Moreover Monday- I wasn’t always dressed like this

An amazing article and more amazing documentary…

“I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This”: A Documentary Exploring Hijab as a Choice

November 11, 2013 By

The concept of wearing hijab tends to stir controversy around the world, especially in the media. For some, hijab may be a piece of cloth that women wear as part of social traditions; for some others, it is a form of religious devoutness; yet, for others, it is a symbol of oppression and injustice towards Muslim women.

While some women are forced to wear hijab by their husbands, brothers, or fathers, others do it voluntarily. This is the central theme of the documentary I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This. Aiming to convey this notion of free choice, the documentary explores the experiences of three UK Muslim women who have chosen to put on hijab.

Director Betty Martins interviews three women in the 33-minute documentary, addressing mainly three themes: first, the journey that these three women have had to go through to make decisions on hijab; second, what hijab means personally for each one of them; and finally, how the surrounding community views those women as they opt to cover their hair, and in one case, her face.

The first lady is a French convert, who was raised accepting the mainstream French discourse about the hijab. She visited Palestine, and felt a need to answer the call to prayer in Jerusalem. That was when she decided to convert, and the idea of hijab became more appealing.

The second lady is a Syrian, who comes from an artistic family. Her father was not keen on his daughter wearing the headscarf, because “it will limit her choices,” especially that she was attending a music school.

The third is a British woman who was born Muslim, but knew nothing about Islam. Her interactions with people surrounding her, including an incident at school when she was 13, led her to ask questions about Islam and hijab in particular. Studying feminism led her to believe in the need to wear niqab as a way of hiding her face and body from the “unnecessary” glances of men around her.

The film takes an interesting approach, presenting stories of Muslim women who were free to make the choice to cover their heads. Putting on a headscarf was a way for these women to define their appearance in public, and try to change other people’s perspectives on hijab.

Scene from I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This. [Source].

The film does not go into the concept of wearing hijab as a way of hiding beauty; it presents it as part of the beauty these women have. For example, the first lady admits to trying the hijab on before putting it on. She took time picking colors and designs that match her style, which, in return, adds up to her natural beauty.  She even mentioned the idea that in France black hijab is always associated with fundamentalists; this is why she refrains from wearing headscarves with dark colors. In her case, the color and style of her hijab is not just for beauty purposes, but it is also meant to defeat any preconceived ideas of fundamentalism and extremism.

The three women concur that people should not be judging them on their looks; instead, people should get to know them better, because hijab is part of the identity they hold, and part of the choice they made. In an interview she gave to the University of East Angalia, Norwich, UK, Betty Martins said:

“In this film, we hear first-hand about their experiences as women, discover what freedom is to them and what beauty is for them. I want people to see these women as they want to be seen, not as people would like to see them.”

I was deeply touched by the three stories.  The strength and resilience demonstrated by each one of these women as they face a community with little knowledge about or appreciation for hijab is quite inspiring. In some way, however, I found that the first two stories did not present a compelling turning point, as I had expected, to explain what drove the two women to embark on the hijab-wearing journey.  For both women, it was more about “answering a spiritual call” than reacting to an incident or a series of incidents that brought forth curiosity about Islam and hijab. I had always thought that a woman who decides to cover her hair must have gone through an incident that is a life changer. I have seen many women in my life whose loved ones passed away, for example, and as a result of such incidents, they would put on hijab. But listening to those stories in the film, I was surprised to see women who could just put on hijab because of an inner call, or a different feeling they had.

The documentary has attracted much attention in the locations in which it was screened. In an interview she gave to the Emirati newspaper The National, Martins recalls someone making a comment about the film.  She notes that “someone who saw (the documentary) told me that before she never agreed with the hijab. Now, after hearing the narratives in the film, she at least respected their choices as women.”

I believe the film’s message is incredibly powerful in these critical times where hijab has been at the center of clash of civilization debates around the world. If some women make the choice not to cover their hair, that free choice principle should equally apply to those who are willing to do it. That was what the three women in the film did, and they could still go on with their lives normally like any other person. At the end of the day, a woman wearing hijab should not be labelled in any ways; she is just a person who made a choice like any other choice in our lives.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Awhile ago I had a realization that working with ALL of the youth of Morocco might not tickle my fancy, so I started to focus on working with women. This work, my goal of planning a girl’s empowerment camp and a book that I started today called, Lean In, have led me on the path to a healthy reflection.

