I worked as a docent at the New York Aquarium for several years in high school. I had the opportunity to work with animals and educate the public, but more than anything, I spent hours upon hours standing in Alien Stingers (the sea jellies exhibit hall) waiting for the floods of people to pass through after the Sea Lion Show. Now, all of those hours have seemed to blend together in my mind, but there are a few moments I remember clearly. One was a game of catch with the plastic sea jellies we were asked to hold, another was a conversation I had with a Muslim docent. She and I got into a conversation about her religion, more specifically, her hijab. I asked why some women had to cover up more than others. Where she only covered her hair, quite often I would see women wearing a bushiyya, or other variations. And she simply said it was because they must be very beautiful.
Now, I was always under the impression that it had to do with social standing. Her answer did not really convince me otherwise, but it did make me much more aware of how many Muslim women think. Writer and founder of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, Masha Hamilton, told a story last night that immediately reminded me of that. When she and an acquaintance were in Afghanistan at a market they simply covered their hair. The woman she was with was an Afghani-American, and an elderly woman came up to her. They spoke quietly and her friend giggled. The woman had asked her why, because she was so beautiful, that she didn’t cover up, protect herself.
That idea seemed so foreign and difficult to grasp. As Masha Hamilton said, Americans have this “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” mentality. The idea of covering ourselves up seems so weird and unfair. Men should have to control themselves, we should not have to be the “gatekeepers” and keep them under control.
But then she told another story along with that one. Whenever she puts on a hijab, in Afghanistan all the women compliment her. This is what they view as beautiful. This shows just how much our view of beauty if dictated by surrounding society. I could never grasp the neck rings so popular in many African and Asian cultures as beautiful, but they probably feel the same way about American culture.
I watched a video in my Islam class a few weeks back that had a scene that contradicted how a majority of Americans view the hijab. Most see it as oppressive and sexist, but in this documentary there was an exchange between a father and his sixteen-year-old daughter. She has just decided herself to start wearing the hijab and he did not want her to wear it because he feared how others would treat her. But she refused to take it off. It meant more to her than her reputation.
Here we are raised to think that a woman could not possibly want to cover herself up, if she does so it must be because a man has made her. I am aware that there are situations like that. I’ve been on the bus in New York City and seen a young Muslim girl quickly rip off her headdress once she was out of her parents’ sight. But rarely do we ever take into consideration how the women who believe in covering themselves, and would feel naked any other way, feel. This is what they view as beautiful, and so long as we’re able to wear make-up as we please (which could be viewed as equally as oppressive – spending tons of money and time to simply feel more confident, and often, impress men), we should not criticize them.