Saturday, December 25, 2010

Middle East Part 1: Not Just a Fashion Statement

Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem; many hijabs, not much hair.

Two weeks away from Kabul and my teeth a few shades darker from exorbitant amounts of Arab coffee, my time here has almost come to an end. Some may find it hard to believe that I have found comfort in being in the Middle East at this time of the year. Although this is a very complex place, with an intractable conflict always looming in the periphery (and sometimes staring you in the face), each time I come here I remember what it means to appreciate life and the people in it.

Besides that, visiting this place is always an eye-opening and educational experience. I am continually reassured that traveling and living among people who are different than myself is the best way to learn about other cultures. Especially in the Middle East, where seeing is really believing, there is no other way to get to the bottom of things than to be here.

Because so much has happened in the past two weeks, I will tell you about it in parts.
Let's Begin.

The Hijabis
Amman, Jordan and Hebron, West Bank

Where has all of the hair gone?

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Amman was an explosion of hijabis...

Before going on, let me first explain what a hijabi is. A hijabi is a Muslim girl or woman who covers her hair with a head scarf, whereas, the hijab is the actual scarf. Hijabi is a term applied to women in the Arab world; the head scarf is called different things in different languages but in all Islamic countries the idea which hijab represents, modesty, is the same.

...The last time I was in Amman (more than two years ago), there were far less woman wearing the head scarf. The feeling in the city was that of a liberal and fashionable place. I distinctly remember waltzing around in tight jeans, short sleeves, hair blowing in the wind and not sticking out one bit. Now, it seems as though the women going uncovered in the city has declined. Granted this is not based on statistical analysis, but this hypothesis is based on piercing eyes and a palpable feeling of "otherness" as I walked through the city which once neither scorned, nor much cared about my flowing free locks.

Maybe I just hadn't noticed all of the women walking around in hijab a few years ago? Even if this was so, I definitely felt a little less inconspicuous with my hair down this time around. Nevertheless, I tried to pass my feelings off as being less culturally sensitive and aware of reality last time I visited Jordan...

But then I went to Hebron, Palestine.

I was the only woman in the entire city older than pre-pubescent age not wearing a hijab. I felt as though I had just taken a service taxi from East Jerusalem to Kabul. I stepped out of the car and was instantly the most exposed lady. Wearing a long winter coat, jeans, and a scarf (around my neck) had me entirely covered besides my face and hair. Don't tell that to the conservative Muslims wandering the streets though.

As I walked by what looked like a church (it was a mosque of course), a sheik emerged and began talking firmly to the friend I was with. Here is a rough translation, "You should fear God because your fiance is walking around uncovered." Observation #1: The holy man assumed that I was my friend's fiance because I was walking with him and he was of the opposite sex. Observation #2: Basically he was accusing my good Muslim friend of being a bad Muslim.

More than two years ago, I had worn the same clothes in Hebron which I had worn in Amman and got not one scolding from a holy man. This time around, I was dressed much more conservatively and was berated by a random sheik within my first hour of arriving.

So what does it all mean?

First off, in the places I encountered in the Middle East on this trip, there is a shift towards religious conservatism as evidenced by the way women are dressing. More simply put, Islam is back.

Yes, yes, this may be a bold, blanket statement, but consider this: Just over two years ago, when much of the Arab world was in love with the idea of Americans electing a black President, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had not necessarily fallen into disfavor, and the peace process between Israel and Palestine still had hope, both Jordan and Palestine were tending towards social liberalism. By social liberalism I mean that Arabs in these countries were trying to separate their politics from Islam; they believed that the state (or their future state) had a role in improving social issues, human rights, the quality of education, and tending to their economic needs.

Now, almost three years later, things have changed. The peace process seems hopeless and non-existent. The western world, United States included, has shown to be ineffective in and sometimes detrimental to establishing peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. In fact, most of the west has turned their back on the Middle East completely and kept their diplomatic ties with Israel strong.

Because Arabs have not found answers to their problems in a western brand of liberalism which had promised for so long to bring solutions, they are turning away from it completely. A shift towards religious conservatism, and putting more faith in religion, is an understandable reaction to decades of disappointment and broken promises on the behalf of Western, socially liberal countries.

Although it may merely be seen as a fashion statement by some, I believe that the explosion of the hijab is a physical, visible manifestation of a shift in thinking in the Arab world. I was here in 2007 after years of hearing the US vs. THEM argument. At that time, I scoffed at this idea. Upon visiting this part of the world I saw that many people did not believe that they were so different from the "other" the west had labeled themselves as. I met people from all sides who believed in democracy and the peace process and willingly accepted that the US had a role in that process.

Now, I can both see and feel a chasm opening. Don't shirk this change in fashion off as a rebellious teenager getting a piercing. It probably won't pass.

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