I love to travel to international destinations and experience different cultures. I learn so much about the world (and myself) when I travel. But tutoring English and writing brings the world to me. The students at Seattle’s community colleges come from all over the world and they offer me a peek into their cultures that expands my worldview.
For example, I worked with a woman from Korea who was writing an essay about technology and how it has changed our lives. She described being a child at the end of the Korean War when schools were functioning again. Her school supplies included one pencil that had to last all year and paper that was brown and lumpy. I suggested she use this story to introduce her essay and offer this contrast of her meager supplies to the wealth of options, including various computer devices, that students now have at their fingertips.
Last week, I learned a new word “Chindo” from a student’s essay. This refers to someone Chinese born and raised in Indonesia. Unfortunately, there are cultural tensions between Chindos and native Indonesians.
One day I sat down with a student wearing a burqa. I had worked with students wearing a hijab, a head scarf covering the hair, neck, and shoulders, but leaving the individual woman’s face still visible. A burqa is a different matter. It hides a woman’s face with only a narrow opening for her eyes–just wide enough for her to see and navigate through the world. I could see her eyes, eyelids, and perhaps a bit of her eyebrows. Black-robed and black-veiled, a woman in a burqa is conspicuous on American streets, in American public spaces.
As a tutor, I hesitated for a few seconds as this was my first encounter with someone dressed like this. It was a conversation session to help her practice English. She had a pleasant voice, but I felt initially disoriented; I was talking to someone whose face I couldn’t see. It was strange to sit and talk with someone without seeing her mouth. (I wondered how she ate.) As an information gatherer, I automatically look for visual clues that can help me understand another person. In this case, they were not available. I couldn’t see any body language, facial expressions, jewelry, hairstyle, clothing, tattoos, and so on.
As I wrote this, I thought this was the first time I had talked to a woman completely covered up like this, but then I remembered the nuns who ran some private schools in Honolulu. Their faces were not covered, but certainly their heads and bodies were. And yet, I did not perceive them as being unusual or ominous.
The student told me she was married and studying English in order to attend graduate school in the U.S. I guessed she was twenty-something. I looked at her pretty soft brown eyes and noticed her frameless glasses. I learned she was from Saudi Arabia and had an infant daughter. She struggled with expressing herself in English, but was respectful, intelligent, and determined to improve her English. After my brief culture shock, the tutoring session proceeded as usual.
Later, I realized a deeper discomfort. Her attire made her repression visible to me. The woman herself was rendered invisible—a person with no visual identity, no shape to indicate her body or limbs, no suggestion of natural curves or personality. This reminded me of my own personal history and the larger cultural history of women—how we have been made invisible, how secular and religious laws and customs have disadvantaged and suppressed women. I felt the heat of anger in my body. No woman should be constrained and limited.
However, I also felt curious. I went online to research the hijab and burqa. I learned there are variations in different parts of the world, and there’s a specific name for the scarf that covers a woman’s face: niqab. Also, both Muslim men and women are supposed to dress modestly. However, modesty is strictly imposed on women: women should cover their heads and bodies in public; they must not bring attention to themselves and risk tempting men. The responsibility for temptation falls entirely on women because apparently men have no self-control. While the burqa erases a woman, women who wear the hijab can at least choose scarves that are colorful and printed in various designs, and I suppose she can wear a different scarf every day if she chooses.
Most women enjoy fussing with their hair, experimenting with various styles and colors, and going to the salon. It’s a form of self-expression. Therefore, it’s difficult for me, a woman fortunate to have choices about hair-styling, to imagine having to cover up my tresses every day.
Clothing is another means of self-expression. To be denied this freedom is unthinkable to those of us who have grown up with fashion magazines. We take for granted that when we are in public, we will see a variety of people dressed in all manners of styles that we find attractive or not, making judgements accordingly. So, when we see women constrained and restricted in their attire in public, it’s shocking. On the other hand, more modesty in clothing would not be a bad thing in American culture although there’s certainly a difference between modesty by choice and patriarchal control. I realize that in the privacy of their homes, these women don’t remain hidden. Burqas and hijabs are only worn when they leave their homes and go into public spaces.
I wonder what Muslim women required to wear hijabs and burqas think of the clothing choices we American women wear in public. I wonder what they see.