now I have perhaps an unique perspective on headscarves. My Mom had some that I used to play with as a little girl. She had worn them as a sign of modesty and submission to her “head,” my father, before I was born, like some of the more extreme Quiverfull are wont to do. My Mom didn’t wear them anymore though. She had stopped after my father had ignored her once while walking by on the street, suddenly too embarrassed to explain to his college friends why his wife was wearing this. I associated scarves with her shame and oppression, her intense hurt feelings and rejection on that day, and at the same time remembered them as a fun childhood toy to play dress up with. I had always believed the hijab to be similar as an oppressive symbol, and imagined it was likely an annoying, bulky garment to use. Wearing it in my hair and around my neck right then made me realize that it actually could be very comfortable, almost like a bun and scarf combo. It could keep the wearer warm on cold days or absorb sweat on hot ones, colorfully and a bit glamorous somehow, kinda old time movie star.
I also learned that my Kashmiri friend had been a human rights journalist, interviewing too many rape victims and having too many guns pointed at her in that line of work. Now she was studying methods to reduce the conflict plaguing her region. She was seeking to work on the bigger picture. She had grown up in the Wahhabi sect, a very conservative form of Islam, and while she was still very devout, she had read the Quran herself and believed the role of women was not the way so many men had interpreted it, that it was right for her to have a voice and to make a difference in society beyond the role of wife and mother.
I realized that she and I felt so comfortable around each other because our worlds were more similar than they were different. We were both unassuming women whose easy friendliness concealed the fact that we had each struggled very hard against certain norms to get where we were, that when we realized the culture we grew up in didn’t have the right idea about us, we didn’t conform but instead set about making changes. Christian fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalism are siblings, both extreme interpretations of Abrahamic texts, so she and I were cousins of sorts. This made me think no wonder so many Christian fundamentalists are entertaining sharia law conspiracy theories. It’s competition.
As a grown woman I have discovered that scarves do not have to be some sign of oppression, but rather can be a beautiful fashion statement, a fun “dress up” option for adults, a comfortable style of personal choosing. They can be something to wear if I feel like it today, disconnected from any of those foolish ideas on headship, submission, or hiding the attractiveness of the female body. Their colors and fabrics can highlight prettiness, be a go-to fix for lackluster hair or a boring outfit, and be used to stay warm and catch attention.
I developed so much respect for my friend from Kashmir and was sad when she left to go back home, realizing how close we had become, how much I was going to miss her. She gave me a big hug, a pile of scarves that couldn’t fit into her suitcase, and a promise to keep in touch by Facebook and Skype. She normally wore her scarves like this. I love to wear them now, on chilly New England days, just around my neck like this, but found a lot of these ideas were cute too, perhaps for summertime.