Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Unveiling: the next phase

The 2011 Lenten season has officially come to a close, and so too has the Hijabi Season. Well, at least the part of the season where I wear the hijab. Now, I am experiencing the re-entry phase, the unveiling phase, which part of me was very ready for, but another part of me was apprehensive. I have become so familiar with wearing the hijab and covering my knees and elbows that I could already anticipate feeling vulnerable and very exposed without the hijab.

The transition so far has been smooth for the most part. I, of course, felt those few instances of vulnerability, but am realizing more and more that I have developed a confidence from wearing the hijab that I have been able to carry with me into this post-hijab phase. I am excited to see where and how this newly-discovered self-assurance reveals itself.

I have already been asked by a few women at my work who have been very supportive of my hijabi experience, "Would you do it again?" I have answered them without hesitation, "Absolutely." Wearing the hijab has been one of the best things I have ever done for myself. It has been a learning experience, a spiritual practice, a window into the invisible expectations of society and culture, and a renewal of my commitment to all those who are not regarded as fully human.

It is my hope that all people can experience something as meaningful and liberating as this hijabi season has been for me. I think one key is to allow the experience to open itself up to you. My hijabi season arose as the culmination of my education and my personal interest and relationships, and with my unfolding and release into it, it blossomed into a unique, unexpected flower. May we all cultivate flowers of compassion, love, solidarity, and understanding.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dirt Off Her Shoulder

It has been a while since my last posting, and in that time, I have found that I have been operating in a comfort zone with the hijab. By now, I have seen most of the people that I know who might have questions. It has become second-nature to me now to put it on in the mornings (I'm actually getting pretty good at wrapping it). I have even been able to navigate social interactions in a way that has made me feel more human--specifically, when I'm feeling a disconnect with strangers that I sense might have something to do with my appearance, I smile and actually verbally engage the other person. It is amazing how a "Hi, there!" or a small, genuine compliment can create connection. I sense also that most strangers are surprised to learn from my verbal interaction with them that I do indeed speak English fluently!

I am still wrestling with this mainstream American culture's discomfort with the hijab. I have become sensitized to the reality that hijabis are rarely presented in any tangible way within mainstream culture. Hijabis are a subculture in and of themselves, but they also represent the culturally misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented culture of Islam.

I know I have expressed my concern with the content in the messages that society sends to women and men and children. I also know that society will also always send us messages about who we are as a social humans. I believe that the content of these messages have the potential to be extremely life-giving and encourage the flourishing of healthy human relationships. We have seen advertisements that include individuals from different ethnicities. We read books where women are the heroines. We have seen movies that champion interracial couples. We have seen sitcoms that embrace members of the LGBTQI community.

So where are all of the hijabis in this mix? Perhaps as a subculture we are not viewed as major audience for marketing. But still, I am surprised at my desire to be marketed to. I want that recognition, I want to hear the message, "I know you're out there, I know what you're all about, and here's something I thought you might be interested in." I shudder to think that this response is certainly how I have been programmed coming from a consumer culture. Do I really get validation by being propositioned by advertising executives in L.A.??

That is certainly something to mull over. In the meantime, I do want to share the only TV add that I have ever seen that includes an hijabi. Here is the commercial for the videogame Def Jam Rapstar. Did you catch the hijabi getting that dirt off her shoulder at about :05 seconds?

This commercial, I believe, sends one of those life-giving messages I was talking about. It explains to viewers through its montage of "rapstars" that people from all walks of life can be connected by music, and are really not that different from one another. Sure, they want a large audience to buy their videogame--I get it--but the message that they are selling about humans is one that I will buy.

Perhaps if hijabis could be included and presented in a beautiful light in the subtle messages of society, maybe some doors would be opened and some conversations started. This leads me, of course, to the topic of whether or not I would encourage other women to wear the hijab--to be on-the-ground promoters of hijabis. Could an increase in the prevalence of hijabis lead to an increased social and cultural acceptance and understanding of Islam and its practitioners? That, however, is another post for another day.

For now, I wish you wisdom in your body and peace in you mind,


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reclaiming: "I've stopped being Theirs"

Some clarity about this hijabi season has found its way into my into my body, has manifest itself in truth-tears, and I think can finally be put into words.

A familiar response that I have received from both men and women when explaining the hijab, especially from those who know me well, has been something in the key of, "But aren't you a feminist? How can you wear something that symbolizes patriarchy and the oppression of women?" And part of me understands where this comment is coming from, but most of me wants to nuance what the hijab symbolizes and for whom, as well as what the 21st Century American context is for all humans, including feminists.

