Hijabs and Modesty

By: Nermine Mohamed, Writing Intern 2015

11090958_10153701787980278_1405256105756384901_oI never like to talk about why I wear “Hijab”, even back in my own country, although it was not a big deal as I belonged to the majority. What’s uncommon is not wearing it. But after moving to a Western country, I become the uncommon, the different as I look and dress differently than others. It never bothered me being the “outcast”; on the contrary I feel more comfortable and at ease with myself here than back in my own country. But what does bother me is that I always get asked a lot of questions which always make me feel uncomfortable. Being a very private person, I don’t really like people asking me questions about my personal life or my beliefs, unless we are in a very close relationship to allow for such discussions. I understand that some people simply ask out of curiosity or interest to know more about a different culture and religion.

Although I know that this is not normal and religion questions are a red line for many people, yet a friend of mine once told me that by wearing a veil, I explicitly identify myself as a Muslim, which means I am open to discussing my religion and my beliefs. It is a valid argument, yet it completely ignores the other side who certainly would not like being asked these kinds of questions by random strangers or people I have just met or people who have no business prying into my personal life, my wardrobe or what parts of my body I am to cover or uncover.

Yet, I always know how to adapt and go with the flow and apart from the silly questions of whether I sleep or shower in it; mostly people ask me why I wear it. I always try to cut the conversation short and just give the standardized answer without going deep into the subject: It is out of modesty. One other time, my manager suddenly and quite out of the blue while working, came to me and asked me whether those who don’t wear the “Hijab” are considered bad and I am ultimately better than them. I was startled by the question and I told him definitely not and that it is a personal decision and has nothing to do with who’s better and who is not. This is why I decided to write about Hijab and modesty.

I first wore my Hijab when I was really young about 13-14, but not out of religious reasons or anything. I just wanted to look different as it was not that common back then. Being a childish decision, I took it off shortly after for more than a year. I wore it again, but this time was me trying to be more religious. I wore it this time longer for 3 or 4 years and then I started to feel uncomfortable, burdened, shackled. I could not do it anymore. Part of me kept on saying that I would be happier and freer once I take it off. And I did. I took the decision and told my family who was not really happy about it, but did not force me to do anything against my will. It was only for a day and actually no one really knew about it as I wore it again the next day. All I remember is that I felt uncomfortable and did not feel like myself. Now I am pretty much at ease with it. I decided to stick with my decision, to see it as something I am doing to be closer to my faith.

But, looking back at that time when I took off my Hijab for this one day and then decided against it, I know that part of me was afraid and not quite ready to face all the jaw-dropping stares, the whys questions, the go back to God-preaching and the you will go to hell-threats, which any woman who takes it off is subjected to. I know that while I had the freedom to decide for myself, others don’t have this leisure, and are being forced or pressured by society to wear what is seen as a sign of modesty and are being judged and measured by this scale of modesty that only a simple scarf on the head defines.

I decided to wear something that defines my faith and who I am, but faith never means the absence of doubt. As any human being, I have my own doubts. My mind is buzzing every minute of every day with so many questions that I don’t have any answers to and a continuous struggle to reconcile between my worldly views and my spirituality. And I cannot reconcile with how Hijab is seen as a sign of modesty, because all these labels and definitions always tend to single out something as the modest, the right, the good, the worthy and leave the rest behind or implicitly taunt and criticize all that’s different from the prescribed definition or image.  I know that my faith is not and should not be measured by what I wear. I know that what I wear is not by any means the ultimate definition of modesty. I know that a woman should be free to dress as she feels like, and people have no right to ask a woman why she is wearing or not wearing something.

That’s why I’d like to think of modesty (of any kind) as a decision. And there is never a clear-cut formula for a decision. Decisions are personal, a part of who we are and our personal journey. We should have the freedom to make our own decisions. We should have the right to doubt them, to change them without needing to explain or to justify our reasons. And we should never ever be judged or measured by others’ decisions.

