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.