The women looked back and forth at one another, perplexed. My way of thinking was not acceptable in this part of the world. This was not the United States. In the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, also known as the MILF, I was a second class citizen. The women said that if I insisted on making this voyage, at the very least I should wear a hijab in an attempt to tone down my sexuality.
This was bullshit! I was completely infuriated by the entire situation. And what about the hijab? Before coming to Malaysia, I had never given much thought to it as a concept. The hijab was something that some women wore, and that was that. I figured it was a personal choice, and none of my business. However, as a Western woman traveling in Muslim cultures, I suddenly found myself debating the necessity, purpose, and pressures involved with this particular garment.
From my perspective, it seemed that not wearing a hijab in public was becoming a viable invitation for harassment. I am not a scholar of Islam, yet, when something negatively affects me, I need to understand why. According to Singaporean/Malaysian blogger Shafiqa Othman,
"The hijab (ﺣﺠﺎﺏ) is a veil which covers the head, usually worn by a Muslim female. Most often, it is worn as a symbol of modesty, privacy, and morality…Non-hijabi women like myself have received countless condescending comparisons, like associating us with unwrapped candies, giving non-hijabis the perception that we're dirty" (Othman: 2013).
Like my own culture's "slut vs. prude" debate, the whole hijab vs. non-hijab controversy sounded like Islam's answer to manipulating women into gender appropriate behavior. Yet, there are some women who stand strongly in favor of the hijab, so I decided to explore. Let me reiterate that I am by no means an Islamic scholar. I am simply an outsider who seeks clarification of this tradition so that I can better grasp the perspective of others. Asking questions is the path to tolerance and understanding, not shunning the unknown and that which is unfamiliar.
"It [the hijab] is a personal choice in Jordan," explained my friend Jenny, who grew up in Jordan. There, she had been part of the Christian minority. In November of 2013, Jenny recalled how Jordanian women had had the choice of whether or not to wear the hijab, and illustrated how those who chose to dress less conservatively were subject to harassment. "They [Muslim women] do it [wear the hijab] to be closer to God…It allows them [to] feel more comfortable in front of men so that they are not looked [at] as sexual objects…But dressing up and making sure you have enough covered is very important in any Arabic country…
"There's a bunch of primitive idiots out on the street, men who act like they've never seen a girl before. We'd get wolf whistled, slightly harassed, and there's no need for that. Why not avoid that by dressing a little more conservatively? It's because of the men! We call them 'nawar', like the lower classed uneducated, primitive hicks of Jordan. Over there, you can't have sex unless you're married. So what's the next best thing? The eye candy! You can't have sex, you can't have that contact, but you sure as hell can stare all you like at the women. Perverts…"
While street harassment and catcalling is a widespread problem that affects the women of countless cultures, I believe a lot of our cultural misunderstandings come from dwelling upon our differences instead of recognizing our similarities. For example, one of the biggest culture shock moments of my travels took place on a city train in Kuala Lumpur. I sat across from a mother who publicly breast fed her child under the close supervision of her husband. It was not the breast feeding that I found shocking, it was the fact that the infant was wearing a hijab. I couldn't imagine how this was appropriate infant attire. As the child grew into childhood, would she be physically able to go out and play, or would her hijab get in the way? How was it her choice to wear a hijab if she was only a child? Furthermore, would an uncovered infant be considered immodest, thereby inviting sexual discourse?
Then I recalled some of the ridiculously girly dresses I was forced to wear when I was a child (it was the eighties and poofy was in). The fact of the matter is, when you're a child, you have no choice but to trust in your parents and society to make the best judgments for you. Isn't my own culture just as guilty of indoctrinating girls into their appropriate gender roles? Considering little girl beauty pageants and Disney® tween celebrities, perhaps the United States is just as adept for sexualizing girls too early in life? I couldn't rationalize how feminizing little girls in womanly outfits was any worse than dressing infants in pious hijabs.