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What is Modesty in a Multicultural World?

We decided to have each member of our staff reflect on the question: What is Modesty?  Our Writing Intern, offered her perspective as Muslim woman, our Editor in Chief tried to define modesty. Today Our Author in Chief, Jenni Taylor, asks what this complex topic might mean in a multicultural world.

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I find myself at a loss when it comes to defining this word, modesty. It is a word that has caused infinite amounts of trouble around the world rather than the freedom and security that should come with spiritual truths. Love, joy and peace certainly haven’t been nearly as controversial, culturally or in my own life. Why modesty?

Currently working in China, leggy skirts and shorts are perfectly acceptable for work while shoulders or a loose blouse will earn a chastising commentary. In other places, in other times, ankles, or hair, or wrists are considered immodest.

I understand clothing modesty is only one facet of the word, but it leads us to a rather important piece of wisdom: values, even spiritual ones, CAN be cultural.

So, I’d like to gently point out that all values may contain validity, but are not equal in importance. If a value leads us to the judgement and closed hearts then maybe it merits less of our attention. In our multicultural world, multiple definitions are always acceptable, each culture can define things differently, and I can define things for myself while allowing everyone else to do the same.

An Interpretation of Accepting Acceptance

Today’s guest post is by Jenica Brittingham who is an English Literature and Theatre teacher originally from Normal, IL and currently living and working in Shanghai, China. Jenica shares wisdom on accepting our choices, coming to terms with different cultures, and living our dreams.

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For the last five years, I have been living in a foreign country.  Now this isn’t just ANY foreign country, but China, a land of a different language, different morals, beliefs, religion, but mostly, culture.  Anyone who has seen me or even talked to me about my experiences would know that on a general basis, I have not been a fan.

Most days, I will rant about the inconsiderate individual, a strange, and sometimes gross custom or stereotype (like spitting in the street or defecating in a trash bin, which yes, a large part of the population does do), but some days, I will have a moment of pure wonder as I glance outside the window of a taxi at a city, like any other, that is full of people with traditions, and on the occasion, magic.

While it can be difficult to find among the blaring horns of drivers and among some of the locals arguing (or possibly laughing, I can’t always tell) about the price of something, that magic can still be discovered, usually on a warm spring night, much like this one, when the air is somewhat clean, the lights of the city are shining like a beacon, and just a few stars are visible about the skyline of the city. It’s moments like these that create a sense of contemplation, moments that bring me back to my thoughts overall.

While living in China, I have had the privilege of teaching some amazing students who have reignited and re-inspired my passion for theatre and performing, causing me to actively pursue and perform in plays and musicals once again.  As I am nearing the end of my five year stint, I am faced with questions and options.  As I am preparing to leave, I am faced with the possibility of once again being a “leading lady” in a musical theater production, something I haven’t gotten to be since I was 17!  So, I must decide if this rekindled passion is enough to convince me to stay in a “world” and culture I have not always gotten along with, or if I should let go of my new-found community and family and start a new journey of self-discovery.

While facing this dilemma, I am reminded of my grandmother Dorothy, who taught me to always follow my hear, my passion, and to always believe in myself.  She was always one of my biggest fans and I continue to take her words of wisdom to heart.  However, the trouble is while living in China, I have constantly doubted myself and have consistently struggled to continually believe in myself.  So the question is, should I return to America where I have more confidence and self-esteem for myself in general, or should I remain a bit longer to continue to fight and strive for my passion?

Either way, I both win and lose a little, which doesn’t seem to bother me.  What does seem to give me pause is the thought of having to make a decision overall, and then accepting my choice, as well as embracing it full on without looking back or having any regrets.

Having now written down all these thoughts, I find I am not any closer to making a decision.  Still, having it truly out in the universe (or at least out on the internet), I am finding that I am accepting that a decision is going to ultimately have to be made. So, thank you China for your obscure five years and the potential few months more that may still occur.  You have been both a challenge and a blessing, but don’t tell anyone I said that!