There exist stark differences between Moroccan culture and American culture  and how women are treated (note* these are observational and occur in the North of the Morocco) but there are also quite a few similarities. The differences are fairly obvious, the most prominent being the public domain does not belong to women. As with most things, there are exceptions, one being the market area where women are often found buying their food and goods. Beyond that, though, men are much more likely to be seen roaming the streets. Of course, with my focus being on women- I have found wonderful pockets where women gather to form lasting and supportive relationships (with some gossip thrown in to liven things up!). The similarities though, lie more in the subtleties, where people may believe that women and men are equal but convictions or beliefs are thickly covered in nuance.

Examples of this are this range from the idea that soccer cannot be for girls as the beloved sport is only for boys to the idea that women can not be in male dominated occupations such as police officers. It also exists in the belief that modern day women to be great both in and outside the home. I observed this when living with our second host family and our host mom worked as well as cleaned and prepared three home-cooked meals a day. These subtleties can be felt in the words used to describe women. When once asking a group of Moroccan women, what happens if a woman is not a good cooker or cleaner, the response was a unanimous, that doesn’t exist. They are, without question, good housewives. But if I had asked a question that related to the workplace and all women being ambitious in relation to their careers… the same answer probably wouldn’t have been unanimous.

“‘She is very ambitious’ is not a compliment in our culture”

“When a girl tries to lead, she is often labeled bossy”

“… to this day I always feel slightly ashamed of my behavior”

As someone who was often described as bossy when I was younger (and maybe even now), these quotes from the first part of Lean In really registered with me. The feeling that being a strong and opinionated person can often make me feel ashamed or apologetic is all to familiar. And in Morocco, women that display these traits are few and far between. I have been lucky enough to find some of these women and truly relish in the company of those that seek to create change.

The concept of the “imposter syndrome” is very much in affect in both the US and Morocco. This syndrome is the idea that women do not yet belong to the “members-only club” that is the workforce. This is palpable for women in Morocco who are working on breaking through the walls of just being present in the workforce. While it exists as a subtlety for women in the US who are working towards being mainstays in all levels of the working world. Working towards this goal starts very early on, because it means working against conditioning that occurs during infancy and childhood.

“From a very early age, boys are encouraged to take charge and offer their opinions. Teachers interact more with boys, call on them more frequently and ask them more questions. Boys are also more likely to call out answers, and when they do, teachers usually listen to them. When girls call out, teachers often scold them for breaking the rules and remind them to raise their hands if they want to speak”.

This notion also resonates with me because I remember being told to raise my hand. I remember being scolded and told that I was only allowed so many answers per day or that I had so many call-outs before my name was put on the board. Now, realistically, this could have been because I raised my hand or called out often, but was I more noticed because I should have been quiet, docile and patient?

“Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost”.

At this cost, women are forced to deal with the “leadership ambition gap”. The idea that women who choose to be ambitious are often viewed very differently, Hillary Clinton being a prime example. There have been quite a few books written about Hillary focused on just how ambitious she is/was and how she should be viewed unfavorably for her actions. This gap is a very serious problem because without females wanting to break the barriers and willing to be seen as strong or ambitious then pay gaps, occupational stereotypes and in some places, basic civil rights will continue to be moot points.

“Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.”

All of these statements touch on fears that I personally have felt, and even though I am not a mother, I can only imagine the pressure that is on the women who are. These fears seem to be more prominent in Morocco because of the lack of working women. One of the biggest fears seems to surround the idea of being an unmarried woman. The desire to marry is so resolute that, even with the tenacious women that I know, it is a topic that is constantly brought up. Often after meeting me, it is determined I am better off because I am married. I haven’t yet asked why, but the nod of approval always leaves me feeling strange and asking what they would really think about me if I was unmarried. It is also very strange to many Moroccan women that I do not yet have children, and sometimes saying “inshallah, mn b3d” (God willing, later) just does not cut it. These questions resonate the focus on a woman needing a role in the home to be justified in society.