As they say in Christianity, "let (s)he who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7). In some more Westernized Islamic societies, women are permitted to wait until maturity before deciding whether or not to wear a hijab. In November of 2013, Feby from Indonesia explained how the lined can be blurred between choice and compulsion,
"Wearing hijab is an obligation for a Muslim; it's same like every religion requires the follower for doing a good deed. It's written in al Qur'an that every Muslim woman should cover her head, chest, and body. But, then it depends how you see yourself. I'm not wearing hijab because I think I'm not ready for it now. For me, women with hijab should be have a better understanding about their religion, they also go to the mosque, praying five times a day…maybe I'll wear hijab someday, I don't know, or maybe never, let's see. The faith of every human is not judge[d] by their hijab, but how they're doing in the world and how they [are] treating people."
In essence, it all comes down to the way we treat others. The judgment placed on non-hijab wearing Western women in Islamic societies might be comparable to the judgment placed on hijab wearing women in Western societies. Brazilian film maker Betty Martins sought to address such discrimination in her film, I Wasn't Always Dressed Like This. She explains,
"Everything I knew about Muslim women was through the media, and the discourse was always negative, about oppression and backwardness. People would generally see a woman wearing a hijab and feel sorry for her, or assume she had been forced to wear it. But at the same time, the Arab Spring was happening and Muslim women were being involved and that made me think...The more I started reading about it, the more I realized there were lots of very strong Muslim women" (Qureshi: 2013).
Born in India, Rubina is a well-educated Muslim woman who graduated with her master's degree and now owns her own business in the United States. Rubina wears the hijab in public, and has received a decent amount of discrimination from to her neighbors as a result. She has even been the target of hate crimes and attempts to sabotage her business. To Rubina, wearing the hijab isn't so much a choice but a compulsion. A strict and conservative follower of Islam, it is important to her that she dresses in the hijab yet still revere respect towards those who do not.
"To be in the U.S is to lead my life as I am following my path of Islam. [I] still survive as a good citizen and respect other females who don't do hijab," said Rubina in 2013, "it's how one treat[s] the person like wise with respect of religion, or like a human being. If they count on the religion, people have the differences. Then, it will be hard to give respect to the person in daily living even though people work together, or live in the neighborhood - they interact with each other in life. I think one should not count on what religion people are from. If they listen and understand the people who follow what[ever] religion than one can respect other[s] and give value to their friends and family, [as well as] people from daily living."
I met Rubina in Chicago. Although we don't come from similar backgrounds, we honor each other's differences and choose peace over conflict. There is no judgment in a world where we can respect one another's choices, and that's what feminism is all about.
"If liberties and choices for women were what feminists were fight for then why are they the first ones to judge, reprimand and rage against the women who choose to don a hijab?...They [feminists] call hijabis 'oppressed', but aren't the people judging and mocking her choice the real oppressors? In the same way, women who choose to not wear the hijab are shown the same narrow-mindedness and pettiness when they don't wear a hijab in a Muslim country like Saudi Arabia or Iran. They are oppressed in the same way with exclusion, torture and even death for that on choice they make. But aren't both women only exercising their choices?…When you see a woman passing by covered from head to toe, show her some compassion and let her exercise that choice. At the same time, when you see a woman wearing something skimpy, don't roll your eyes at her because she is also exercising her choice" (Khalid: 2012).
My issue with the Malay of Sandakan was not that the women all wore hijab. I was more concerned over whether they did it out of choice, based on the pressure I experienced to wear one myself. What's to say that they wouldn't endure the same negative attention that I did for not wearing a hijab? Would it be comparable to the discrimination a Muslim woman in the America might endure because she does? Why can't we all just be friends!
All things considered, would wearing the hijab really have protected me in crossing the MILF? Was the hijab actually some kind of mystical invisibility cloak?
