On April 23rd. President Obama gave a speech. One of the things he said was that the United States is not at war with Islam; only with Al-Qaeda and other terrorists. That is not the view of the Arab street; or of many Americans. The events of the last ten years, especially, belie this.
There was a reason why people of the Middle East and Arab World since Abraham wore abas for the men, long dresses for the women. There was a reason why Jews, Christians and Muslims covered their heads in those days. It was the elements: weather and terrain.
My paternal grandmother was a young woman and a teacher during the Ottoman Empire’s reign in Palestine. She spoke Arabic, Greek and Russian. She was a modern woman for that period. One day, the Turkish governor of the region issued an edict requiring all women to cover their heads at all times. Well, my grandmother being progressive and a Christian who had never covered her head except when she went to church had no intention of obeying that edict! So she gathered enough Christian women and they marched to the governor’s quarters in protest. Once there, they took off their head covers and trampled on them with their feet, shouting and protesting that they were not going to put them on diktat or no diktat! The governor relented. The scarves came off. They also came off for many modern Muslim women who had never worn them either. The rulers dared not protest. Were they going to shoot at women? Or stick them in prison and have the men folk go into uprising mode? You see how sometimes one person, or a group of people who believe in the same principal, can change things? Especially women! We have on so many occasions changed the course of history for the better! Rosa Parks comes to mind. Margaret Sanger. Candy Lightner, Simone de Beauvoir. Marie Curie. And so many others!
Between the days of the Ottoman Empire and the seventies in the Middle East (excluding Saudi Arabia and environs) we hardly saw any women with covered heads. Christians, Muslims and the minority of Jews who lived in the Middle Eastern Arab countries all dressed in the contemporary fashions of the day. None of my Muslim friends – and I had many – whether in Cairo, Amman, Damascus or Beirut ever covered their heads. In fact, they looked at women who did as backward! Scarves were worn by the indigent, the uneducated, the strict religious minorities and a few of the older women, especially those who had made their Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).
Historical Realities: Colonialism, redo the map of the Middle East, create Israel, Israel abets the creation of Hamas in Gaza, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Hizballah emerges, the Ayatollahs take over Iran (US blundering caused this!), foreign invasions on Afghanistan and the Taliban gain power, Iraq, inept Arab leaders all over and Islam becomes the weapon for all the myriad woes of the region and the years of meddling by the Christian West!
As if overnight, covered heads began strolling on the same streets as the miniskirts! As each year passed and political frustrations as well as local power struggles came into play, those numbers grew.
Some were paid – five thousand dollars in the nineties was the going price – others were forced by their men folk who felt that they had to eradicate any Western political interference in their lives. Unable to do so militarily, they picked available weapons: stones, radical ideologies, hijabs and such.
Most women though are subconsciously making a political statement. I am Arab, they assert! I am Muslim, they stress! I am very proud of that despite your militarism, interference and disrespect, your stereotyping, discrimination and arrogance! Screw you Western World! Screw you!
There are days when I feel like wearing the hijab myself!