Bad Scarf Day…

This is going to be a bit of a pot-pourri post, because today was much the same as yesterday – the only difference was that I went to my singing lesson after work, which meant actually going into the city briefly, but I’m pleased to say that I seemed to blend into the crowd about as much as I usually do.

This is not the case at work, of course.

One thing I’m finding fascinating is the different responses of men and women I work with.  Don’t get me wrong, people of both genders are still being lovely.  But there are definitely gender-based differences in how men and women interact with me.  The women I work with who know why I’m wearing the scarf are treating it more or less like a new haircut – I’m getting the sorts of friendly, complimentary comments about colour, style and maintenance that I got when I died my hair a bright colour a few months back.  And then, invariably, talk turns to the convenience of bad hair days and a scarf.

(For the record, I washed my hair last night.  I re-did the colour.  I made my hair beautiful.  And then today?  I had a Bad Scarf Day, in which my hair was continually escaping, my scarf was randomly bunching up by my ear, the folds wouldn’t sit flat, my pins persisted in attacking me, everything itched – you name it, if it was annoying, my scarf was doing it.

But underneath it, I was having a great hair day.  I can tell, because I took my scarf off when I got home, and my hair looked awesome.)

The men, on the other hand, mostly do not comment on the scarf – not even the ones who would normally comment on a haircut.  In fact, many of them seem to have difficulty meeting my eyes, though this improves once we actually start conversing.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is about sexism or judgment or anything like that. I think it’s a misplaced instinct of politeness, where the normal rules for politeness are unclear.  And, in fact, I have the same issue.  Just as I wasn’t sure whether it was ‘appropriate’ to continue my usual practice of smiling at everyone I see in the street, regardless of gender (I still smile at random women, but I’m wary of making eye contact with random men), I think there is a feeling – not necessarily a conscious one – that the headscarf is a statement that one does not want male attention, thank you.  And so men see a headscarf and automatically avert their gaze slightly in instinctive politeness.

This feels very strange, especially as I do feel entirely like me on the inside – I’m wearing my normal, brightly coloured clothes, and my scarves are bright and colourful to match.  (Which looks awesome, I might add.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt this stylish before.  But I digress.)  Essentially, I’m aiming for a look that ‘yes, I’m wearing a scarf, and I’m still me’, because I find it utterly weird that a single item of clothing can so utterly transform identity.

Perhaps that is its purpose?

I don’t know.  I thought my Hijab was saying “Please look at my face, not my body,” not “I want to be invisible.”

This is something else I’ll have to think about – especially because, as I think I’ve mentioned, I’m finding that I really love being just a face and hands and fee and a blur of colour.  My feet transport me through the world, my hands interact with it, and my face communicates with it – the rest of me is mine, and this feels incredibly luxurious and safe.  I wonder if this is what wearing Hijab is supposed to be about?

Alas, in the current political climate, my clothing communicates with the world, too, and I don’t really control what it’s saying.

(If there are any Hijabi women reading this, I’d love to hear their take on what they feel the Hijab communicates – and what they think of the politeness thing.)

On a more humourous note, I’m still loving the people who are expressing such fervent solidarity with me, while clearly being unsure what they are expressing solidarity with.  I work with genuinely gorgeous people.  And I am evidently going to have to send some more explanatory emails.

I’m getting some very kind smiles from women on the tram, too, which I probably don’t deserve, but it’s another nice bit of evidence that there are plenty of people in the community who feel friendly towards Muslims.  I’m also getting my share of weird looks, but honestly, that’s not really a first for me.  Different reason, same reaction…

No, that was flippant.  If I’m honest, while I’m probably noticing weird looks more, there are definitely more weird looks to notice, and I’m certainly finding myself making careful choices about who I sit opposite on the tram or the train.  Despite feeling safer in myself, I’m still feeling less safe in public.

I’ll finish this little patchwork post with an anecdote that I forgot to share with you yesterday. As I think I mentioned, I started the morning with a lengthy meeting with a group of people from departments I don’t work with every day – everyone there knew me, but nobody knew me well, so there were supportive looks, but nothing said outright.   (We really don’t like talking about religion in Australia, do we?  Even I feel awkward about it, and I find theology and why people believe what they believe utterly fascinating…)

Anyway, I’m vaguely attempting the 5:2 diet, and yesterday was supposed to be a fast day, but there were croissants and danishes for breakfast, and people kept on passing them to me, and looking confused when I refused them, as I am a known eater and baker of cakes.  And after the second time I said no, thank you, I’m fine, I had the awful realisation that I was pretty much going to have to have a croissant, because people were going to keep offering them, there was no time for conversation and if I simply said I was fasting, I was just going to confirm everyone’s impression that I had Found Religion…

So much for that particular fast day…

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15 thoughts on “Bad Scarf Day…

  1. I’m finding your reactions utterly absorbing. I do hope someone who wears a Hijab all the time comments, because I’m intrigued.

