Hair for the Observer
Here is an unedited version of an article published in the Observer Woman magazine.
When I first saw my wife she was seated in the middle of a crowded room, she had her eyes fixed on me, and she had a luxuriously unruly cascade of hair. We started talking, and from then on her hair’s startling blackness seemed emblematic of the force of her character.
I enjoyed seeing her hair fanned out around her moonsliver face. I enjoyed touching it, either its natural curliness or its hair-dryered straightness. In a city where half the women covered their hair in public, and just because she had such beautiful hair, Rana’s hair became for me her sign, the feature by which I’d pick her out at a distance, my symbol for understanding her and what she meant to me.
So when, five years into our marriage, Rana decided to cover her hair, I was somewhat bothered. In the meantime we’d moved from Syria via Morocco to Saudi Arabia, we’d had children, and Rana had worked as a teacher and TV presenter. She’d always been an elegantly modest dresser, but here, amid the compulsory dress codes of Saudi Arabia – which annoyed both of us – she’d decided to introduce something new. I grasped for a response.
The hijab bothered me not just for the personal, tactile reasons hinted at above, and not just as a result of me being only slightly religious: I didn’t necessarily agree that it was Islamically required. While most Muslims have interpreted Qur’anic guidance on women’s dress to require head covering, the text itself is open to interpretation. “And tell the believing women,” it says, “to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” In my favourite translation, Muhammad Asad notes that the directive is to cover bosoms, not heads, because in Muhammad’s Arabia both men and women wore head coverings anyway. Beyond that, “what may decently be apparent” is deliberately vague and flexible, to fit various times and social contexts.
I thought the principle of the hijab more important than the piece of cloth, and the principle – of modesty and respect – wasn’t always practised in Arab Muslim society. It often seems that the Muslim woman plays the role of clotheshorse of honour. So long as she wears a hijab, all is good, even if Muslim men, who are also required to “lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity”, dress sexily and leer at women in the street. Why would Rana want to go along?
Nevertheless, I bristled when I heard the negative stereotypes of hijab wearers. I knew enough Muslim women to know that the hijjabed were no more nor less likely than the non-hijabbed to be intelligent or outspoken. But supporting the abstract right of my cousins and neighbours to wear hijab was not the same as seeing my own wife put it on. What did it mean? What did it make of me?
My father had been through this with my sisters. He’d spent his life climbing socially and economically, from impoverished coastal Syria to bourgeois comfort in the capital, right to the upper social ranks where girls of good family flaunt big hair at least until they’re married. But when they were still students my sisters chose to cover their charms. It bothered my father. He worried that his daughters sent the wrong class signal.
What really bothered me was people thinking Rana wore it because I forced her to. Like the nice, liberal Englishwoman who nodded empathetically at Rana’s suffering before asking me, carefully, tolerantly, how I would react if she ever dared to take it off.
As in my father’s case, the problem was mainly other people.
The hijab or its absence are symbolic of many different things in the bigger world out there. The cloth has become a flag waved by Islamists and Islamophobes to define each other. A Western-dressed Muslim woman may be stereotyped as a heroically uncaged virgin, or alternatively as the key sign of Muslim cultural loss. A veiled woman may be seen as authentic, or, more usually in the West, as ignorant, backward, repressed and oppressed. To some, Muslim women in headscarves look like unity, power, cultural pride. To others they look like abused cattle. The hijab is compulsory in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and actively discriminated against by the regimes of Tunisia and Turkey. In some Middle Eastern countries, women’s veils have been forcibly removed, quite literally, by soldiers in the street. Removing it, and putting it on, are loaded political acts.
It was all very complex, but Rana, simply put, thought she would feel comfortable wearing hijab. She felt comfortable and proud to be identified as a Muslim woman. So, rather than worrying about other people, I started to listen to her. Now I feel comfortable too. And her hair is still there underneath, and freeflowing in the privacy of our home, as luxurious as it ever was.
Sometimes I feel sorry for my husband. He would prefer it if I didn’t wear the hijab. But what can I do? It is my wish. I started thinking about wearing a headscarf after we were married and had my son, our first child. When Robin and I met I was not religious. I did not fast for Ramadan – in fact, whenever my father asked me if I had, I would lie just to please him. I drank alcohol. If I saw someone reading the Koran, I presumed they were superstitious, narrow-minded.
But when my son was born I felt a need to protect him, to believe in something stronger than me. I felt the need for a connection with God. I started reading the Koran and I began to pray regularly.
What amazed me was that I didn’t suddenly change my personality. We have all sorts of friends – gay, atheist, Christian, Muslim – and I discovered that I could still be friends with all of them. I didn’t become weak or anxious or afraid. In fact, it was a wonderful liberation. I felt I could live without fear in my life.
I don’t believe my head is a sexual object, that a man who sees it will be sexually aroused. But I do think that when you believe in God you have to believe in a superior power that knows better than you do.
First I started to dress differently. I stopped wearing short sleeves; I wore more modest clothes. Then one day when Robin was in the UK and I was still in Saudi Arabia I decided. I thought: ‘Believing what I do, it will be hypocritical if I go outside without my head covered.’ My fear of being a hypocrite far outweighed any embarrassment I felt, or fear of what my husband or friends would think.
For a while my Arab friends changed towards me. They wouldn’t tell a dirty joke in my presence – even though they knew I loved dirty jokes. I had to sit them down and say, ‘I haven’t changed just because I look different.’
Most of all Robin worried that I would suddenly become narrow-minded. To be honest, I feared that, too, deep inside. But when he said: ‘I’m not going to allow our daughter to wear a headscarf until she is 18,’ I replied: ‘Neither will I! She won’t be wearing one when she’s 50 either, if she doesn’t want to!’ For me this wasn’t about being made to do something I didn’t want to do. Over time he’s realised that this is what I want and he’s given me the freedom to do it.
I usually wear the kind of hijab that women in the Gulf wear – one that covers my head and ties around the front. I have all colours and patterns to match what I’m wearing. Everyone makes a big deal about the head being covered but for me it’s not about being covered up, it’s about modesty, being humble.
It’s been six years since I began wearing the headscarf and it has been liberating. I had not realised how much I had used the way I looked to get me places, be it in a job interview or at a party. The headscarf means I’ve had to develop my personality instead – my sense of humour, my ability to listen – in order to socialise. It’s made me more confident.
We live in Scotland now but it still feels comfortable to wear it. After the 7 July bombings in 2005 I was worried that, when I went to London, people would think I was a terrorist. But in fact it was fine. I realised any fear was more to do with my own paranoia.
• Robin Yassin-Kassab’s novel, The Road From Damascus, is published by Hamish Hamilton, £16.99