"Perverts are perverts. They will sexually harass and commit sexual violence against women who ear the hijab or a miniskirt because they are perverts – not because women have exercised their right to wear what they want. Continuing to perpetuate the myth of the magical hijab only makes the problem grow. It doesn't actually solve anything. For that, we need to be able to openly talk about this problem, raise awareness, educate people, draft laws against it, and have law enforcement agencies that actually act upon criminal complaints against men who carry out these crimes…To wear or not to wear a hijab is a personal choice that must be protected. Many women who wear it choose to do so and take joy in their gesture of modesty and piety. This, however, is not about the hijab or women's choice. It's about pseudo-science and misogyny. It's about the fact that women who wear the hijab are not any safer than women who don't. It's about the fact that there needs to be real protection for women in Islamic societies, at home, on the streets, and in the workplace – not just miracle garments" (Shahryar: 2012).
For me, the idea of donning such a theologically significant article of clothing for nonreligious reasons just didn't seem right. If I were to wear a hijab, it would be out of choice, as a symbol of divinity, and not out of fear.
"[The] Emphasis here is on choice. This isn't – and shouldn't be – simply about protecting the hijab. What's most important is not to protect the act of wearing hijab as a human right, but actually protection the right of an individual to be able to safely make that choice. This means that when we're critical of veil bans, we should also be critical of countries that force women to cover as well" (Yasin: 2012).
I wanted to take a stand for my own sense of modesty, and rebel against the MILF by taking the ferry. I felt excluded from the boys' club, where it was perfectly acceptable for travelers to cruise across the sparkling Sulu Sea. This is why I get frustrated every time I hear about some hetero white male who has visited every country on earth. Try doing that as a minority or as a woman, and you're bound to run into problems. I now know that personally, if I want to keep my vagina intact, I can never do that. Why do I even have to defend my modesty in the first place? When was the last time you heard of a male traveler's modesty coming into question?
I wanted so bad to make a stand for women everywhere and prove that we did have the right to roam the planet as we pleased, just like the boys. I also wanted to not get raped, and not get kidnapped. I weighed my options heavily, and in the end of Kat Vallera's feminine philosophy vs. the MILF, the MILF won. My liberty was a privilege, not a right. I felt defeated. With a heavy heart, I booked the three flights I would need to take in order to avoid the MILF and still visit the next "safe" destination on my route.
It was raining as I waited to board my Air Asia flight to the Philippines. I watched the drops of water spread across the terminal's large windows, distorting the jungle that lay beyond the air strip into smudges of blue and green. It was Monday, April 31st, 2011. News had broken about the death of Osama Bin Laden, which meant the atmosphere was ripe for rebel extremism and retaliation in the Muslim world. I was looking through Reddit, and came upon another news link that was entirely too topical to my own experience. It was the story of Lara Logan, a CBS anchor and journalist who had been violently gang raped by a mob of rebels when she was covering the Egyptian Revolution from Tahrir Square. Mary Elizabeth Williams, writer for Salon, wrote an article in response to public criticism of Lara Logan's experience.
"Rape, in all its forms, is not so much an act of passion as a tool of oppression" (Williams: 2011).
How true this was to my own experience. It was for fear of rape that I was not able to go where I wanted to go in the world, or partake in the same experiences that I would have chosen had I been born a man. If I were a male, I could have been focused on bravery and exploration. Since I was a female, I had to focus on protecting myself.
I had flown through Egypt a few months before the revolution. It was a long layover connection from Rome and Bangkok. I was the only woman on the plane who wasn't wearing a burka. I often experienced dehydration during long flights, so before boarding, I had purchased a liter sized bottle of water inside the gate. I hadn't realized that I would have to go through a third set of metal detectors in order to board my plane, which I have since learned is standard practice for air travel in Middle East.The Egyptian guard said that I could not bring the water bottle onto the plane, so I replied,
"Bottoms up!" and chugged the entire liter. When I was finished, I slam dunked the bottle into the trash. The women in line were staring at me. I imagined that their jaws were gaping wide, but there was no way to know for sure because their faces were covered. The guard turned to me, eyes wide with amazement, and asked,
"Where are you from?!" My friend Brian still jokingly insists that it was my bottle chug that single handedly ignited the Egyptian Revolution.
