“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and protect their private parts and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their faces, necks and bosoms and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, sons or brothers.”
The Qu’ran 24:3
By Xanthe Hunt
PHOTOs: Marinette Potgieter
I have learned to talk with my eyes. Icy blue with pin-point pupils: Steer clear. Slightly widened: Are you sure? Mellow grey with softened brow: Thank-you.
It’s subtle, but it works.
For a week, eye language has been my only choice: I’ve been wearing a hijab – the ayah (gown), headscarf and nikab (mask) combination – which most Westerners erroneously call a burqa. I’ve gone to Mosque. I’ve abstained. I even gave up rum.
A curious project for an ex-Catholic atheist, but not unmotivated: Western feminism views empowerment as an embrace of sexuality; an ‘invigorating discarding of patriarchic constraints’, according to the likes of Sontag and Millet. But claiming to “dress sexy for yourself” is a hollow argument. Yourself cares nothing for sexy. Sexy engages sex. The opposite sex. Sexy is for men.
Western feminism, then, has little relevance to Muslim women. In fact, the latter are seen as oppressed and cloistered. Behind the veil, however, another kind of feminism is claimed which denies the male gaze entirely. Pro-Hijab, a Muslim women’s advocacy group, assert that the veil is most sacred to women.
Skeptical, I down a rum ‘n coke for old-times’-sake,shed my boots and bomber jacket, and don a borrowed hijab.
My mentor is Shamim Nassar. Born into a secular household in Mombasa, she grew up aware of Islam, but was never devout.
“Then I hit puberty,” she says. “Boys in my neigbourhood started looking at me – at my curves. I got so uncomfortable.”
Troubled by the unwanted attention, Shamim asked her parents to send her to a Muslim school. “I wore the hijab and I could walk around without men looking at me; talk to men and they’d listen, not objectify me. Under this, I feel safe.”
She touches her hijab, saying “this” affectionately. Like “this” is a kitten or dove.
Her friend, Ghodeejah, nods in agreement. “Yes,” she says, “safe.”
Shamim twists the scratchy headscarf around my mohawk, flattening half-an-hours’ painstaking gel-work. She tells me to meet her at one o’clock for Mosque, then leaves. I am all alone and people are staring. Monstrously self-conscious, I hurry back to class. My first lecture back is with a Professor who is an avowed Atheist, “Xanthe, take that thing off.” His face is unreadable as ever: intense eyes, smooth brow. I ask if he is serious. “Yes, I’m serious.” My intestines coil. He turns to me, his eyes revealing something – derision or amusement I cannot tell.
“I don’t communicate with people who wear things like that.” He spits “that” out like sour milk.
“That” offends his senses. I think of Shamim’s “this”. “As a child I asked to wear the hijab. It might be oppressing if girls don’t know why they wear it. But if you choose it because you love Allah, it empowers you. It’s obedience. For me, it’s strength.”
Trying to emulate her heartfelt sentiment, I explain to my professor. Reddening eyes betray my stony tone. I stare at the wall above his balding head. “Fine,” he says, without looking up, “Wear it.”
Under “it”, tears mingle with my sweat. He picks up The Portable Atheist and starts to teach. I’m so upset I miss Mosque and go home. Recovered from my brief taste of hostility, I venture to the Mosque the next day. As I walk, I feel stares piercing the hijab.
Men stare the most. I suspect it’s because I’m white. I fear it’s because I look like a twit. I ask Ghodeejah if her experiences are similar. “No,” she says firmly. “Men respect me more. They know not to make eyes at me.”
Maybe it is because I’m white.
I ask her if the hijab gets much attention from non-Muslims.
She smiles; “Mostly, people are just curious.”
It’s true: My friends flood me with questions. “Can you drive?” I check with Shamim. She giggles, “This isn’t Saudi! Of course you can drive.”
“Can you talk to men?” Again, I quiz Shamim. “If you wear your mental- hijab, then yes,” she says. “Men must be like your brothers. You should avoid attraction. So it’s like thinking with obedience; wearing a mental hijab.”
“Can you wear make-up?” asks my mother, alarmed. “What will you do if you can’t wear make-up, poppet?”
“If your husband allows it,” answers Shamim. “My husband is very generous. I can wear make-up.”
Betraying my Western upbringing I ask if that is generosity, or normality.
She laughs, “The way he was raised, it’s generosity,” she says.
The cross-examination ends, and we hurry to the Mosque.
In the women’s gallery above the men’s main hall, we join the rows of cloaked ladies facing Al-Ka’bah (Mecca).
I follow her every motion as the Imam reads ayat (verses). Touching my forehead to the ground in sujood (prostration), my St. Christopher hits the floor with a clink. I smile at the irony, then hope I don’t burst into flame.
After three prayers the Imam falls silent, the men below file out noisily, chatting and back-slapping like post- match rugby-fans. Outside, Shamim hands me two books: The first is The Qu’ran, the second, Veils of Dignity.
Written by a Christian missionary convert to Islam, the latter is an explanation (and defence?) of Islam in general and hijab-clad women in particular. Khadija Watson (formerly Sue Malvar) writes: “The non-Muslim feels that it is degrading to the women and that it reinforces in subjugating the woman into a subservient role in order to enhance the male ego.”
“Nothing,” she writes, “is farther from the truth.”
Watson’s words sound apologetic. I confront Ghodeejah.
“ You wear it because you feel safe?” I ask.
“Because you felt objectified by men before?”
She nods again.
“So isn’t it men’s jobs not to objectify women, rather than yours to cover up?”
She smiles kindly,humouring my misconceptions; “Not all men respect women,” she says.
“Not all men are Muslims. If you show your body, a man will look at you.” She shrugs, “So this is the only way.”
A week later, I leave the Mosque for the last time, tripping on my gown every second step. It’s been a hot day. I feel drained. Inside my flat I drop my keys on the tiles, and strip naked.
My neighbour knocks on the door. Grabbing a towel I let her in. “So, how’s it been?” she asks.
I tell her: Hot. Scratchy. Interesting. We have a cup of tea and chat. As she leaves rain starts to fall.
“Ag fokkit man,” she glares at the sky.
“I have a sexy outfit for tonight. Red dress, heels. Now its bloody cold. Jissus.” So wear something different.
“No man, a little bit of leg is sexy, and sexy doesn’t get cold.”