The argument goes that Islam is an historically patriarchal religion/culture that tells women that they must cover themselves, which strips women of their agency and their own freedom of their bodies. This covering is imposed by men, who do not cover themselves, and thus, the hijab is a representation of the oppressive, possessive control that Muslim men have over their women. I understand the argument, and why it is a charged subject for many, especially self-proclaimed feminists. How quickly, though, the other side of the story is forgotten--that is, our own story.

Our own American culture implicitly, subtly, and many times poisonously tells us who we are supposed to be. Women are constantly bombarded with messages from the social sphere (internet, television, movies, advertisements, men, and other women) about what beauty is and should be. It is a narrow, unattainable, oppressive ideal. Women from the time they are young girls are told how to value, dress, and think about their bodies. They are sent the message to undress their commoditized bodies and to meet aesthetic expectations or else be less human. Many are silently told that their bodies are only for sex and/or reproduction. Many are told that they are only their bodies and nothing more.

Men also are told who they are supposed to be. They are not free to express a full range of emotions, but are rather limited to anger, numbness. Young boys are sent messages that they should not cry, play with dolls, or be afraid. Certainly, it seems, men and women in our American culture are oppressed by social structures rooted in gender norms, sexism, and a limited acceptance of what beautiful bodies and beings may and may not do and be.

When I hold these two social realms up next to each other, I don't compare and contrast Islamic cultural expectations to mainstream American cultural expectations. The aim of the game is not to figure out who is worse off or who creates more oppression and suffering. Instead, the goal is to grapple with both, to understand that oppression is polymorphic.

We can unmask and address injustice in the world, violence, hatred, sexism, racism, heterosexism, agism, and on and on. We can see how patriarchy has historically played a role in the shaping of religious traditions (including Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and societies. We can also see the humanity in these spheres and the reform that is arising from within these traditions and cultures that point toward a more just future for all humans. And in the end, isn't that really what feminists want--the flourishing of all?

Within a mainstream American social context, the hijab itself has the potential to become (and is, for me and for others including Muslims and non-Muslims, hijabis and non-hijabis) a powerful symbol of counter-cultural rebellion and liberation. It proclaims, "I will not let the surrounding oppressive culture claim my body." And, in my case I add to the end of that statement, "any longer." As I reclaim my own body, which has been in the possession of American social expectations for the past 25 years, I find myself in a liminal space. After this hijabi season has past, can I possibly go back to the life I knew and lived before? I think not. I have been changed in my bones. I have tasted the sweetness of liberation, made possible through felt and lived and embodied experience. As Emily Dickinson wrote, "I'm ceded--I've stopped being Theirs--"

One breath at a time,


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reflecting and Refracting

I am a very relational person; relationships matter to me. I'm not just talking about my family, or friends, or romantic relationships, I'm talking about the smile that I share with a passing stranger on the sidewalk--even that brief moment is a relationship to me because I have related to, responded to, and in some way connected with and been changed by another living being. (Plus, I just love making people smile.) I have been bringing this relational sensitivity and awareness, and my extroversion in general, to my hijabi experience, and I can honestly say that my day-to-day human encounters are different now than they were pre-hijab.

Now, I know this isn't a formal, scientific experiment. I have no control, and therefore, nothing to compare my results to. All I have are my lived experiences, and my own wisdom about how I relate to people in general. I'm in need of some examples of how things feel different...

Charlotte airport: I'm waiting for my flight back to Nashville to board and am people-watching (one of my favorite things to do). I'm soon aware of a young man approaching me, and I could tell he was going to start talking to me. "You've got such a pretty smile," he says. "I was watching you and there were times when you would just light up. What makes you so happy?" I told him that I was people-watching and that I think that we humans are absolutely wonderful, but I could feel myself getting defensive (probably because I noticed a conspicuous gold cross around his neck, and wasn't completely sure of his tone). Was this guy trying to hit on me? Nope, I wasn't getting that vibe, but something was up. "I've got some questions I'd like to ask you, if you don't mind," he continued, and things started to make sense. Turns out he wanted to talk theology, which was fine (I'm all for putting my MTS to use in various ways), but my gate had just been changed, so I had to leave. Who knows how that conversation would have developed; I can only guess. But I can tell you, no random guys anywhere have ever approached a pre-hijab me to talk theology. I'm also left wondering what the hijab symbolized for that young man. Was it a target? An invitation? An opportunity? None of these?

