In all seriousness… (click to read the prequel to this post)
I believe people who ask what an American non-Muslim woman wearing an abaya and headscarf communicates are sincere in their question. And while I am sincere in answering with, ‘my big nose,’ I do realize that isn’t the answer they are looking for.
So, the answer is…
I don’t know.
At least, I don’t know exactly.
I know what people’s faces look like when they see me. Have you ever had someone’s chin literally drop open, their eyes bug out, their whole head tilt toward you? And then they stare at you until you are out of view, making no effort to mask it? Even turning their body and craning their neck and shoving others (also staring) out of the way for a better view? That’s one reaction.
Some people don’t blink, but as soon as I open my mouth, many resort to the reaction in the previous paragraph. Sometimes, this staring ends with an approach and a question, a hand-shake, laughter, a new friend. Sometimes it ends with a stone thrown at my back. You never can know.
But what does it communicate? You’d have to ask a Muslim, a Djiboutian.
It could be that…
I am a Muslim. Or if not Muslim, at least…
I am religious.
I am Arab (if I keep my mouth shut).
I am modest.
I am respectful of my host country.
I am too tired to do my hair and too lazy to put on a nice dress.
I like to try new things.
I like black.
I want to hide the embarrassing sweat stains on my chest and back and pits and stomach and legs and butt.
I am trying (and failing) to not be stared at or talked about or touched or spit on.
Or it could be a combination of any of the above. Or none of the above.
One of the things I like about wearing the abaya is this very ambiguity because it starts conversations. It forces the throwing aside of assumptions and an embracing of dialogue. To me, wearing a headscarf is like saying, “Don’t assume you know me, or anything about me based on outward appearance. Look beyond the obvious.” Part of me wonders if that isn’t exactly why many Muslim women love to cover.
It forces people to look deeper.
What does a woman in an abaya and headscarf communicate to you?
Here’s another great post about hijab and how people react, by Sarita, a Muslim British woman living in Italy.