Tag Archives: religion

Day 9: Defining a Woman by Her Cover

20 Feb

A few days ago, I ran into this posting on facebook on my friend Mirza’s wall.

Photo credit: Mc Diamondog on Facebook

Whatever the message you got from above, it somehow reminded me of my friendship with some of my friends who are Muslims and have worn headscarfs for several years of their lives.

Before I lived in Singapore, I had never had a close friend who was Muslim. I’ve only lived in small towns without much diversity, and even during college, the closest interaction I had with Muslim population was the Imam at the school (who was called “Muslim Chaplin”) that I attended a lecture of. I mean, I was interested in Islam and the culture, but I never had much exposure, part of it because I did not have any friend around me who was able to share her stories.

Then when I started grad school, I encountered people from way more diverse Asian cultures (and I thought America I experienced was diverse), and I had the honor of developing friendship across nationalities, cultures and religions that I had never interacted with before. Now, some of my closest friends are Muslims, and I am so grateful for the relationships.

Although what I saw from my friends in headscarves at first was not “oppression, submission or terrorism,” I know that there was a type of orientalism-like curiosity from my end (a la Edward Said). After all, my perspective looking into the wide range of Asian cultures was probably not too different from that of an educated yet ignorant Western person, hopefully without nasty prejudices against certain religions and cultures. I was more careful in getting to know my friends who were in headscarves, because I saw them with women who were determined to express their religious identity, and Islam was all I saw from the first impression.

But then, what happened during the process of “getting to know each other?”

It was simple. We became friends. We talked about celebrities, had dinners and snacks together (avoiding pork, of course), shopped going through sale racks, watched Friends and movies together, talked about boys and cried over some of them, and worried about our futures because we did not know what the heck we were doing by being in grad school. In sum, we did what friends did. We did what all 20-something year old girl friends did together.

On the way, I automatically got to learn so much about Islam and what it means to them, of course. I fasted a few times for Ramadan (not the whole month though, yet), broke fast at 7:14pm Singapore time, and celebrated the end of the holy month together with really nice food. I have woken up to the sound of the first prayer in a morning in Yogyakarta when it was 3-something-am. I had several long conversations with a friend before she decided to take off her headscarf, and I was happy to support her decision. I have been to the mosque during prayer with my friend while we were out and about, and watching so many people devoted to God breaking away from their regular day was something so moving. My friends all became a part of enriching experiences, and learning about a religion that I had almost no exposure previously was a wonderful experience, because I was getting to know an important part of their lives.

What I’m trying to say here is this. The whole political discourses over what women of certain cultures and religions (in this case, Muslim women) should wear and not wear, depending on which countries they live in, seem completely absurd to me. After all, who made the grand fear discourse that a society is in danger, because of certain cultural forces? And who has reproduced such language in order to keep the society in panic by scapegoating women’s attire?

As a non-religious person who has been in and out of different religious temples for experience’s sake, I wear whatever I feel right in. I sometimes wear jeans and t-shirts, and other times wear a dress. I refuse to be ordered around in terms of what I wear, because I’m a woman who decides what is good and comfortable for me to wear. I exercise autonomy over my body and over my decision, because I refuse to be treated like a child. And I’m sure that my girl friends that I talked about earlier, the ones that I have done all the “regular girl things” together, enjoy their autonomy as full adults who are capable of picking up the shirts, headscarves, or whatever the garments they want to wear every morning.

After all, we all can define ourselves in various ways, regardless of the types of clothes we wear.