“But you’re not Muslim, right?” a fellow Harvard student asked me during freshman year in Annenberg once he learned I was from Afghanistan.
“Not the greatest,” I joked, “But nope, still a Muslim. They don’t randomly select me for extra screening at the airport because they think I’m cute.”
Clearly the joke did not land, because he scrunched up his eyebrows in all seriousness, leaned in and softly said, “But you’re not wearing a hijab.” That wasn’t even a question. He just said it like a fact, almost apologetically as if I was not aware of this before he had mentioned it.
At the time I wanted to laugh at the thought that to be Muslim you had to wear a headscarf. But that chuckle pretty quickly died down into a “hmm…wait a minute.” Does this guy have a point? Have I been doing it all wrong this whole entire time? I started to rummage through my memories to figure out if this had happened before. Turned out, it wasn’t the first time someone had an opinion about my identity and how I dress and about my faith.
The first time it happened, I was in sixth grade and it was Ramadan. I grew up in the Netherlands, but I would say I adjusted pretty well when we moved back to Afghanistan when I was 10, at least as well as you could expect someone to adjust to unreliable electricity and showering using a bucket of water. I grew up speaking our native tongue and in a Muslim household and so I thought there wasn’t much more information I needed to fool my classmates in Afghanistan into thinking I was born and bred in the same city as my parents. I was wrong, because it turned out my information about Islam was kind of different than the information about Islam many of my other friends were getting. Some of my wealthier classmates in Afghanistan had a Qari that would come to their house to teach them about Islam and the Quran. My Islamic education was mostly non-formal, and with that I mean non-existent. I think my father once tried to explain to me that we were all made out of clay and that God breathed life into us with His breath, but then he quickly gave up when I kept asking him why we don’t break if we’re made out of clay, and how God has enough breath for all the people in the world, and what an allegory was. Beyond that, my parents just honestly did not have time to sit me down and teach me about Islam. They worked in a restaurant from morning till night as immigrants in the Netherlands, and then once we went back to Afghanistan, in the Ministry of Education from morning till night where their college degrees actually meant something. Besides, my parents had never been strict with enforcing the rules of Islam (whatever you might think the rules for Islam are). Even if you ask my mom now what religion means to her, she’ll say “love.” I know a couple of Qari’s who would disagree with that.
All of that is to say that my Islam was basically anything I wanted it to be. That meant talking to God before every Math test to ask him for a good grade, and performing traditional salat on a prayer mat without actually pronouncing any of the Arabic words correctly. More importantly to the main theme of tonight, it meant that I would fast during Ramadan without my headscarf on. It was sixth grade and I went to an international school where many of the girls chose not to wear a headscarf within the compound, including me. But during Ramadan, the lunch area would be dotted by colored headscarves of girls sitting next to boys, nervous with hunger but smiling in the summer heat with those same parched lips. Girls who usually would not wear their headscarves and who were not expected to at all decided to wear their headscarves while fasting. I thought nothing of it initially. Until a girl came up to me and said, “Aren’t you fasting?”
“Why aren’t you wearing a headscarf?”
“Because….my hair looks really good today? I don’t know. So what?”
“You do realize your fast doesn’t count if you don’t wear your headscarf?”
“Yeah it does.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Well, I don’t care,” I ended the conversation as bravely as a sixth grader could, meaning with a tiny apologetic smile that said “but we’re still friends though, right?”
I stuck to what I had said and didn’t eat anything during lunch even though there were plenty of kids who decided not to fast, and didn’t drink anything even though this horrible substitute teacher made us sprint back and forth in P.E. class. All along, I felt something gnawing at my stomach, and it wasn’t just hunger. It was more like a mixture of guilt, a sense of failure, and pride that had been severely bruised. I wanted to say that I really did not care if people thought my fast didn’t count, but at at 4 pm, an hour before the sun was going to dip down and we were allowed to break our fast, I grabbed an apple and bit into it. I put the apple down after a bite, I wasn’t even really hungry anymore anyway.
Fast-forward ten years later to now, I’m still that little girl, awkwardly squatting on the border between wearing a headscarf and not wearing a headscarf. I wear my headscarf when I walk the streets of Kabul. My closet back home is so full of headscarves it sometimes vomits out a color of the day on the floor without me having to go actively pick one for myself. And I love it. I love the patterns, the colors, the smell of the dust in my scarves when I bring them to America. I love wrapping myself in a big black blanket of a scarf when I feel unsafe as men stare at me in the bazaar. I love sharing my scarves with my friends. I love stealing the crisp and ironed ones from my mother’s closet every morning before school. I love the act of carefully and expertly drawing a scarf over my head when it’s time for prayer. But as much as I love the act of putting it on, I love the act of taking it off too. The moment the plane from Kabul to Dubai lands, I shed my scarf like an extra limb I realize I don’t actually need anymore. All of freshman year, I would still hesitate before leaving the room, looking under my bed, checking my chair, thinking “where did I leave my scarf?” until I realized that’s not a part of my life here in America anymore and that I don’t need to put it on before leaving the room.
I still cannot explain to you how I see it as neither a symbol of liberation nor as a symbol of oppression. All I know is it is a part of my identity, and that it gets tiring having to explain to people who you are on a daily basis. A couple of days ago, before leaving my friends room, I looked in her mirror (astonishing to me at the time because I don’t own a full-length mirror of my own) and drew the scarf I was wearing around my neck on top of my head. In that little small gesture, it was as if I had been transported immediately back to Afghanistan. I walked out like that, not caring if my scarf didn’t belong in America. Two minutes later, my scarf slipped down, and I didn’t immediately rush to put it back on, not caring if my Islam didn’t belong in this world.
Week 10: Reform, Revival, and Muslim Women Defining Identity
Charlotte Weber questions in Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women how Western leaders of the international women’s movement view women from our countries, meaning how they view the “other.” Many times, there is this unchallenged premise they usually start with: that the Western way is the best way, that our women are oppressed and must be liberated at once! Someone at Harvard here (being super vague on purpose) was heard to say “This is not Afghanistan for our women to be treated this way!” So, what is it about our women that needs saving, and why has no one told me who signed up to save me? This problem is not unique to only Afghanistan. People do not seem to realize that the issue of women’s rights is far more complex than what many people are making it out to be. I met a woman once who told me that Afghanistan’s democracy would never work and that Afghanistan would never be at peace as long as it’s women wore the hijab. This statement alone fails to address the fact that women’s rights aren’t a direct result from any single religious or traditional practice, but that the reasons for women’s rights issues are varied and complex. Women and men alike have turned our bodies into a battleground for the debate between the West and Islam. I attempted to articulate my own frustrations with this through the form of a short personal story. Many women are left to defend their right to wear the hijab and others are faced with the sad realization that to be considered “Muslim” one must wear the hijab. There are no gray areas between wearing the hijab or not wearing the hijab, there are no choices. It seems everyone is speaking for us and everyone is deciding for us. For this reason, I chose to use this space to articulate my own feelings and emotions, knowing that this might be one of the few spaces someone would listen to our stories and our side.