Two weeks ago I wrote a post called “Let’s Talk about Hijab” which launched fabulous blog/Twitter/Facebook/email conversations. I encourage you to read the comments for insights from a non-Muslim woman in Africa, a non-Muslim woman in America, and a Muslim woman in Indonesia. That post launched a series I’m calling, big surprise, Let’s Talk about Hijab, in which we, another big surprise, talk about hijab.
Today is the first guest post in the series and I am thrilled Anita Dualeh was willing to contribute. Anita and I recently connected on the blog, but actually first met years and worlds ago in Linguistics courses at the University of Minnesota. I was working on my undergraduate, she on her Masters. Anita is tops on my list of ‘who I want face-to-face time with’ whenever we return to the US. She brings a unique perspective to talking about hijab and I love the way this intro piece immediately sheds light on nuance and variety. Read, enjoy, join in the comments.
Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh
My first interaction of any depth with Somalis came through a volunteering opportunity in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2003, I began tutoring Somali women in basic literacy skills. On the first day, one of the other Caucasian volunteers wore a head scarf. Without singling her out, the Somali gentleman advising us said we didn’t need to concern ourselves with covering our heads. “Just be yourself,” he said. That sounded like fine advice to me, so that’s what I did. I think it works in this context because I’m a member of the host culture.
Since then I’ve learned a lot more about head covering. It started the day one of the other volunteers, a tall, dark and handsome man, asked me to dinner. I eventually married this persistent gentleman, which meant I married into a culture that currently believes good women cover up.
My husband said when he was growing up in Somalia his mom and sisters didn’t wear the hijab. During the era of Somali socialism, such a practice wasn’t allowed. And prior to socialism, women in Somalia didn’t wear the hijab either. As he sees it, the hijab became popular in the refugee camps as sheiks were preaching that the civil war was judgment from Allah for not adhering to Islamic practices, including modesty of dress.
My husband has never wanted me to wear the hijab. And I have never received any pressure from his family members either. (For the longest time, they were just disappointed that he married me. Before we met, they were hoping that he’d marry a good Muslim woman who would bring him back to the fold.)
Zealous shop keepers have been another story. Once my husband took me to a Somali mall to shop for a dirac (Somali dress). There we encountered a Caucasian woman wearing a hijab, presumably accompanied by her Somali husband. A middle-aged shop keeper stopped us in the hallway to tell my husband he should make his wife cover up. “That other man is better than you are,” she said, referring to the one whose wife was properly dressed. “You’re the man. You’re responsible for her,” she said about me.
I didn’t fully understand this exchange, which took place in the Somali language, but I did understand my husband’s reaction. He was angry. “Let’s get out of here,” he told me. He had been living in the West long enough to wonder at the gall of someone he didn’t know telling him what to do.
That was not an isolated incident. Over time, my husband has come up with some strategies to handle such confrontations. The last time we were at a Somali mall together, the woman who sold us henna powder asked my husband why his wife didn’t wear the hijab. “Why don’t you ask her?” he responded.
If we ever travel to Somalia I’m sure I’ll revisit the issue of head covering. As I see it, it’s a different situation when I’m the foreigner. In the past when I’ve lived in other countries, I’ve always chosen to dress as least as conservatively as the local population. So in Micronesia, for example, I made sure my knees were covered and avoided clothing that would reveal the shape of my thighs. I usually wore a muumuu, the loose dress of Hawaiian origin. From there, it wouldn’t be such a huge step to don the hijab.
Anita Dualeh lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and their two boys. She blogs at 1stteacher.wordpress.com
The intent of the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is to host an on-line conversation where people are free to ask questions, open to learning, and as a place to share experiences, convictions, and ideas about hijab. As a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country, this is almost a daily topic of conversation and I am eager to hear from people from all around the world.