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Saturday, January 24, 2015

To Lift Off My Veil (1)

Anyone who has personally met me, or seen a picture of me knows that I wear "hijab", that I cover my hair and dress "juba", an Islamic costume quite popular in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

I started this fashion choice when I started intermediate school. It was not a voluntary choice, but a family tradition that I started willingly to please my parents (by "willingly", I mean that took the initiation of wearing hijab before I was told to do so, because I wanted to show my parents what a "good daughter" I was.

There were times in the last 23 years (I started wearing hijab when I was 13 and now I am 36) when I felt tired, weary and suffocated because of that piece of fabric covering my head; there were times when I felt that it covered my beauty and turned me to hideous creature that no one would ever admire or fall in love with. But I survived all those times of feminine ego stigmatization and grown used to my appearance that even when I had a chance to free myself from the veil in a country where no one would judge me, I felt discomfort and preferred my usual self which took me almost quarter of a century to know and get used to.

Today, I have no complaints against my appearance or where I want to dress and how I wish to look. I feel quite comfortable, safe and at home with the veil covering my hair. There are even increasing occasions when I feel that I have convenient fashion choice: the veil saves me valuable time when I get ready for work in the morning (no need to comb my hair, or worry if it gets messed up in windy or rainy days), the dress also grows part of me because today Turkish Islamic designers provided me with wonderful choices for my over-weighted body.

But to cover my head is not the only thing a Muslim society demands from me, as Muslim woman. I heard all my life people prescribe to me how women should behave, act and talk in public so that I give the image of a "good girl", to be labelled "well-taught" and be the pride of my family. I need to be timid and obedient and do everything my parents, my brothers (the men of the family), ask me to do. I should be well-trained in house chores: knows how to cook and make the house clean as if it is brand-new place. I should not talk in a loud voice, nor laugh (giggle) in front of guests or they would think of me as too forward. I need to be timid in front of males, in the hope some male think of me as a good future-wife for himself, his brother or recommend me to any other male acquaintance he knows.

My education was the fancy wrapping for the commodity in display. In modern society, an educated woman is in demand, not because she would have the brain to lead a fruitful discussion with her husband, but because her education will help her in her expected role as a mother, helping the kids she will have in their homework; she will be good companion in social gatherings and make her husband proud in front of his friends and acquaintance. An educated woman today is in demand as a "trophy wife" in a society that started to awaken new from its rural backgrounds.

However, as an educated woman, I need not to be too educated: I need to know how to read and write but I should not have an intellectual voice of my own, or an opinion that may go against established institutions in Iraqi society.

If a man speaks some doubts against religion, he would be considered confused, lost and in need of guidance to restore his wandering soul under the turban of religion. But, when a woman poses the same kind of thoughts she is deemed as fallen, immoral, and needs to be beaten, imprisoned to force the demon who possessed her out.  

When I started my paper on Anne Sexton, and read of American women struggle in their "patriarchal society",  I felt like telling these women "are you kidding me"? If their social rules considered "patriarchal", undermining female roles and suppressing their feminine identity, what can they say about Iraqi society with its dominant Arab-Islamic traditions? If women living in the western world are struggling against patriarchy, then I and my peers of Iraqi educated women are dead and shrouded under veils of social convenience and "Islamic identity".

Later, I read her poem "Housewife". Then it hits me: an American woman fifty years ago lived our situation. She had the choice to live on her own, to choose her husband, to travel, and to be model if she wanted, but still she knew what was meant to be a woman in a society where "men enter by force". She knew the curse of being our mothers, and continue the role that we never wanted.

But that was half century ago, I thought. I read poems by her and her contemporaries of feminist and thought in envy that their situation is in the past, that women in the west got rid of their veils, and exposed defiantly their individuality for everyone to see. The more I read of their bold oppositions and rebellion against the limited role assigned by the masculine society, the more I grow convinced of my need to live there, and lift off the veil that shrouded for long the freedom of my mind.

My excitement, however, was shattered away by Anne-Marie Slaughter who told me that "Women Still Can't have it all". When I came across this article, I thought what they still can't get there? They can do anything I can imagine without being stopped or judged. I read her article out of curiosity and heard in the words of this high-profile employee in the State Department the frustration of my sisters and colleagues who sacrificed great career to take care of the family. In her words, I read the regret of every career woman who missed the chance to enjoy family life because she wanted to pursue her career, and sacrificing in the way the years to find a husband or raise a family.

Her situation is not alien to me, nor mine is to her. Our grievances are one and so are our dreams. Although, she did not have to wear veil, she didn't have a father or husband who marked for her the way she would take in life, and she were not buried under the turban of some sexiest man who diminished her to a number of four for her husband, still she  had to sacrifice a dream job to take care of her teen boy. Like all women of all colors and attires, she and I accommodate our dreams and fail our potentials to settle for a reality drawn by someone else.   

Nadia F. Mohammed