  2. Hi!
    Thank you so much for your inspiring story. It’s so humbling to see non-hijabis taking on the Hijab and experiencing what it’s like.
    I’ve been wearing the hijab for more than ten years and frankly sometimes I am not aware of others perceptions when I’m out and about. (Mainly because I don’t seem to care!)
    Yes I do get some weird looks and some people tend to shy away from me (Especially at my uni where you rarely find many hijabis there). Once they get to know me and I smile at them they tend to warm up and realise we are still people lol.

    But you’re right about the politeness from the males. That’s the beauty and one of the main purpose of the hijab;
    For others to treat you like princesses and in high regard, not just as objects of desires in men’s eyes.

    Hijab has many elements; physical, social, spiritual and intellectual. The physical aspect of covering up acts as a barrier to protect you. There’s a fitting quote by a famous Muslim leader who says “if women knew how men perceived them when they look at them, they would cover themselves with iron armour”.
    The social aspect of wearing the hijab is that, when interacting with others, they respect you because you are respecting yourself and your body. Does that make sense? Please feel free to ask questions or find out more. Peace 🙂

    • Hi Ayah,

      Thank you for your comment and invitation to ask questions. I have questions!

      One thing I wondered about with the politeness thing – would you consider it was polite for a man to not meet your eyes when talking to you? For myself, I actually find this rather uncomfortable – it crosses the border from not looking where one is not invited to look to treating me as though I am invisible, and for me, that’s a bit weird. But I’m also aware that different cultures have different unwritten rules for things like eye contact or personal space, so perhaps this is simply about expectations.

      As for your last paragraph – I do agree about the importance of respecting oneself and one’s body (though I don’t necessarily think this has to be about modest dressing, however we choose to define this – I suspect we may have to agree to disagree about that!), but I actually find the quote about how men perceive women a little insulting to men. I am capable of looking at a man without ogling him – surely the reverse must also be the case?!

      I loved my experience of wearing hijab (I’m still wearing it on weekends, in fact), and I loved the sense of ownership of self that it gave me – but I would hate to think that wearing it was the only way to protect myself from the male half of the population. I am not, as it happens, someone who is particularly comfortable around men unless I know them well, but I do have more faith in them / respect for them than that!

      Thank you again very much for engaging. I hope I am not being too vehement in response!

      Peace, Catherine

      • Hi Catherine!
        I’m happy to help in any way. I’ll try my best to answer as I find it hard to explain everything effectively. It’s such a simple concept with many elements so I’ll answer your questions in reverse lol.
        Regarding my last paragraph, Forgive me if I have offended you or any males that was not my intention. I was just offering ONE perspective or explanation about the physical aspect of hijab. Hijab has many different meanings to different people.

        Religion wise, The holy Quran in chapter 24, verse 30 says “Say to the believing men that: they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste). This is better for them.”
        The next verse says:
        “Say to the believing women that: they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste)…”

        These verses discuss the hijab required for BOTH men and women. God instructs men to observe hijab by lowering their gaze and dress modestly. And then asks women to do the same, but goes further to say
        “that they (women) should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women…” (Surah Nur 24, verse 31).

        Now culture, (including different location, countries, schools of thought) plays a huge factor on how these verses of the Quran are interpreted and applied in practice. (Hence different meanings and explanations for hijab).

        The most accepted notion is that, Women are highly regarded in Islam and are considered more precious than diamonds. That’s why only their fathers, husband, brothers, uncles and nephews are the only males that can see them without their hijabs on and touch or interact freely. It’s no so much just “protecting” ourselves from the male population but because:
        A) everyone else is a potential for marriage;
        B) or would view them in a “sexualised”/ objective way And/or
        C) Islam urges us to preserve ourselves for marriage.

        Other cultures have enforced this into practice and some places they strictly forbid male and female interaction, and touching the opposite gender is strictly forbidden. Even segregation between males and females is strictly applied so that they both respect and treat each other with modesty and maintain god-consciousness.
        Some extreme cases they don’t allow women to work, go out of the house or even drive (eg Suadi Arabia 😡).

        I’m a firm believer of women’s rights and believe that we should not be restricted from getting an education, job or shying away from life. I love that the hijab allows me to choose what others see about me and allows me to have ownership of my body and who sees it. I’d rather be judged on what’s in my head, not what’s on my head.

        Personally, I like the observance of gender segregation at religious events and places but I think in public places such as university, the workplace and elsewhere, it’s essential for men and women to interact but with good manners and etiquette.
        That’s the social hijab I mentioned, where it’s important to be polite, respectful and always smiling ☺️.
        Lowering their eyes is considered a form of politeness and chastity.
        However, Personally, I do find it uncomfortable because I have a hearing difficulty and thus rely on facial expressions, lip reading and good eye contact to communicate.