I have also become increasingly aware of the tacit messages that we communicate to one another everyday, and also the daily messages that are communicated to us from our surrounding cultural and social realms. I suppose I have been feeling less connected with people in general, but I'm sure this is not because of my own social withdrawal. It is rather, I believe, the reluctance of those strangers around me. I receive not-subtle looks at a restaurant on a Friday night that silently ask me what I'm up to. My warm smile to a woman in the grocery store is not received as I would have expected. Instead of a smile in return, she acts as though she doesn't see me. This has been a common response from both men and women--so common, that I am beginning to truly appreciate those times when I make eye-contact with a stranger and he or she does not uncomfortably divert his or her glance. Those are the times when I really feel alive. Those are the times when I truly feel recognized as a human being.

We, as humans, are socially-constructed beings. Ian Burkitt (Social Selves: Theories of the Social Formation of Personality) says it wonderfully when he says, "...the self is a dialogue which reflects and refracts concrete social interactions in which it plays a part." My concrete social interactions as an hijabi have reflected themselves into the complex shaping of myself. I find myself desiring acknowledgement of my humanity from my unknown brothers and sisters--something I have never been so strikingly denied.

Thus, the hijabi season has become quite the challenge. As I said earlier, I am grateful for those moments when a stranger will see me as a breathing, feeling being. I am grateful also for the support of my friends and family.

With ever-growing compassion for all those who are not fully seen for the beautifully unique, resilient, and complex humans that they are,


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hijabi Dreams

I have started dreaming in hijabi. Last night was the second time since Ash Wednesday that I have woken up in the early hours of the morning and realized that in my dream I was wearing the hijab. I have been thinking so much about it, and so often processing my experiences of wearing it, that the hijab has slipped into my not-awake, unconscious self. I believe I mentioned in an earlier post that it felt as though the hijab was becoming a part of me, and this hijabi dream-self I have encountered is more evidence of that growing union.

My dreams are important to me. Like Carl Jung believed, and I agree, dreams provide a shadowy, spiritual glimpse into the unconscious, and they help me understand and be gentle with myself. In the past my dreams have helped me realize deep-seated, authentic worries and desires that may have taken longer for me to identify without a dream demonstration. I suppose there are several ways to interpret the emergence of my hijabi dream-self, and my intuition tells me that some interpretations are going to overlap and perhaps magnify others.

First, I could imagine that my scenario is similar to someone learning a language other than their native tongue. I've heard it said that when a person begins to dream in the language that she is learning, that is a sign that she is approaching fluency in that new tongue. I have never experienced such a dream with respect to language. (I am only fluent in English; however, there have been those dreams in which French or Arabic or Hebrew words fly about, but those dreams were typically encouraged by late-night, pre-bedtime flashcard studying.) Is it possible, though, that I am becoming fluent in hijabi? What does that even look like? Or feel like? It is surely would be interactive, conversational, and free-flowing like language...ah, yes: body language.

Well, fluency of body language is one interpretation, or one part of it. But perhaps to be fair to both sides of psychoanalysis, I should also ask, "What would Freud say?" For him, my dream might have something to do with wish-fulfillment. Do I desire to be an hijabi? Right now, in my conscious state, the answer is 'yes,' but is temporally bounded, 'for Lent.' But maybe beneath my consciousness I have been exploring other, longer-term options. Who knows? My intuition tells me, however, that the more pertinent question might be, 'Do I want to be a good hijabi?'

Which leads me to a third and final perspective on dreams. Perhaps my dreams are my mind's attempt to defragment the events of the day. Lately, however, I fear the events of the past few days have been tinged with a bit of worry. As much as I try to resist operating from a dualistic perspective, somehow the paradigm of black vs. white, good vs. bad, etc. seems to rear its problematic head. Instead of just being, living in the moment with equanimity, and lovingly welcoming the grey areas, I have reverted to a worrisome, perfectionist place that has, no doubt, kept me from living this Lent experience in full abundance.

"Why worry so?" I ask myself. And I feel the response in my gut. I want so much to be in solidarity with my Muslim sisters that I am hyper-sensitive to the mistakes that I might make, mistakes that could offend. Operating in this state of fear-induced paralysis, ironically, is doing my Muslim sisters a disservice because I am not living life to its fullest capacity. And I find myself standing in my own way.

And here is where I must tenderly remind myself that I am human, beautifully fallible, but also perceptive, capable, and brave. Here is where I must grant myself a priori forgiveness for the sake of liberation. And here is a start.