I am hoping, inshallah, the camp that I am planning with several other volunteers will be successful in promoting the girls to shed some of the notions that society has given them. I hope the camp will encourage them to seek roles that truly fulfill them and that they have choices. That they are full and beautiful people just by being themselves. That they can be active and healthy members of their community, right now. In both Morocco and the US, it is necessary for “institutions and individuals to notice and correct for this [societal] behavior by encouraging, promoting, and championing more women.” By recognizing that women should and must be active members of society as mothers, CEO’s, secretaries, teachers, CFO’s, inventors, engineers and volunteers and all of these roles will contribute to breaking stereotypes and walls of all kinds.

The first part of the book, Lean In, focuses on the question of “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The author confesses that she would write a book, and me? I would become a Peace Corps volunteer and help plan a camp for only girls that would contribute positively to their self-esteem, community contribution, and dreams.

“Experience”

As I sit here and bite into a DEEEEELICIOUS fresh fig, I have a moment to ponder. Strangely enough, I find myself in a homesick sort of revery. My tastebuds bringing on and creating new memories while my thoughts are focusing on old ones. It is a strange sort of feeling that happens more often than not. It is the feeling that I am living life here… going through the days… struggling through communication … taking three steps forward in a project, only to take three steps backward not soon after and all of this happening with a nostalgic feeling biting at my heels. The ease of summer …enjoying friends and family… Fourth of July… birthdays… pools… oceans… driving… all that reminds me of summer at home. Which of course brings memories of everything that reminds me of home… heaters, nice showers, Christmas trees, Christmas, Halloween, weddings! WEDDINGS!!!!! I am so excited for all of my friends that are getting hitched in the coming months-personally knowing that special feelings makes me more excited for THEIR WONDERFUL AND SPECIAL DAY!  I am forlorn, though, at the idea of not being able to celebrate their days with them… all for gaining “experience”? These feelings bring about notions and questions about when does gaining “experience” and living abroad become too selfish?

For as long as I can remember I have been ENAMORED with the idea of living abroad! The excitement, the culture, the PEOPLE! I adored* my time abroad in Spain and did not want to leave at the end of three months… there were few times where I found nostalgia for home creeping up behind me. However, here in Morocco- it is more like a friend that I carry around on my back. As the months have gone by… of course there are wonderful times and places that I have been. And much like many other aspects of life… it is really unfair to compare experiences/countries/people etc. But* when there are dear friends having babies, graduating, birthdays… and GETTING MARRIED*. I find myself thinking… “what am I doing here?”. I was fortunate enough to be able to share in my best friend’s wedding festivities (hopefully another post on that) but there are many more dear friends that Tyler and I are missing! And it makes me think… in the middle of our twenties… are we missing our prime?! Our time to go out and have a night on the town with good people and good food?! As I sit feeling less independent and sort of stuck in my “the town is a ghost town rut” with the call of prayer playing as a soundtrack to my thoughts, I know that my feelings have not been as positive about my experience as I might want them to be. I know, deep down, that negative feelings often complement and even encourage negative experiences. Even with the knowledge that life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows at home… it is the missing out that hurts. It is the down time with family and friends… its the short visits… its the adventures into new parts of the city… it is helping friends move… having people stay with you… it is being there for the everyday life. It is the nuance of building a life in one place knowing that it will be a residence for more than two years versus the 27 months of a Peace Corps volunteer.

This post may have gotten a little lost along the way… but it is a perfect depiction of how I often feel. Never will we know if this was the “right” path – because really, what is the “right” path nor will we know how things might have been if we had never left. The only thing we really can do is make the “experience” worth it… make it worth the lost time with loved ones…. make it worth it by continuing to grow as people… and make it worth it by thinking of them often and keeping in touch with their lives. Time will be lost and some moments will never be made up but only the person who makes the choice to live abroad can answer… will this enhance my life in a way that I can add to those around me, or, am I really just giving up on those special moments than can never be had again?