The dress isn't what oppresses

November 11, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - "I've been called oppressed and depressed and repressed and every other kind of pressed you can imagine," says Milia Islam, as she counts off the adjectives with an amused smile. The subject of such "pressing" concern is the head scarf that the young Missouri woman wears over her hair.

The scarf, better known as the hijab, the Arabic word meaning "to cover or screen," identifies Milia publicly as a Muslim. So, it has become more than a curiosity in the weeks since Americans began an intensive course in Islam 101.

After Sept. 11, many American Muslim women experienced their own kind of "profiling." Some put aside the hijab out of fear. Some had it pulled off their hair by angry strangers. Others were merely labeled "oppressed, depressed, repressed."

Milia is one of three American Muslim women, all graduate students at the Harvard Divinity School, whom I have talked with about the head cover that has taken on such heightened meaning. A 22-year-old whose head is covered this day in an olive print scarf pinned under the chin, she was born in Bangladesh and raised in the only Muslim family in her small Missouri town. She started wearing a hijab in college, where the reactions of others sent her on a journey from pre-med to sociology to religious studies.

A second woman, Melinda Mott Krokus, Massachusetts-born and raised, began wearing the hijab when she was studying in Turkey, where some women praised her scarf and others said, "Take that thing off." Back home, Melinda no longer covers her head because, she now believes, "in my culture, modesty is not connected to my hair."

The third, Pali Kakar, wore a hijab in her Islamic school in Seattle but not in Pakistan, where she went with her parents - U.N. doctors. Today she is wearing a brown scarf, embossed with the designer name Versace, tied in the back of her neck.

These three graduate students in religion are by no means "typical" Muslim women, but that is the point. They insist there is no typical, although there certainly is stereotypical.

In Islam, it turns out, there is no uniform cover and no single reason for covering. The Quran has no rule that women wear a blue burqa or a black chador, a veil or hijab. There is an injunction to dress "modestly," but modest dress is defined in that murky interface between culture and religion.

So in today's Afghanistan, women forced under the blue burqa are punished for exposing an immodest ankle. Meanwhile in Tunisia, women are forbidden to wear a head scarf in school. In one society, the chador is worn by the upper class and in another, by the backward class. A covered head may be a symbol of rebellion in Indonesia and conservatism in Saudi Arabia.

In our own country, where some wear the hijab out of tradition or identity or as a daily connection to religion, there are endless internal and external debates among educated Muslim women. Is a covered head proof of piety or even modesty? As Ms. Kakar says, speaking for all three students, "A woman can be immodest and wear a hijab or be modest and not wear one." Is the scarf then a clue to women's second-class citizenship? As Ms. Krokus says, "It can put you down or raise you up."

Indeed in America, there is even a modified feminist argument. Anthropologist Suzanne Brenner at the University of California at San Diego says to her students, "It's not clear to me that wearing a head scarf is more oppressive to women than high heels and miniskirts."

All these reactions to the hijab may be proof that Muslim Americans are still seen as "others," as "different." But the intense feelings that surround what the women wear reflect and echo the enormous symbolic importance that most cultures place on women's bodies and the way they are clothed.

In the secular world, we've seen passionate arguments throughout history over hoop skirts and bloomers, miniskirts and pants suits. In the religious world, we often judge what's inside a woman's head by what's on her head, whether it's a nun's wimple or an Orthodox Jew's wig or a Muslim's scarf.

Women carry enormous symbolic weight on their backs. "In many societies, if there is a form of traditional dress, it's worn by women," says Ms. Brenner. "Women's bodies and women's dress are marked in a way that men's are not." In some places, indeed, they are marked by men.

The reality is that most women around the world wear cultural and sexual messages from head to toe. What then is the difference between oppressed, repressed, depressed women and free women? It's not having a head scarf; it's having a choice.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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