Behind the Veil

 

(not actually my wife)

(not actually my wife)

Recently, my wife of fourteen years informed me of her decision to start wearing a rida most of the time.  For those who don’t know, a rida is an Islamic garment of modesty, consisting of a long skirt and an upper “pardi” which covers the head, hair, torso, and arms while leaving the face open.  It’s an issue that I know she has been struggling with for quite some time, and one that is complicated by tremendous peer pressure from both sides of the issue.

Her husband hasn’t helped too much either.  In fact, I have made no bones about my opposition to this decision throughout the years.  Personally, I am not yet comfortable with overt displays of Islamic culture in the United States due to significant pervasive Islamophobia in our society.  My personal experience is rife with acquaintances who delude themselves into thinking that their garment and/or grooming choices have not held them back in any way from advancement professionally or personally.  I also remain steadfastly opposed to choices dictated by guilt or a misplaced optimism about acceptance in society.  Further, and perhaps just as important, I feel my wife’s choice will significantly hamper the outdoor lifestyle we have grown to love in Southern California–wither our rough and tumble hikes, sojourns to the beach, or Christmas break ski trips?

In the end however, I hearken back to my first sentence.  My wife informed me.  The decision was entirely hers (and then some).  I did make the effort to ensure that she is not motivated by guilt, nor bowing to the ever-present peer pressure (wasn’t that supposed to disappear after high school?).  She is clearly attuned to the limitations these choices will impose on her professionally and socially.  It is just that she simply, remarkably, does not care.  She has decided that pursuing her acceptance of herself is much more important than seeking the acceptance of the myriad of people of varying importance in her life.  She has even decided that her comfort level with her choices is more important than my comfort level with them.  While this last point upset me considerably at first, it is emblematic of a supreme self-confidence that I cannot help but admire.    It displays a confidence in who she is, what she wants, and how strong our relationship is that I can only marvel at.

For those in the United States who continue to insist on portraying Islamic headcoverings as evidence the subjugation of women, I wish they could be privy to our conversations–A muslim woman arguing to wear a veil against a man pleading for her to dress less traditionally.  This is not the Islam the media loves to portray, but the real Islam practiced by real people.

There is a saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  An analogous comment could easily be made about the objectification of women– “clothes don’t objectify women, society objectifies women”.  A woman parading around in a bikini on a beach is at just as much risk for being wrongfully treated as a sex object (one to be lusted after and ogled) as a woman wearing a hijab (one to be owned and subjugated).  Just as a woman’s swimsuit can be seen as anything from a piece of athletic apparel to a tool for sexual objectification; so too can a hijab vary from a willful choice to a tool for subjugation (as it is too often portrayed and used).  In the end, it is up to us as a society how we treat women regardless of how they dress.  Just as it is crass, rude, and wrong to say a woman “deserved” sexual misconduct because of her titillating clothing, it would be equally wrong to imply a woman “deserved” to be treated as a second-class citizen (or worse yet, pitied) because of her Islamic dress.  The fact is, a woman has a right to be treated with the appropriate respect for her character, not for her fashion choices.

In the case of my wife, her choice to wear a rida is the polar opposite of an act of subjugation or domestication.  It is an act of supreme self-confidence and pride in her culture, a recognition of her priorities, and a challenge to the rest of society (and to her husband) to show her the dignity she knows she deserves.  It is not an act of defeat, it is an act of victory.  Because I know this, I cannot help but respect and support her decision, though I continue to disagree with it.  After all, this independence, confidence, and intelligence is what has always been what is most alluring about her–not her fashion choices one way or the other.

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7 Comments

  1. Emory

     /  December 6, 2012

    How much modesty must Moslem men display? Other than covering themselves with clothing as do Christian and secular men, not much. Western women were expected to be more modest than men. However, that has changed mightily because women have gained equality with men whenever they are living in a free and democratic society.

    I understand your wife’s philosophical and religious development has led her to this place, but I think she misses the point. Women in the Moslem world are still expected to be submissive, and your wife’s wearing the rida suggests that to those outside her immediate family. The public doesn’t know her like you do. They don’t know how she really thinks. All they see is the very real inequality among men and women of the Islamic world carried over into the western world.

    One can talk oneself into anything. That has always been the case among us humans. People also change their minds with the passage of time. One can only hope that she will change hers.

    Reply
  2. Emory

     /  December 6, 2012

    Addendum: I continue to hope that you will update your readers from time to time on the progress being made in the world of cardiac health. I should love to be kept informed of emergent technical innovations in heart and arterial surgery.

    Reply
  3. Emory, I promise to post some good medical stuff soon… Your point is well taken. The biggest concern I have is the automatic assumption that *I* somehow compelled my wife to do this, which is patently false. It is impractical for my wife to walk around with a sandwich board saying “this is my choice”. However, I also cannot be held responsible for that assumption as I have done nothing to further it… It is purely a byproduct of backward thinkers and misogynists like the Taliban and the Wahhabists who legislate Islamic dress to ridiculous extremes and use them as tools of subjugation. I only hope that some day these evil and ignorant regimes (like that in Saudi Arabia) fall and are no longer able to spread their vitriol and pretend to speak for Muslims everywhere. Most other Muslim women outside these countries are quite content with no headcovering or a simple hijab/headscarf/rida type option.

    Reply
  4. Dear doc:
    One fine morning abouit 30 years ago I was getting ready to go to work and I said to myself that “enough is enough, I will follow to the best of my ability the dictates of my faith”,
    It is the lack of knowledge and narrowness of education leads to discrimination. May Allah SWT help your wife in adhering to her faith. Just because I cover my head does not mean that I am empty there.

    Reply
  5. Fatema Baldiwala

     /  January 14, 2013

    There is also another saying,” Clothes maketh the man”.
    The rida is beautiful, unlike the all blue or black burkha that other Muslim women wear. The rida is colorful; beautifully and intricately embroidered, has laces, appliqués, and if worn with pride and poise, the wearer will be complimented for her sense of fashion and tradition.
    Maybe she will be a trendsetter.

    Reply
  6. Dear Dr.
    To Thy Self Be True…

    Reply
  7. I love this post, for the same reason I love your blog – you just put the personal stuff out there. I don’t have the courage to do that on my own blog.

    That said, since you put it out there, i’ll engage in the behavior I fear that keeps me from doing the same:

    the bottom line is that here we are, men talking about women’s choices about what to wear. Regardless of whether your wife puts ridah/hijab on or takes it off, that’s a decision that she makes which is essentially a private one.

    As husbands we are encouraged to encourage. but in the end, wearing ridah willingly as an expression of identity is the absolute best idealized version of hijab that exists. Many women don’t wear it for such an excellent reason. Many wear it for the wrong reasons. Many wear it – and many don’t wear it – because the decision was made for them. That’s the worst case scenario of all.

    Anyone – of any age – who sees ridah as an affirmation of their identity and an expression of their faith, should be honored and respected. And supported unequivocally., because in so doing we ourselves gain the himmat of that perspective as well.

    Reply

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