My Introduction to 21st Century Muslim Women

by Mary Jane Mitchell

Runaway Bunny book coverMy favorite children’s book is the Runaway Bunny written by Margaret Wise Brown in 1942. It begins with a young bunny who decides to run away from home: “’If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.’” And so begins an imaginary game of chase.  No matter how many forms the little bunny takes — a fish in a stream, a crocus in a hidden garden, a rock on a mountain — his steadfast and protective mother finds a way of retrieving him.

To me, this book perfectly illustrates the push/pull relationship of child/parent. It’s the constant challenge of trying to provide a secure environment for your children to try new things and equip them to be independent someday, but always being that rock for them to return to for comfort and support.

I’m sure I’m not the only mother who took on the interests of their children in an effort to support them on whatever path they chose.  My husband John and I were lucky enough to raise two sons. Along the way, among the things I’ve embraced that I never thought I would, have included: camping, wrestling, competitive swimming, hiking in the mountains (I still have a fear of heights!) and having pets that included two snakes, a bird, several cats and a dog.

In the grand scheme of things, I realize that none of these things are all that extraordinary in the course of parenthood, even though at times, like all parents do, I felt stretched to my limit.

John’s and my biggest test to being that rock for our children came when our older son David decided to marry a Muslim woman and immerse himself in that way of life. But because of this challenge, I’ve had the great privilege of learning about the Muslim culture.  And given all the questions friends have asked me over the years, I thought I might share some of that knowledge.

David first became interested in studying Islam when he was 16, not long before he completed the requirements to become an Eagle Scout. The year was 2002. Had the timing been different, we might have had a different reaction to this new pursuit, but given the world events happening around that time, we were not particularly supportive and were fearful about what it meant. We tried to stay calm and remained hopeful that things would change when he went away to college.

But instead, over Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, we found ourselves traveling to Syria to meet David’s fiancée and her family and to have our first introduction into Muslim culture. In many ways, it was David’s first introduction as well, and because of his own inexperience, it was difficult for him to offer much in the way of preparation for us.   He, too, had never attended a Muslim wedding before.

Mary Jane Mitchell
The author, wearing the suit she wore to her son’s wedding.

His wedding was actually more of a party than a formal ceremony.  Unlike Saudi Arabia, Syrian women are not expected to dress in the Muslim custom of wearing an abaya over their clothes and the head covering known as the hijab.  However, most Muslim women there do dress in that fashion, so as the only non-Muslim woman in attendance, I was the only one in non-Muslim dress.

David and Alaa’s wedding was also my first time to experience the Muslim custom of men and women socializing separately.   At the wedding, the men and women were escorted into separate rooms and we were served a delicious dinner. Once the meal was over, a male DJ set up (outside of the women’s room, so he could never see how the music was being received) and the party in that room really started.

At the beginning of the evening, being in a room full of women wearing abayas and hijabs seemed a bit foreboding to me. I thought I must be in a room with a bunch of stern, serious women. But once the doors were closed and the music turned on, the outer garb came off, and I found myself in a room full of beautiful women of all ages wearing gorgeous cocktail dresses and dancing up a storm. Being on the women’s side was significantly more fun! The evening went on pretty much like a normal party, other than the women covered again when David and a few other male family members entered the women’s room for the cake cutting.

Since the wedding and the kids’ subsequent move to Saudi Arabia, I have frequently been asked questions about the Muslim culture, the customs and my reaction to it. The story of the Runaway Bunny kind of says it all for me. “If you become a bird, I will become a tree, so that you will fly to me.”  In other words, my reaction has been to learn and adapt, as best as I can.

Two Muslim women wearing abayas
Two Muslim women wearing abayas moving through a mall

Before all of this happened in my family, I have to admit that I generally had a negative reaction when I saw a woman dressed in common Muslim attire. One study found that 80% of the news coverage about Muslims is negative. And studies show that most Americans say that they don’t know a Muslim personally.

I wanted to understand more about why they dress the way they do. And now that we have a granddaughter, I’m especially keen to know whether she will either wish to—or be required to—don an abaya and hijab.  How will life be for her as a 21st Century woman?

Over the years, I have done a lot of reading on the subject, and, in preparation for a talk, I interviewed several American and mostly Indianapolis-based Muslims to better understand what life is like for them. For each interview, I employed a questionnaire that included inquiries about when and why they wore a hijab and/or an abaya, and how it impacted their daily life.

First off, some definitions. A hijab is the head covering typically worn by Muslim women when they are in the presence of adult males outside of their immediate family.  It usually covers the head and chest.

The abaya is a simple, loose over-garment, a robe-like dress, worn by some Muslim women. It covers the whole body except the head, feet and hands. To me, it’s a lot like wearing a choir robe.