        Sorry for the lonnnggg post (as I’m a social sciences student) but I hope I answered your questions or shed some light on this. 😀

        • Dear Ayah,

          Thank you for your lovely long reply, and please don’t apologise. You haven’t offended or insulted me! I appreciate very much that you are taking the time to explain things, and I hope you will tell me if I offend you with my own questions.

          The reason I wanted to interrogate the quote about ‘if women knew how men saw them’ etc was twofold. First, while my own experience of wearing Hijab was very positive, I really was (and am) troubled by this idea that pervades so many cultures that men have no control over their urges and it is the responsibility of women to somehow contain this by means of dress. (Which itself is a very socially-constructed concept, since modest dress seems to be anything from a conservative suit or a baggy T shirt and jeans, to a burqa, depending who you ask!) I have a big problem with a society where the first question a woman tends to be asked after being assaulted is ‘what were you wearing?’ – implying that a man can’t possibly be expected to resist the ‘invitation’ of a short skirt. Or where a rash of attacks by men on women results in the police telling women to stay inside – not men. Which, of course, is how things tend to work in Australia.

          The other reason is that I did have one man tell me he found my Hijab insulting (!), ostensibly for the reasons above, though he might have done better to consider that what I choose to wear is not necessarily about him…! I’m finding it fascinating to read about all the different layers of meaning women bring to the Hijab – the central idea of modesty is always there, but the personal response to it is obviously very individual – including who one is wearing it for (one’s God, one’s own self, one’s sisters in religion, one’s menfolk).

          (Eergh, that sounded terribly colonialist – I’m so sorry! I’m someone who is fascinated with religion and theology in general, and I was trying to express that, but given Islam’s minority status in Australia it’s very hard to express interest without feeling as though one is making it all terribly exotic!)

          Anyway, I hope I didn’t jump down your throat on that one. That’s where I was coming from. I really appreciate your longer explanation.

          I find the idea of social Hijab quite fascinating – it sounds a bit like what I think of as my work ‘persona’, actually – and find it interesting that even without being particularly aware of the eye contact aspects of it, both I and many of my colleagues were tending to observe it. Obviously, one notes on a subconscious level that women in Hijab don’t tend to look directly at men and vice versa, and acts accordingly. It’s strange to be inside that dynamic when one is used to making lots of eye contact. And I can imagine that it would be incredibly inconvenient if you are reliant on sight for communication!

          • Hi!
            So sorry for the delay! It’s my birthday and I haven’t gotten a chance to reply or engage in the convo yet. I will do so when I get the chance!

            Meanwhile have you checked out World Hijab Day?
            (http://worldhijabday.com)

            You can see the experiences of different women who wear the hijab ( even from non hijabi’s donning the hijab like you!)
            You guys inspire me with your courage and empathy.
            Much love.
            Ayah

            • Happy Birthday! No apology necessary, I was a little worried that I had managed to offend you this time! I’m glad that isn’t the reason you went quiet. (Maybe we should agree to assume good intentions, and forgive poorly expressed arguments even as we challenge them, rather than both worrying about being rude? Though I think we are doing this anyway!)

              Anyway, I hope you have a wonderful day, and I will certainly check out World Hijab Day. I’m about to fall down the rabbit hole of the State Election, but will gladly continue this conversation as time permits for both of us.

              • Oh no I’m not offended at all! And I welcome discussion and I don’t get offended easily :).
                I just need time to thoroughly reead and answer and it’s difficult to do so on my phone. Hopefully I’ll reply soon and maybe even get a friend to join. She’s better at persuading and explaining then I am lol. I prefer face to face because I believe the message is sent and received more effectively.

                Anyways thanks for the bday wishes. Good night and hope to talk to you soon.
                Good luck!

  3. Catherine and Ayah, thank you so much for this conversation – its just what I was hankering for, being another person who is fascinated by all of this.