With unshatterable hope for your own flourishing,


Monday, March 14, 2011

Bodies in motion tend to...revolt!

I have made my way back home to Nashville after a busy weekend of traveling through three time zones. I am still processing my visit to Naropa University, and I was fortunate to be able to spend some time in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, PA with my family for the remainder of the weekend. My whole family was at the Philadelphia airport to pick me up (my mom, my dad, and my sister), and their reactions to the hijab were so overwhelmingly supportive. I had not told them about this ahead of time, partially because I wanted to get their genuine reactions at the airport, but mostly, because I wanted to talk with them in person about the hijab and what it means to me.

I explained that wearing the hijab is mindfulness practice for me, which encourages me to consider how I feel and move in my body. How does my body send me messages about myself and the world around me? What do these messages feel like? I heard Thomas Hanna quoted once from his book Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking that our bodies are where our subconscious is manifest. Yes, my body can tell me a lot about myself if I open myself up to its signals. However, how I dress my subconscious-sensitive body, I am learning, adds a new dimension to things. I think I need an example...

Here we go. Wearing the hijab has encouraged me to look deep within myself, to see how I think about myself and others. I have been placed face to face with my assumptions, and also with my values. I told my family this weekend that when I was growing up, there was a time when I did not feel pretty. I had glasses, and braces, and thick bangs, but gosh darnit, I was smart and I was beautiful inside. And that was enough for me. Somewhere along the way, I know I lost touch with that young girl's confidence, but this experience with the hijab has reconnected me to it again. Is this what Tayyibah meant when she said that wearing the hijab has a "spiritual dimension"? Perhaps so.

I also explained to my family that I wear the hijab as a commitment to solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers, especially in light of recent proposed legislation in Tennessee that would make following sharia law a felony. I hope that my body (and dress) is a body in revolt, lovingly and compassionately protesting the hate and fear that springs from misunderstanding and, not surprisingly, hate and fear.

There is more to say, but this feels like a good place to stop for tonight, so I will warmly greet that feeling, honor it with all that it deserves, and...

Wishing you a deep-down-in-your-bones peace,


Thursday, March 10, 2011

"As-salamu 'Alaykum..."

..."Who said that?" I thought as I reached for my shoes and bag off of the conveyor belt. I looked up to see a friendly-looking, middle-aged, white male security officer smiling at me. "Wa'alaykum As-salam," I hurriedly replied, trying to recover from my initial surprise.

A greeting of peace was extended to me today in the Nashville International Airport. I appreciated this gesture so much, I felt so welcomed by this one stranger reaching out to me. Words of kindness really are powerful.

Just before this exchange, I was directed by the security personnel to step into some sort of circular metal detector (at least I think that's what it was). I was then patted down by a female security officer (something I became accustomed to during the semester I took at divinity school class at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison). Finally, the security officer asked me to follow her to a machine that did some sort of chemical test on the gloves she used to pat me down. When everything passed the test, I was good to go. This only took about 5 extra minutes, if that.

I was thankful for the quick security check, especially since the woman checking my boarding pass and ID at the initial security point took her time looking at my license and then back at me. I'm not wearing the hijab in my license picture, and I could tell she was just being thorough. She did ask me though, "Did they make you take off your covering for the picture?" I replied no, and my mind was telling me to say, "That picture was taken before I started wearing the hijab," but instead, in my nervousness, I mumbled something about wearing it for Lent.
"Oh!" she said (just in time--I felt myself careening toward breaking rule #5) "isn't that a Jewish holiday?"
"Ah, actually, it's Christian."
"Oh, just a different type [of Christianity]," she reasoned as she let me pass.

"A different type, indeed," I thought as I got into the next line. Hopefully, this was a learning experience for me--trial by fire, which I certainly didn't pass with flying colors. However, I will resist the urge to beat myself up over this miscommunication. Gentle, loving words, Sarah...

I was also surprised that several times today I forgot that I was wearing the hijab. The closest comparison I can draw is the similar forgetfulness that happens when you wear glasses--sometimes you just forget that they're there, they just become a part of you. Catching these little moments made me smile. Can there be such a thing as mindful forgetting?

Finally, in case you are wondering where I flew to today, I am Boulder, CO. I have applied to Naropa University's Contemplative Psychotherapy MA program, and I have an admissions interview tomorrow with the department. I will also get to participate in group meditation, observe a class, and meet with current students over lunch. It will be a joy to be truly present for all of these activities.

Peace to you, whoever you are, and wherever you are this night. Salam, shalom, pax,