Tug of War: Decisions by a Muslim Hijabi Woman
By Rasha El-Haggan, English Major at University of Maryland Baltimore County
I cared for nothing.
I simply did not care if school policy forbade physical retaliation. I did not think of the consequences of perhaps Brett retaliating back and hitting me, or of what my eighth grade Health teacher, who was lecturing at the time, would do. I only felt threatened and a natural, almost animal instinct, arose in me.
My head scarf was, by no means, a little thing. It was my livelihood, what I stood for. My mom had always instilled in my sister and I the importance of the Hijab, the head covering. "A woman," she said, "was a precious entity in herself that must be protected." We grew up accepting and liking the fact that once we reach puberty, we must adobt the Hijab. We were taught that a womans beauty is for no one but herself, and later on, her husband. Any man who was not my Mihrim, my protector (Mihrim is Arabic for the men whom I cant marry, such as my father, my brother, my uncle, my father in law, and later on my husband), could never see my hair or my body, save my face and hands. He can neither touch me, shake my hands, nor approach me in a way that would violate my private space. That was a right for only my family. In fact, the thought that some day a man, my husband, who was not of my immediate family, would see me without my scarf was a very uncomfortable thought. It was, and still is hard for me to think that I would have to get used to the idea of taking my Hijab off in front of my future husband after wearing it for close to 11 years . Imagine now how I felt when Brett stripped away the right for me to chose.
I was under the illusion of being safe with my Hijab, of feeling protected from curious looks. I thought I was free from ugly sexual looks or degrading stares. Little did I know that the Hijab itself attracted unwanted stares and vicious curiosities, stares of a different kind. Indeed I was as free as a bird in the vast blue sky is from a hunter. Brett had caught me in a cage enamored with the bars of caution.
In a way, my freedom and sense of safety were brutally taken away from me. Now, six years later, I always make a point of tightening my Hijab around my face. I put pins everywhere in my scarf, ensuring its safe position. Everyday, from that day forth, whenever I go home, after a long day at school, my neck feels the bruise made by the tightening of the pin holding the Hijab together. I started to get safety pins instead of regular ones since they were less likely to give in to a tug or a pull. I started wearing cotton scarves because they were less slippery. Instead of letting my hair free and loose under my scarf, I put it in a tight bun at the nape of my neck to prevent anyone a full view of my hair if they decided to pull it off my head. But why? Why should I have to do this?
That year, eighth grade, was perhaps the worst year of my life. We had just moved to Gaithersburg. My dad had liked the area and the schools were supposed to be good, especially Montgomery Intermediate School. It was my first time to go to school here in the US. In the beginning, most of the curious kids would come up to me and ask me why I wore that "thing," as they called it, on my head. I did not mind their questions. In fact, I took pride in answering them. I felt proud of what I stood for and what I believed in. Most of them understood my religion and my reasons for wearing the Hijab.
There were some, however, that did not understand. Theyd ask degrading questions such as, "Are you bald under there?" pointing to my scarf. Or they would spread rumors about how I had spiders in my hair-my favorite rumor as it happened to be. Their questions hurt me. They tore at my self confidence, however, I did not know how to respond back. Fortunately, no one dared touch my scarf. They somehow knew that my Hijab was sacred ground. They only verbally, but never physically abused me. They knew, deep inside them, that touching my Hijab was a huge mishap. You just did not go around pulling peoples pants down.
When Brett pulled my scarf, I must admit, I felt it was a joint effort by the whole class. To me it was not just Brett who violated my private space, it was the class as well because they looked at my revealed hair. Therefore, when I punched Brett, it was as if I punched them all, urging them to look away. Their stares of disbelief only added salt to the bloody wound. However, later, when the teacher asked Brett and I to stay after class, every one of my classmates, as they left the room, scorned Bretts actions. "You shouldnt have done that," "How could you Brett?" "For Gods sake, you didnt have to be such a child!" It made me feel guilty because I had thought they would laugh and scorn me, instead, I felt their support like a soft pillow, cushioning the blow.