Courage is Acceptance

FullSizeRenderBy: Autumn Elizabeth, Editor in Chief 

Recently, six amazingly brave people climbed on an oil rig that is still headed to the Arctic. These six people were part of a Greenpeace mission to stop Shell from drilling in the arctic. Along side this direct action, Greenpeace also  started a conversation about what courage is.  Then I ran across a post about living cross culturally and I remembered that this Saturday is Global Citizen Earth Day.  Suddenly, courage was an international question. I began thinking about courage, acceptance, and my cross cultural life as interconnected concepts.

Living abroad has taught me a lot of things, and has involved a strange mix of struggle and beauty. Yet, of all the things I have seen, and learned by  living in a world of cultural mixing, I think the most important is that accepting difference is brave, even courageous.

When I am experience someone’s difference, or a different culture, when I am confronted with a different idea about how to greet my neighbor or how to pray, I have two choices. I can degrade the things I find strange and different, or I can accept them.

It takes a lot of courage to accept difference. It is easier to degrade it, and our history as humans has shown that humanity often takes this easier route. Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, even the degradation of the earth can all be seen as ways we humans have tried to degrade difference.

But every day each of us has the chance to choose something else, to be brave, to embrace difference. I may not understand someone else’s faith, but I can be brave and accept that it is true for them. My support of Greenpeace’s direct action against Shell may seem wrong and strange to you, but you can be brave, you can accept that this is my path, my way of saving the planet.

We are each called to our own spiritual journey, our own life path, our own interpretation of faith, we all have our own passions, our own beliefs, our own way to save the world. Be we can all also share the common courage of accepting each other’s difference. Courage isn’t belittling the things we find different, courage is accepting them and seeing if they hold any truth for our path.

When You’re Not Looking

By: Jenni Taylor

Every so often I put on my headphones, jump on a crowded bus, and head a few miles away to tutor a young girl in English. They live in one of the hundreds of thousands of high rises bursting out of the concrete on every street corner, reaching up through the pollution to find the rare sunlight filtering through the smog. I know the route well- walk, bus, walk, elevator, do my job, and repeat steps to go home.

This time the parents were heading out to see the opera, and the young girl was left with her grandparents as babysitters. The old gentleman’s eyes met mine as I greeted him in Chinese, unsure of their background. He responded in English, and proceeded to offer me slippers in clear, slow, and intensely polite English. Though surprised at his perfect accent, I briefly thanked him and turned my focus to the girl for the next hour. I was here for a job, after all.

As we ended, the grandparents came back into the room to see me off and begin cooking dinner for the girl. The man gently stopped me again to chat.I had no interest. I wanted to go home. It was cold and while the bus ride was short, it was always crowded and uncomfortable.

The silliest part of all of it was that I had planned on going home to continue reading a book on recent Chinese history, a book that was changing my perception of China on every page. Each chapter made me feel like I knew less and less, and made me more eager to learn.

The older gentlemen spoke slowly and softly. He asked me where I was from. “Chicago, ah, I have been there twice,” he said. “The Sears Tower, the highest building. The cold wind from the lake biting into your skin.” It wasn’t what I had expected to hear. He went on to tell me that he used to work for a foreign service radio in Beijing in the 1970s, and was an English teacher for several years at a well-known Chinese university. The conversation didn’t last long, but nevertheless I felt humbled.

I had closed my eyes to the world around me and had almost tuned out this poetic, experienced grandfather who simply wanted to chat with me. I had become hardened after failed attempts at friendships with the Chinese and had decided to learn everything from books rather than people. I had stopped looking for relationships, and had almost missed one right in front of me.

It’s a small, insignificant story, but it reminded me to keep my eyes open at all times. With the new year just beginning, it is such a small step to resolve to look for the good in others, to be open to wonder, to go slowly and see what there is to see under the more obvious layers.

My very simple resolution is to stay awake. I’m ready to find something beautiful.