When I wore a hijab….

This morning, I am listening to a debate on CBC Radio about the proposed Charter of Quebec Values – specifically about not allowing public employees to wear Sikh, Jewish or Muslim headwear or visible crucifixes in the workplace. While this proposed charter is not yet public (this information was leaked), the debate on the radio appears to be mostly about whether women should be allowed to wear the hijab while they are working as public employees.

It reminded me of my experiences wearing a hijab and burqua. When I did research in Somaliland in 2009, I was interviewing many older people, and so I felt it was appropriate for me to cover my head as a sign of respect for the culture in which I was temporarily living. But as I had not grown up with covering my hair, I needed help to do it properly.

The young women who worked at Edna’s hospital, where I was staying while in Hargeisa, helped me wind the cloth around my head and pin it in place so no hair was visible. Often it didn’t stay in place and I seemed to be always readjusting it.

Then I met a young American woman who was in Hargeisa to learn Somali. She spent time at the research centre where I was working during the day, and was living with a Somali family while in Hargeisa. When she was leaving, she gave me the one piece hijab she had been wearing. It was brilliant – I pulled it over my head and it covered my hair and I didn’t have to keep readjusting it.

After six weeks of wearing the hijab and a long coat over a long skirt, I had gotten used to it. And when I stopped wearing it once I was in Addis Ababa, I felt exposed – more visible.

A year or so later, while doing research in Khartoum which involved local people from South Kordofan communities, I was wearing the same outfit – the long black coat, decorated with gold-coloured embroidery on the front, the long skirt (bought in a market in Sarajevo), and the one piece hijab.

I was walking from my hotel, down the street towards the office where I was working. A man began following me, speaking in Arabic. I didn’t understand him as I didn’t speak Arabic. He followed me into the office, where my friend listened to him and then told me what he was saying.

Apparently,  he thought – from my clothing – that I was a Muslim woman, and given the obligation of charity enjoined on all Muslims, he had been begging my help to buy medicine for his son.

This incident gave me pause. I thought I had been expressing respect for a culture by wearing the clothing – but I was also evidently portraying myself as something I was not.

On the other hand, I also remember a wonderful conversation with a tea lady whose stand was just across the street from the office. As I drank spiced tea, we discussed the merits of one piece hijabs vs the ones you had to wind around your hair and pin in place. She thought the one piece hijab was brilliant, and wished she was able to find one in Khartoum. 

Several years ago, in Libya, while observing the election, I met many women who wore head coverings and burquas. I wasn’t covering my head, and I wore the normal western clothing I wear at home. A number of conversations helped me understand more of the complexities of the culture, and specifically what is acceptable for women in terms of their relationship with men.

Once I complimented a young woman on the colour of her hijab and how it matched her eyeshadow. She looked down and didn’t acknowledge what I had said. I was, in fact, embarrassed when I realized that I had met her previously and had not remembered, and should have just said so, rather than trying to pay a compliment – but it proved to be a valuable learning experience for me. Our interpreter explained that what I had said would have been perfectly acceptable if we were only a group of women, but in this case, there were men present and so what I had said was not appropriate. 

Another of our interpreters, with whom I spent a long night observing the counting, shared a picture of her fiancee with me and talked about him. I discovered, in talking about this to our interpreter the next day, that she could share that picture with me but not with our interpreter, even though they were good friends, because he was not a male relative.

So when I hear such debates as the one on the radio, I remember all these complex feelings and learnings – the feeling of being protected from male scrutiny while wearing the hijab and the burqua; the way in which people I was speaking with in Somaliland seemed to appreciate my desire to respect their culture; the feeling of being almost naked when I stopped wearing it; the confusion and embarrassment when someone else interpreted my clothing as meaning I was Muslim and thus held specific beliefs and obligations; and the.discoveries about how the clothing reflects a whole way of looking at the world, and associated behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable, that is different from my own.

These are not simple debates. They offer us the chance to talk about our different ways of looking at the world, and at what happens when those ways seem to collide, especially as our world becomes ever more interconnected every day. They offer us an opportunity for learning and for dialogue, not diatribe. I wish we would take it.

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