Generally, I asked my participants: When and why do you wear a hijab and/or an abaya?  How do others react to you?  And how do you feel about wearing these items?  I learned the following:

Muslim Women
Two Muslim women wearing abayas and hijabs

The women wear them when they are going to be out in the public and remove them as soon as they get home. All of the younger (30-something) Indianapolis based respondents opted to wear the hijab only and to wear modest, non-form fitting clothing, rather than an abaya.

One of the most surprising things I was told by the women I interviewed was that not only are they are aware of the general public’s belief that they are somehow repressed for dressing the way they do – but also indicated they dress the way they do based on their own choosing.

The timing of when each respondent chose to start wearing a hijab varied.  One, who grew up in Toronto, told me that most of the women in her family don’t wear them, so there was never any pressure on her to do so.  She made the choice to wear it after completing college, as a result of her deepening her religious commitment, though she also admitted she enjoys the freedom of not having to deal with her hair!

Another respondent, who is a practicing dentist here in Indianapolis, grew up in a family where the women do routinely wear a hijab.  For her, there was never a question about whether she would wear one when she got older.  She just always knew she would.  The first time she wore the hijab was when she was 12 years old, living in Decatur, IL.  She said she was very nervous the first time she wore it to school, but said nothing happened.  She eventually went to high school in Fishers, IN and got silly questions like, “Do you have ears?”

A male participant reported that his said that his daughters like wearing the abaya because it makes them feel like a princess.  His 40-something wife, who grew up as a Muslim in Philadelphia, wears both a hijab and an abaya, usually in black.  He indicated the worst thing anyone had said about her appearance was to tease her about looking like a ninja.

I only talked to a small sample of women, but all of them told me they had never been seriously harassed about the way they dressed.  They consistently described Indianapolis as a welcoming place to live.

One young woman told me that she believes there is a misconception that Muslim women are forced to dress the way they do; she asserted it is always a choice.  She said that a Muslim woman appreciates never needing to feel ashamed of her body based on what society considers to be beautiful.  She also said it is also very freeing to be less of an object to the eyes of men.  She feels confident in her self-worth and likes being saved from all remarks and criticism towards her superficial beauty.  Most importantly, she said she is also proud to represent her faith and identity, and feels that the modesty of her clothing lets others see her for her character and morals, not for her superficial qualities.

In her book, From My Sisters’ Lips, Na’ima B. Robert wrote about her own initial experiences wearing a hijab, saying,  “I was doing it to carve out a little private space for myself, even if it was only my hair that was covered. So on that day, I took my first tentative steps towards covering.  And I admit, it was miserable.  No one was looking at me, there was no flirtation, nothing – I felt completely invisible.  That lasted for about half a day.  Then something inside me just clicked.  I thought, Good, don’t look, don’t compare me to your latest squeeze, don’t try and guess my measurements – my body is my own business.  And I have had that feeling ever since.  And that feeling is one reflected time and again by women who choose to cover themselves and make their bodies their own private space.”

Several participants pointed out that there is also a broader meaning of the word hijab, explaining that it refers to the standard of modesty in dress and behavior expected of Muslim men and women.

Most people (Muslims included!) completely overlook the fact that men are also to follow a dress code and behave respectfully with women. Men, too, are to dress modestly, wearing loose fitting clothes, covered between the navel and the knee.  Their clothing should not be made of silk.  Additionally, they must lower their gazes when they see women and never glance at strange women.

The questionnaire I used got into a number of other aspects of Muslim life that, including courtship and marriage, education and other rights. It was a great experience for me to have the opportunity to get to know another group of women in our community and to gain a greater appreciation for their lives in the 21st Century.

While I don’t know what choices my granddaughter Mariam will make about how she dresses, after doing the research for this paper, I’m confident that it will be her choice.

On another personal note, after having David and his family living overseas for so many years, and having resigned myself to accept that fact, they recently purchased a home in Indianapolis. Who knows?  Maybe following the Runaway Bunny strategy has worked!!

 

Mary Jane Mitchell
Mary Jane Mitchell graduated with a degree in Public Affairs from the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. After a short stint as a weather girl, she began her career as a public servant. Following her 31 years as an investigator for the National Labor Relations Board, she retired in 2011 and began pursuing photography, writing and other creative endeavors.After college, she married John Mitchell and they became parents to David and Mark, who are both now married. Her greatest joy is spending time with grandchildren Mariam and Omar.She was born in Vincennes, Indiana, and though she doesn’t currently have any family there, she still tries to get to the reunions in Freelandville. She remains in close contact with her brothers Kyle and Brian, who both live in New Jersey.

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