Thinking back now, many questions arise within me. Was my response justified? Was Bretts actions deserving of my violent reaction? My sophomore English High School teacher once wrote to me in a side margin comment on a previous paper that I wrote, "Did your violence solve the problem?" In a simple answer, Yes. It solved the problem delightfully. No one bothered me ever again. In fact, all the rumors and degrading comments ceased. I was free of harassment the whole year through. My punching him somehow gave me the satisfaction of knowing I can fight back for myself.
However, does the ends justify the means? By punching Brett, did I accomplish what I want? Did I regain my freedom? No, I did not. I still feel nervous whenever a guy comes too close. I still use safety pins, cotton scarves, and tight knots whenever I go out. My punch did not, under any circumstances, return to me the feeling of safety. The honor which the Hijab provided me with was taken away the moment Brett touched my scarf. I had lost it and could never regain it back. When I cried then, my tears were full of shame. Now they are full of loss.
For what it was worth, my violence did not give me back my cradle of safety. Therefore, can I really say I was justified? Is the rape victim justified if she kills her rapist? Is the mother justified if she takes revenge on her daughters killer? Is the rule of an eye for an eye justifiable or is it a sign of anarchy? After all, was I any better than he? He violated me physically and I retaliated by doing the same. I have no answers to these questions, only a passing remorse and a never ending confusion.
I remember that day, when I got back from school, my face was stained with tears. My dad had gotten a phone call from my teacher about the incident. He was angry for many reasons. He was angry about the transgression upon my religious honor. Religiously, in Islam, a woman wearing the scarf was untouchable, almost sacred. People looked upon her with high respect and a sense of honor. He understood how the sense of being "untouchable" was taken away from me. Yet, he was also angry at me as well. "Do you know what he could have done to you??" he said, waving his angry finger in my face. "For Gods sake, he could have really hurt you." Yes, he could have given me a bloody nose. He could have damaged my face or even pulled my scarf off again. But what was I to do? Were we supposed to just kiss and make up? I had to fight for my rights, its what my beliefs teach me. Yet it also teaches me to be patient. My dad had always said "Patience is part of our Iman, faith." Yet wasnt I patient enough with their year-long treatment of me? I couldnt take it much longer. It seemed that Brett cut the line when he touched my Hijab.
On a more moralistic view, I wonder now if I could have handled things differently. Perhaps if Id talked to him instead of hitting him, I would have gotten the same results without the violence. However, that somehow seems artificial to me. Had he initially come to me and asked me why I wore the scarf, I would have gladly answered him, but the way in which he acted towards me, by pulling my scarf off, needed an immediate, quick response. Even then, would talking to him instead of punching him mean that others could do the same thing, thinking I cant fight for my rights? In that aspect, my punch served its purpose. If I had acted "civil," then Id be sitting and talking to every student in the eighth grade every time one of them decided to pull off my scarf. And why should I have to? Why should I have to explain my dress to anyone? I did not feel at the time that I needed to explain anything to him. He over stepped his bounds first, I seconded that. Sometimes, I still feel that way. I feel that had he come to me in peace, I would have went to him in peace. But he did not.
In all fairness, my thoughts drift off, trying to explain the reasons behind this boys actions. After all, he was a boy, a mere 13 year old child who knew little, if anything, about normal girls, much less Hijabi ones. I sometimes think perhaps he was curious about my hair. What color it was. If it was soft, curly, straight, or ragged. Or maybe he wanted to know if I indeed did have spider nests growing underneath my scarf.
I lean towards that line of reasoning day by day because its never happened again after that. The kids grew out of junior high, into high school, and then into college. Their mentality evolved as well as their maturity. Their curiosities were tamed to deal with societys diversity. At last I felt the childhood fascination that would push the "Brett"-like people into demeaning others, equate itself with maturity. I also matured, knowing fully well to be careful with my reactions, yet still a big portion of me does not regret my response.
It saddens me now to know that I solved the clash between the maturity of religious obligations and the immaturity of childhood curiosity with immediate violence. It was a tug of war between actions and reactions and, in my case, Brett and I were the rope. He was curiosity and I was early maturity. However, neither of us won because our acts of violence, on both our sides, cut the rope right in the middle.