  4. Hi Catherine
    I love your blog! I’m a Hijabi myself. I have been wearing the Hijab since I was 13. I’m originally from a Muslim country, but I have come to Australia for my studies, so I’ve had the experience of wearing the hijab full-time in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. I have to say, in my home country, the hijab didn’t really influence the way men treated me, maybe because wearing hijab was the norm? But when I came to Australia, I noticed that the men here were more polite. I remember walking into a Lush store and there was a product called Sex in the Shower. The salesman told me, “Oh I’m not going to say the name in front of you, because it’s really rude.” And if any of my male friends accidentally touch me they will apologise. I just assume that they are apologising out of politeness but I do find it amusing sometimes, because it’s not that big of a deal to me. They also try not to swear in front of me and quickly apologise if they do.
    But I have also noticed that some people regard the hijab as a sign of submissiveness and weakness. I also hate the fact that Islam is portrayed as a really sexist religion. I try to be polite to everyone, no matter what their gender is, but honestly speaking, sometimes when I’m nice to a man, I will think to myself, “Oh, I hope he knows that I’m nice because I want to be nice and I’ve been brought up to be a nice and polite person. Hopefully it won’t make him think that my religion teaches its followers that women are inferior to men and that Muslim women have to submit to men.”
    On the flip side, I have had comments from both men and women telling me that my hijab was beautiful.
    A hijab is a piece of cloth. That’s it. I do wear it proudly, as a sign of being a Muslim, but it does not determine what kind of person I will be.
    Anyway, thank you so much for taking a part in this. It feels so heartening that Aussies are supporting hijabis, it means a lot to us hijabis.
    Bless you 🙂

    • Hi Cindy, great to hear from you! One thing I found interesting when I was wearing hijab was that I suddenly seemed to be viewed as more feminine, in both positive and negative ways (extra politeness, also more people being patronising or assuming that I was stupid…). I think, as you imply, one of the things hijab signals to non-Muslim Australians is a certain very conservative stereotype of what it means to be female – perhaps because in the Christian tradition, the only women who cover to the same extent are from extremely conservative groups. I get the impression that hijab is pretty mainstream within the Muslim context.

      As a Christian, I wouldn’t wear a headscarf as a symbol of my religion, because it would send a very misleading set of signals about the kind of values I hold – perhaps more like niqab in the Muslim context, where hijab is more equivalent to wearing a cross pendant?

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this, and on how you feel different head and/or face coverings are viewed in the Muslim context.

  5. Hi Catherine,
    Thanks for replying to my comment.
    This is going to be pretty long, so please bear with me.
    Just to give you a bit of a background, an overwhelming majority of the Muslims in my home country are Sunnis. Within Sunni Islam there are four different schools of law (Islamic jurisprudence). These four different schools have slightly different interpretations of what should be covered. According to the Hanafi and Maliki schools of law, the face may be left uncovered (hijab) whereas according to the Syafie and Hanbali schools of law, the face should be covered as well (niqab). However, within each school of law there are differing opinions as well (in the Syafie school of law, for instance, some scholars believe that the niqab should be worn, whereas others believe that the niqab is optional). My country follows the Syafie school of law, but wearing the niqab is extremely rare, so we are following the belief that the niqab is an add-on to the hijab and that it’s optional. If I’m not mistaken, the universities in my country do not allow niqabs on campus for security reasons. A woman who wears the niqab in my country is perceived as very conservative, so maybe men in my country might treat a niqab-wearing woman the same way as Australian men treat a hijabi woman. So yeah, the niqab is extremely rare in my country. Throughout my whole life I can count on one hand the number of Muslim women that I’ve seen wearing the niqab in my country. As for me, I would wear the hijab, but not the niqab, because I think it would be restrictive and in Islam, we believe that our god does not reward good deeds that are only done because we were forced to do them(no sincerity in the act, not done according to our own free will). But I’m only talking about myself, there are plenty of Muslim women who believe that the niqab should be worn, they want to wear it and enjoy wearing it so that is up to them. As for the burqa, I’ve always thought that it was a cultural thing. The first time I was made aware of the burqa was after the US had invaded Afghanistan. Prior to that I had no idea it existed, and the first time I saw a woman wearing a burqa on tv, I immediately thought,”This must be a cultural thing, because if this was Islamic I would have known about this sooner.”
    I apologise for the really long post. I guess the reason why you see so many different head coverings is because Muslims are an extremely varied bunch, and that what we wear are not only shaped by religion, but by culture as well.
    Here’s a fun fact for you: Do you know that different Muslim countries usually have different hijab styles? Sometimes I rely on using another hijabi’s hijab style to figure out where they’re from. And in Australia, I’ve had non-Muslims guessing where I was from based on how I wore my hijab. And they were correct most of the time 🙂 So that was pretty cool.

    • Dear Cindy,

      Never apologise for writing a long, interesting reply to a question! Thank you, that is very enlightening, and interesting. I had no idea that the Niqab came from – would you call it a different legal tradition? – to the headscarf. I had thought that they just represented different points along a spectrum of what veiling meant, so that’s fascinating to know.

      Regarding the different hijab styles, I’m in Coburg, which is very international and I regularly see women in Niqab as well as all sorts of styles of Hijab – and I always wondered whether this was about nationality or personal style, or convenience, age, or maybe a bit of all those (one woman did tell me she wore different styles depending on the work she was doing at the time). I hadn’t realised it was such a strong cultural marker. That is indeed cool!

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