Of burkas and hijabs


We saw a remarkable number of international dress-styles at Disney, and not just on the “It’s a Small World” ride. There were saris and dashikis, Rasta shirts and pants, kaftans of every variety, and turbans and hair coverings aplenty. Hair coverings. Why did I stick on those? Why did Scott do the same thing? We didn’t take pictures, because we didn’t want to be rude, and because we weren’t entirely comfortable with our own response to what we were seeing. But for the whole two days, we pointed them out to each other, as if they were really more eye-catching than the bright green kaftan that was short enough to be lingerie.

OK, to be fair, we openly stared at that thing. Besides being lime colored, it had gold trim and a deeply sculpted neckline that stopped just after revealing the cleavage. It flowed out over its owner’s arms  then came down to a V point that landed on her thighs just shy of revealing cleavage of another variety. She was a tall woman, dark of hair and olive of skin. We could probably have taken her picture for the amount of time we spent gaping. But she still didn’t occupy as much of mental our effort as the women with scarves on their heads.

I believe the right to the freedom of speech extends to the clothing one wears, not to speak of the freedom of religion, and I feel strongly that any US law telling a woman she couldn’t wear a head scarf would constitute a breach of those constitutional protections. There is no reason to prohibit it.

And yet.

And yet.

And yet I still swiveled my eyes instantly when Scott said, “Did you see the woman with the covered head back there?”

I had seen her, had taken notice of her when walking past, because her outfit was thoroughly modern, jeans and a short sleeved shirt. But her head was covered, and she wore large sunglasses. Very Audrey Hepburn, hooded scarf, incognito celebrity. And maybe she was that, some variation of pop under cover. But it shouldn’t have mattered, and the other women we saw were very much not dressed in that style.

On Sunday, walking around with Caroline, I saw two women wearing burkas. Both in fashionable black, one with an eye slit and the other with a kind of covered mesh breathing area over her eyes, nose, and mouth. Even with the park totally packed, passersby maintained a circle of about two feet around them and their four children, as if collective fear of difference forced them into isolation. As if they were being sent a “go home” message from the other guests.

My first thought, since it was Star Wars day, was that they were characters. I had, after all, been recently stalked by a female bounty hunter wearing mostly leather whose only hair was a long, thick red pony tail. But when no line of autograph seekers formed around these two, and when the four children collectively attached to them kept babbling away in a language I did not understand, I caught on that they were only visitors like myself. After that, I experienced a rush of empathy. How lonely. How utterly lonely.

But the more I considered it, the more I felt simply confused. Why wear burkas at Disney? Why wear them in Florida? They could not possibly be American citizens, could they? The children didn’t speak English. But maybe they were new immigrants, still uncomfortable with Western dress and the English language. But that didn’t feel right, either, because it implied a superiority of those Western ideas and suggested that these women would soon ‘come around’ and change their habits. Or burkas. It suggested that what they were wearing was wrong, which flies in the face of my belief that people should wear whatever clothing they want. And it doesn’t even address the possibility, nay probability, that Islamic tourists whose religious beliefs include the need for body coverings might still have fun at Disney.

I also saw numerous women in hijabs, which actually frame the face, covering the head and shoulders entirely. These individuals wore everything from the more flowing, traditional outfits to go with their headgear, to completely modern clothes that seemed at odds with their form fitting hoods. One woman even had her Bluetooth clipped to the side of her hijab, half on the outside of the fabric, and looking like she wore it every day.

And I didn’t mean to be rude, but I stared at all of them.  I would nudge Scott and point, if he happened to be nearby. Look. Another. Another what? And he’d show them to me, too. There was nothing wrong with how these women were dressed, and given the hundred plus degree heat, their scarves made as much sense as any other hat in the parks those days. But the ball caps barely registered, and I hardly even turned my head for unusual floppy brims. It was the head scarves that caught my attention for two days.

It’s a prejudice. I won’t pretend otherwise, nor will I make my post into some kind of patriotic bullshit brag session. It’s an attitude that smacks of bigotry that I don’t like in myself and don’t really tolerate in others. And it’s not like I had the excuse of novelty. There were several Muslim families living near us in Lexington. We used to go to the same pool, and I would get all up in arms because the staff wouldn’t let them wade in with their kids when wearing long robes, no matter how infernal the temperature got. I got to know one woman who lived along my walking route well enough to ask about her hijab. She said she wore it for religious reasons, to keep the faith with her family in Palestine.

The answer was no different than why a Christian might wear a cross or a Jew the Star of David. And yet it is different, because Jewish women aren’t the only ones sporting stars on thars, and Christians don’t limit cross wearing to the female of the species.  Islamic men do sometimes cover their heads, but they do not believe God wants them to hide those heads from the world. I think my objections boil down to feminism, a notion I refuse to consider merely “Western”. Why should a woman be any more subject to covering her head than a man? How could a just God assign one gender to a subservient status? How could a just society fail to realize that such subservience would be the almost guaranteed outcome of an edict like that?

And how can I presume to judge this, when I live in a world where I have to present my son’s love affair with hair pretties and tutus extremely carefully. To protect him from ridicule, I have to assure perfect strangers that he likes to imitate big sis. If I am to judge the wearers of scarves, should I not also support the double standard American culture has about cross-dressing? A girl in ‘boy’ clothes is cute. A boy in ‘girl’ clothes is weird. The two emotions are conflicting ones, and they aren’t feelings I’ll be able to resolve soon.  I don’t want to notice women in head scarves, no matter whether their headwear is in the news. And I’d like to hope there are mothers who don’t mean to gawp at my son when he wears his tights and leotard to ballet class. But humans seem programmed to desire controlling norms that dictate others’ behavior. So I suppose I’ll keep looking at the women whose hair, and often faces are hidden from me,  even as I struggle to create a safe space for my dress loving son, hoping all the while that the time is soon coming when we can really understand each other.

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For the love of Mike, TALK to me! (Concrit welcome on fiction)

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