(photo by Salwa Hubais)
Given the current upheaval about what women wear, I am re-publishing an essay I wrote 5 years ago: Living Expat – Dressing, Covering, Swimming, and Mutual Respect
I have read several essays about supporting women’s right to not wear headscarves/ modest clothing. I wish the argument was framed a little differently and centered on women’s right to CHOOSE what they want to wear.
I have lived in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula for 17 years and I have never been harassed, insulted, frightened, much less attacked, by any Omani for being American or a Christian. Likewise, I have never been made to feel different or foreign or wrong because I was wearing clothes which were normal in my culture. Because I choose to live and work here, I do make the small adjustment of wearing clothes that cover my knees and shoulders when teaching, but I wear the same brands I wear when I’m in the States: Jjill, Fresh Produce, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer and April Cornell.
When I visit Omani friends at home, I wear what they are wearing out of respect. It is a simple adaptation like taking off my shoes before I walk into a friend’s house and learning to eat with my hands, as in the States I would shooing my cats out of the living room if a friend who is allergic comes to visit or not eating ice cream sundaes in front of a friend who is dieting.
In Omani houses, I wear an abayah (the long loose black cloak that women wear on the Arabian Peninsula) with a black headscarf or a dhobe (the long, loose, patterned cotton dress local women wear) with a lossi (a matching, light cotton headscarf). At first it was a little difficult to maneuver surrounded by almost 4 yards of fabric, but I learned how to gather up some of the extra while walking up stairs and to arrange my lossi to stay neatly in place, something akin to learning to French-braid my hair in middle school.
During Ramadan, I also wore a headscarf during the day out of respect for the culture and I was interested to see how it would feel psychologically to cover. In Oman, unlike some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, abayahs and headscarves are not required by law for daily life. Most women wear them because of personal beliefs and/ or traditions. Most women wear abayahs but some are very loose and plain black, some are black have colored decorations, some are colored and some are worn like an open cloak showing the jeans or skirts worn underneath. Some women wear tightly wrapped, plain black scarves, others wear colored scarves or have the scarf resting on their shoulders. Some women (both expat and Omani) have suggested that non-Muslim women should wear headscarves as a show of solidarity. Other women (both expat and Omani) have emphatically told me that I should not wear an abayah as it is not in my heritage.
The first time walking into the mall with a colored headscarf was tough – I felt self-conscious and hypocritical. I am in the mall usually once a week, reading at my café or shopping, and to walk in with a headscarf made me feel like I was playing a game.
When the Omani men in my research group saw me wearing a headscarf for the first time, they would smile, nod, make a quick comment and then ignore the issue; no one ever pressed me to wear a black sheila (headscarf) or abayah. It probably took me six or seven times wearing the headscarf in public until I became comfortable with it; then the only issues were finding scarves which co-ordinated with my clothes and were the right fabric weight, not too heavy or stiff.
My big insight about wearing a headscarf is that it gives you something to do. Standing in the grocery store trying to decide which spaghetti sauce to buy, I reach up, tighten, adjust, and smooth it down. Fussing with the scarf became a habit, a micro-control fidget, like men straightening their tie or shooting their cuffs. It’s a little uncomfortable when it’s hot and humid outside, but very helpful when I’m in a room with the AC on full blast. It’s another 2 minutes of getting ready time as I pull out my tiered hanger with 15 scarves and try to figure out which one looks best with my outfit.
When Ramadan ended, I went back to uncovered hair during the day but I still wear scarves when I see my Omani female friends at home. The result was I put a piece of fabric on my head and it was sometimes a little hot but that’s about it. I did not feel more religious, or less religious, or any particular change. I am a Methodist by baptism and by my own choice when I was in my 20s. Neither my religious devotion or personal beliefs are diminished or altered by having a piece of fabric on my head. I didn’t feel closer to God – I didn’t feel farther away from God. And I don’t believe God enjoins me to judge other people by what they have on their head or their body.
Most Sunday and Tuesday nights I go swimming with 60 or so Arab, Muslim women wearing burqinis. I first learned to swim in a public pool with a Red Cross instructor and over my 50 years I have swum in the Wilde Lake village center pool in Columbia MD, the Old Red Gym at University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Dakota pool when it was negative 10 outside, Canadian lakes, the student center at MIT, the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City, and the municipal pool in Tacoma, WA.
The women who swim at my pool now are just like the women I have swum with at all those other places, only they are wearing a bit more clothing. They are in swimming pants or leggings with short or long-sleeved tops as is consistent with the conservative culture, but no one has ever told me that I have to wear what they wear. I am a life-long feminist but I don’t believe my feminism allows me to dictate someone else’s feminism. The women at the pool and my Omani women friends (college-educated, multi-lingual, who work and have traveled/ lived abroad) don’t feel comfortable exposing their body to other women, much less men. Who am I to argue that with them?
When I go swimming, I get lots of smiles, waves, friendly glances and “hellos” from women I don’t know. In almost a year of twice weekly visits to the pool I have never received a harsh word, much less a lecture, on my bright blue Land’s End swimsuit. We all exercise mutual respect for different customs and religions while we exercise our bodies. And then we will go home happy. It’s not difficult.