Adventures in Repatriation

Cassandra Seer of Doom

Cassandra Seer of Doom
The Heartland, United States
December 31
I used to live in rural Japan, teaching babies through adults how to talk the English. Now I'm trying to find my way in a country that's both a stranger and more home than ever.

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AUGUST 25, 2009 2:30PM

To Hijab or not to Hijab

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On a holiday from school, Halima came to program without her headscarf.  She seemed to be in a bad mood when her mother dropped her off, her eyes shifting around as she gave her a somewhat squirmy and resistant hug.  Before going to join the other kids, she flipped up the hood of her baby blue Hannah Montana sweatshirt, consciously tucking her stray hair back away from her face.  


As she was sitting with the kids, one of the staff members, Shaun, remarked brightly, “Halima, why don’t you got your hijab on?”


She glowered at him, then looked back down.  Shaun is well-meaning, but sometimes has trouble reading the kids.


“Whoa-hoa, don’t talk to me, then.”  Throughout the day, he periodically enthused, “Halima, you’ve got such pretty hair!” and was met with a cold reception.  Once, as he was walking behind her, he flipped down the hood of her sweatshirt.


“Don’t!”  She screeched, yanking the hood back up. 


Shaun sat down near the cluster of kids. “I’m not trying to play with you.  I’m just wondering how come you here every day with your hijab, but today you don’t gotta wear it.”  


“Because she’s little, it’s okay,” some of the other kids piped in.  


“She used to come here without a hijab a lot before you started here,” I added.  


“Did she?”


“Mmhm,” I turned to Halima and said gently, “But you don’t like not wearing it now, do you?”  She shook her head sullenly.


Halima is in first grade, and I remember when she started wearing her hijab.  At first it was infrequent, then she started wearing one nearly every day.  The day after Eid, she was without her hijab, the hair around her crown braided into cornrows, with the rest was loose, thick dark curls to her back.  She was in bright spirits all day, and when I asked her how her Eid was, she excitedly told me, “I got new clothes, and these new shoes, and my hair was out, and we went to the Mall of America, and it was so fun!”  When she first started wearing her the hijab regularly, like many little girls, she frequently adjusted it in public.  Once she asked me if her hair was showing, and since then helping little girls tuck stray hairs under their scarves became a regular occurrence for me, like fixing uneven buttons or watching for untied shoes.  


“Oh, so the hijab is optional until you’re what, fifteen?”


The kids snorted.  “No!  Until you’re ten!” 


Shaun looked at one of the girls.  “But how old are you, Farhia?”


“I’m nine.”

“But you’re always wearing your hijab.  Couldn’t you just skip it sometimes?”


“Yeah, but I pray a lot,” she replied.  


Farhia not only always wore her hijab, but she also wore billowy shirts and long skirts, like all of the other girls in the program but Halima.  Halima was usually dressed to the nines of little-girl fashion, often in nice jeans and tall boots.  Their mothers tend to adhere to the standards of modesty to different degrees, some always wearing loose, one-piece, monochromatic garb, others mixing and matching loose tops and skirts.  Halima’s mother is my age, and she’s beautiful.  I saw her once in jeans and a non-traditional scarf twisted around her head, rather than draping over the shoulders like most Somali hijab, once without her scarf when I was dropping Halima off at her apartment, and once in full, conservative garb.  Children are usually dressed less conservatively than their mothers, but I’ve seen some three year olds who are never without their hijab.


There’s so much variation, even among the Somali community.  I wonder about the pressure about whether to wear or not wear hijab, because I know it goes both ways.  I wonder how religious Muslim women come to a point where they don’t wear hijab anymore, and how secular Muslim women decide to continue to wear theirs.  


Gradually throughout the day, Halima let her hood occasionally fall back to her shoulders.  When Shaun made some remark about her pretty black hair, she turned to him and smiled, grabbing her ponytail, “My hair’s not black, it’s brown.”


As I saw Halima warming up to Shaun’s constant comments, I thought about myself as a little girl, how I would have been absolutely mortified by some man making comments like that about me.  I was scared of men, didn’t want to sit on their laps, didn’t want them to wink at me, didn’t want them to call me “little lady” or pretend to flirt like so many older men think is appropriate to do with little girls.  Halima was starting to enjoy the attention, but I couldn’t help but think that Shaun’s behavior was in a way reinforcing the belief in Islam that when a woman exposes her hair, she runs the risk of objectification.  When she’s old enough to really understand, I’m curious about what choice Halima will make.


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I wrote this many months ago, and I've since learned some things. Hijab is colloquially used to reference a headscarf, but it's real meaning is veil or curtain, and in the Koran is only meant to denote modesty. The Koran mandates modesty, but how modesty is interpreted is entirely cultural.
As always, your observations are engaging and informative.
Excellent piece! I am sad tho that your colleague was so abtuse as to not realize what he was doing. I"m sure he meant well but why couldn't he have just complimented equally when she was wearing hijab. I'm glad to learn that its form and usage is determined culturally rather than being explicit in the Koran
Lots of good observtions, a treat to read. You should read the Australian young adult novel Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fateh, about a teen's decision to wear hijab despite her parents' and schools' objections. Alternately funny and poignant.
Arabs (and Afghans) made their women cover their entire bodies and burried their female newborns alive long before Islam. After Islam they stopped killing the female newborns. Among Muslim women in secular countries (France, England...) only the fundamentalists wear that thing. Moderates say the idea is to cover the "sexy" parts of the woman's body. In other words, to wear a tight jeans and a hijab is hypocrisy at best.

Making your first grade daughter wear this thing in a secular country is a terrible form of child abuse.

I'm curious about the outcome will be, too.

And, what Penrose said!
Shaun's being an idiot. He's an adult. Adults shouldn't tease children about their clothing, esp. if that clothing has religious significance.
What a great piece. I'm so glad you got an EP for this. Thank you for sharing this story.
Thank you for a very informative post. It is a pleasure to read that there is tolerance of a wide spectrum of interpretations of these cultural mores. The covering of one's hair is not exclusively Muslim. Orthodox Jews and Sikhs - male and female - obey strict rules regarding the cutting and covering of their hair. Our former President, Mary Robinson, and current President, Mary MacAleese, were widely criticised for not wearing a head-covering during their audiences with the Catholic Pope. Segregation, sexism, racism; we must not forget that our reaction to these issues have a cultural context. Shaun's response was naive and patronising, not deliberately offensive. Legislating to make the wearing or non-wearing of the hijab statutorily mandated (as in France) is totally different.
sweet story, and effective writing