The Hijab

Over the mysteries of female life there is drawn a veil, best left undisturbed
-Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

For the program they told us to make sure we put our headscarf on before we landed in Kabul. I decided to put mine on when I landed in Dubai. As I walked out of the bathroom I felt the way I do whenever I change my appearance; like everyone is staring. But after following the gaze of some onlookers I realized they weren’t staring at me, they were staring at the girl in the polka dot miniskirt.

I became accustomed to it quickly (though practically I still find it difficult to walk in the wind without losing my scarf and to eat without eating my scarf or spilling on it); it seemed the least we could do to show respect for the culture of Afghanistan. We saw no woman outside without a hijab (and inside only twice, with a hijab around her neck). The first days we were there, Thursday and Friday, are the weekend in Kabul and we saw almost no women on the street, only rarely a woman in burqa (chador), who was presumed to be a widow, because, presumably, there is no reason for a woman to leave her house on this day save desperation.

I noticed 3 types of women’s dress, the chador, a more conservative working woman outfit, and a more fashion-forward style. In older parts of town and on holidays we saw many blue burqas but during the week we mostly saw type two, working women with long loose pants or a long skirt, a long-sleeved top which covers the rear and a scarf wrapped loosely around the head. Walking around town, most of the women we saw were going to and from work (the university was over winter break still) and chose this style in earthy colors. The last category I saw in upper class neighborhoods, and occasionally in fancy restaurants, it was very westernized with skinny jeans, pointy black boots to kill, a long sleeved top and a tight hijab often in loud colors with sparkles and jewels. I felt my clothes fit squarely into the middle category, however with my height, I think from behind I probably looked most like an Afghan man. It was very cold and it is not uncommon for a man to tie a scarf around his head during the winter. Their traditional dress is actually quite similar to the women’s.

We were quite the spectacle nonetheless, in a country where one’s ethnicity is easily identifiable by their face and dress, we were a blonde woman taking pictures, a fair man in khakis and a tall black woman. We were tourists, but in a country with such little tourism, no one could place us. So they stared. and stared. and stared. Children would stare, old men would stare, the few women we saw would stare. I didn’t know what it was that made them stare, had they never seen a black person? Someone so tall? A blonde? Was my hair showing? In these situations I was glad I had my headscarf, I would avert my gaze and pull the scarf across my mouth. This is a traditional response to unwanted attention and seemed to bring people’s attention to the fact that they were staring. Sometimes they didn’t stop, but at least they knew they’re were making me uncomfortable. In a world were manners and respect are so important, this tactic seemed to work wonders. In addition to hiding in plain sight, pulling the scarf over my mouth helped keep me from breathing in the thick Kabul dust and the smell of diesel on the road or heating gas inside.

Inside the guest house I would often wear a hoodie, it was difficult for me to brush and plait my hair every morning because it was so cold that overnight it wasn’t guaranteed to dry. Normally my hair is pretty large and in charge so this was a daily challenge. But I found I was rewarded with a new fashion accessory. It may sound inappropriate but I feel that after this experience I can safely integrate the hijab into my wardrobe in situations where I might be more comfortable with it. When I landed in Dubai, I stood on an escalator next to a woman who was literally wearing what I had on for underwear, skinny jeans and a nude camisole (over which I had a long skirt and a large sweater). I had decided I would take off my hijab when i felt comfortable doing do, sitting next to a muslim couple on the plane to DC it didn’t feel right or respectful to take it off. Walking through security the woman asked I could take my scarf off, I said I’d rather not. Finally in New York, walking around with two heavy bags I got hot and changed my clothes to haggle with a Jamaican woman about getting on an earlier flight. My hair looked horrible.

When I leave my room I still like having my hood up, and it’s been raining so I’ve had a good excuse for my scarfy/hoodie look. As a westerner I always wanted to wear the hijab but felt it would be offensive, maybe it still is, but now it feels comfortable and appropriate to me. It’ll fade but I’m happy to have it in the mix.

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