When I started telling people that I would be studying abroad in Jordan, I was usually asked a series of three questions:
1) Where is Jordan?
2) You’re gonna get blown-up. You know that, right?
3) Are you gonna have to wear one of those scarf-things?
In response to the first, I began introducing the topic by saying I was studying abroad in “Jordan-in-the-Middle-East” before anyone could ask. To the second question, I would just smile and say, “There are worse ways to go.” And to the final question I would respond, “Umm.” In truth, I had no idea what to expect concerning veiling in Jordan. BBC News had failed me on that front. I figured as an obvious foreigner I’d be able to get away with a lot. Turns out I was right about that, but it also turns out that I had a lot of misconceptions concerning the hijab. I realized that my outlook of not only the hijab (the veil), but my view of women in the Middle East had been greatly confused.
Last weekend when I was in Madaba (for the Biblical Jordan trip), I purchased two barbies. These two barbies wear a full hijab. When I was a young girl, playing with my barbies was my favourite thing to do. I had at least a hundred of them and furniture for every room of their imaginary house. As I look back on it, I realize that I got a lot of my ideas of beauty and fashion from my barbies. I changed their outfits and played with their hair until they fell apart. Spending that much time playing “house” with the “perfect image of a woman” has to alter how we view beauty. Seeing these barbies in a full hijab made me stop and consider how different a girl’s view of beauty and fashion must be in this part of the world. How much different would we view a woman’s image if suddenly her body and hair (and sometimes her face) weren’t even part of the equation? Suddenly, the hijab doesn’t seem as oppressive, does it?
My friend, Kevin, sent me a link to a website the other day. It was a link to a piece of art entitled, “100 Barbies in Burkas,” by a German artist named Sabine Reyer. I love to look at art, but I’m really not the best at analyzing it. However, this piece screamed meanings to me. When I looked at the pictures, I found myself immediately looking for the differences in each barbie. They all seem so similar, so conformed, so orderly. What I found most interesting though is that, instead of being caught up in this reality, I was overwhelmed by how easily I saw each of their differences, like the colour and shape of their eyes. If they had been real people, would I have not suddenly been more interested in knowing the biggest difference – the personality within? I then thought about what they would have been wearing if it had been an American Barbie display. Short mini skirts? Bikinis? What’s really worse here? Why is it liberating to wear a mini skirt, but oppressive to wear a hijab? Suddenly, the hijab doesn’t seem as oppressive, does it?
On my university’s campus, I can probably count on one hand the amount of girls I see not wearing a hijab. Before coming here, my feminist-side was absolutely horrified by the hijab. The idea of a society forcing women to cover themselves seemed like some sort of strange fairytale. Then I got hit with a dose of reality. Religion and culture here are inseparable. They are smothered together like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Knowing this fact alone explains so much. A hijab is a kind of ‘religious’ accessory here. Walking around campus this becomes abundantly clear. Girls match their scarves to their outfits so perfectly that I often look at my clothes and feel silly for not having colour-coordinated. Purple scarves to match their purses and shoes. Green scarves to match their jacket. White scarves to match their pants. That’s just how it is. Real life. Not some sort of oppressing factor, just woman living life and being fashion-forward. Suddenly, the hijab doesn’t seem as oppressive, does it?
The other day as I made my way to one of my classes, I heard a strangely familiar song.
“I’m a barbie girl, in a barbie world
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!
You can brush my hair,
Undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation
Come on Barbie, let’s go party!”
Ah, good old American pop that’s ever so slightly inappropriate. Perhaps if it had just been the music playing I wouldn’t have been as astonished at hearing it. However, not only was it the music, there were some girls singing along to it. Every single one of them wearing a hijab. Do they have any idea what they’re singing? I wondered. Whether they did though, is neither here nor there. Since moving to Jordan, I have had one of those glorious light-bulb moments.
My culture is just as ‘oppressive’ as their culture.
American culture continues to sell ideas of what ‘beauty’ really is and how we should aim for it. This definition of beauty affects every aspect of our lives from movies and music to food and toys. There is no escaping it no matter what country or culture you run to. And this is oppressive. Yes, there are aspects of the hijab that are still oppressive, but it is not as clearly cut as I had first assumed. Being here has taught me an invaluable lesson. I must not be so quick to judge an aspect of someone’s culture simply because it is different. I thought I already knew this, but I’ve realized my heart wasn’t listening to my mind.
So, Reality Check: I have a lot to learn.