Regardless of how it started, the revolution happened, and Lara Logan was a public figure who fell victim as a result. For almost half an hour, this woman was dragged through the celebration by hundreds of men who viciously pulled at her limbs, tore at her hair, and used their hands to rip off her clothes and violate every orifice of her body. Lara Logan's story was particularly horrific and it greatly affected me. It reaffirmed my decision to avoid travelling through the MILF on my own, because I would not want something similar to happen to me or to anyone else in the entire world.
Following the news about Lara Logan's assault, news emerged of similar sexual assaults to other journalists including the UK's Natasha Smith, Holland's Dina Zakaria, and Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy. Yet, it wasn't just Western women who were being targeted. Hundreds of Egyptian women, most of who wore burkas and/or hijabs, were equally and horrifically assaulted in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Their stories are all the same. These "pious" women were stripped naked in public, violently raped, and brutally attacked by vicious mobs of protestors. The Guardian reported that as many as eighty Egyptian women were assaulted in a single day. I recall one Egyptian woman's story where she was forced naked against the glass door of a store as the mob continued their assault. The employees refused to help her by opening the door, and instead, watched her suffer.
"The hijab cannot and will not stop men from assaulting women. Even if the only part of a woman's body that shows is her shadow, deviants will sexualize and fetishize it. Take the example of Egypt, where sexual harassment against women has become almost a pandemic —whether they wear the hijab or not. The myth that there's a correlation between the hijab and a low incidence of sexual harassment and violence against women actually systematically victimizes them. Men are doing women a disservice in that they are placing blame on women who don't cover themselves, as well as insinuating that a woman who is attacked while wearing a headscarf somehow did something to deserve it. As with all victim-blaming, this prevents women from speaking up about sexual assault" (Shahryar: 2012).
It is by victim blaming, and by placing fault on women for being such evil succubus's, these sexual temptresses, that this behavior is encouraged to continue. Rape culture is perpetuated by the idea that men cannot help themselves, and that the women are asking for it. They use it as an excuse - I do not understand how the men who assault women can sleep at night knowing the atrocities they have committed towards another human being. It is a matter of education and the shifting of cultural values, not for the irreverence of tradition but for the sake of human rights. Furthermore, this savagery is not specific to Islam – it is a global condition that exists from Cairo to Steubenville, and the only way to put a stop to rape culture is to speak out against it.
I have been very much inspired by the bravery of Lara Logan, and of all other women who speak out against their attackers. These are women who hold strong convictions and stand by personal commitments to respect their own bodies and sexual boundaries. The only way to break down rape culture is to talk about it.
"She [Lara Logan] is speaking out…to add her voice to those who experience sexual violence, to break what she calls the code of silence" (Lara Logan Breaks Her Silence: 2012).
Laura Logan threw all stigmatization to the wind because she was confident that her story would help other women and journalists around the world. It is partly because of Lara Logan that I am not ashamed to talk about my own experiences. It is only through sharing information can we learn from one another and develop as a world-wide society that values understanding and equality over hate and oppression.
This is an excerpt from the new book "Around the World in 80 J's", now on Amazon
Khalid, Saba. "If I Choose to Wear a Hijab, Will You Let Me?" The Express Tribune Blogs. The Express Tribune News Network, 5 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. .Othman, Shafiqa. "Hijab: Compulsion or Choice?" Forever Young. Wordpress, 10 July 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. .
"Lara Logan Breaks Her Silence." Interview by Scott Pelley. CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 1 May 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Othman, Safiqa. "Hijab: Compulsion or Choice?" Forever Young. Wordpress, 10 July 2013. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.
Qureshi, Huma. "New Documentary Covers All Angles on Muslim Women's Choices for Wearing the Veil." The National. Abu Dhabi Media, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
Shahryar, Josh. "The Myth of How the Hijab Protects Women against Sexual Assault." Women Under Siege. Women's Media Center, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Williams, Mary E. "Lara Logan Finally Speaks Out on Her Rape." Salon. Salon Media Group, 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Yasin, Sara. "World Hijab Day Has Got It All Wrong." Jezebel. N.p., 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
*edit: clarified the meaning of MILF