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Entries in beauty (4)

Tuesday
Aug142012

Covered Heads

You might have noticed photos online or seen me in person and noticed that I started covering my head about a year ago. I never announced it on the blog or went into detail about it. It's so trite. There's a gajillion posts on the Internet about Muslim women covering their heads. Posts that tell you that it's required. Posts that tell you that it's not. Posts that tell you it's incredibly liberating. Posts that tell you that it is most certainly not.

The reaction of my family to my various head covering exploits is a great case study. Back in 2001, I visited Saudi Arabia and completed my first Umrah in Mecca. Umrah is like a mini-hajj. Unlike Hajj, Umrah can be done any time. My visit to Saudi was beautiful and spiritually complex. 

In Saudi, women are required to wear abayas in public, which is long, black cloak accompanied by a black head scarf. Yes, all women. Even non-Muslims. I often find that people who are unfamiliar with Saudi or have never been there have a similar reaction, "God, don't you get hot?"

My response is that you do get hot, but I bet a bare chested Himba tribeswoman in Namibia is thinking the same thing about you in your summer tank top and denim shorts. Weather is only one part of the equation when it comes to fashion.

And, yes, abayas can be fashionable. 

 

 

From Dubai Fashion Week Fall 2010, Designer Amal Murad, Images from Style By Amara

Back in August of 2001, there was something about the abaya that was incredibly appealing to me. When I was growing up, my parents were very strict about my wardrobe. No sleeveless tops, bathing suits, shorts, skirts, tight jeans, shirts above the waist, and, God have mercy, no middriffs. I didn't have to cover my head, but I did have to follow what these stipulations or suffer dire consequences. Even though I adhered to it, my father would at least once a week comment on how he didn't think my shirt was appropriately modest or something to that effect. That was less about the clothes and more about my dad. More on that another time.

For some people, getting married and moving away from their parents is a clean break. I'm not a clean break kind of person. Breaking with anyone is more like a badly done Civil War amputation for me. It would involve a lot of whiskey, a dull saw and several tendrils of tendon and flesh that just… won't… rip…dammit.

The abaya in Saudi Arabia, then, offered me potential respite from feeling like my clothes were too wrong, too tight, too colorful… too American, I guess. The last day we were in Riyadh, I made Tariq and his brother take me to a higher end abaya shop and we bought a lovely abaya that costs the equivalent of about a hundred dollars. My intention was to wear this on the flight home.

And for the rest of my life... in public. 

I did that, and, truth be told, it was awesome because, hi, I wore pajamas on the plane and nobody knew. I also noticed that people both noticed me more in some ways and noticed me less in others. I started wearing a hijab, too, which is the traditional head covering of the more colorful variety that most Americans are familiar with. Once again, I basked in the liberation of not having to blow dry my hair everyday. 

I have to interject to any Muslims that might be reading this that I understand that it may feel like I'm making light of the the traditional coverings of Muslim women, and, well, I am. I respect the right of women to cover for religious reasons and that most do it because they feel it's requisite, but I don't feel any more pious when I have a hijab on my head. To me, it really is a cultural statement. It's an outward symbol to identify myself to others and to my own. 

I flew into Orlando International Airport wearing a black abaya on September 2, 2001 and nobody blinked. I went grocery shopping, to the mall and to parties wearing it. People did do double takes, but everyone was still very nice. I like to think this is because I'm nice and people have a very hard time being mean to someone who says hello and smiles at them.

Nine days later, on September 11, 2001, though, things got super awkward.

"You have to take it off, bete," my mom said in the tone she reserves for commands that leave no room for negotiation.

"Come on, mom, it's fine… I'm not a terrorist or anything."

"I'm your mother. You don't need this to be a good Muslim. I'm your mother, and you have to listen to me because good Muslims listen to their mothers."

Yeah. She totally said that. Verbatim. Because it's true, they do. As a matter of fact, one of the stipulations of Muslim going to fight a battle is that it has to be alright with their mother. I always giggle at this a little. "Where's the note from your mom, soldier?!"

After many conversations with this, one of which was conducted intervention style by my mother and her friends, I stopped wearing the hijab and the abaya. I have a terrible habit of assuming that certain things are obvious, so forgive me if you've already picked up on what I'm about to say… I just want to be clear.

My entire childhood, my parents had dictated the parameters of my wardrobe. Nothing too short, nothing too long, even my hair ("bangs out of the face -- you look like druggie hippie!") and definitely no eyeliner, shadow or bright lipstick. I rebelled against that as much as I could, but, mostly, I complied. Fast forward to twenty three, when I am literally shrouded in a black cloth, and my parents still have a problem with what I'm wearing. 

It occurred to me a few years after the Great Abaya Removal of 2001 that clothing is so much more than color and fabric. It is identity. It's a statement of who you are, who you want to be, how you want the world to see you and, as illustrated above, it is also a statement of who others expect you to be and how much importance you give that. For my parents, they wanted a daughter who was modest, but assimilated enough to be accepted by her society. And, let's face it, after 9/11, they wanted a daughter who people didn't harass.

Clothing was control and I gave it to them completely and unabashedly. Better or worse, it was who I was at the time. Let's be honest, it's still a part of who I am in the smallest of ways.

Nine years later, I have my head covered again, but, this time, I'm in control. I know why I cover my head… exactly why. My appearance is mine to control. Even in covering my head, I assert my rebellion to notions of what is the proper way to cover one's head. Ear lobes! Bare neck! Uncovered in front of select people who are not my husband, brother or father! What can I say, I'm a rebel with a cause.

The reason I cover my head is probably different than why the majority of women cover their head. In Islam, we often say that when you do something, you should do it for the sake of Allah. This prevents arrogance and self righteousness from seeping into what would otherwise be considered pious behavior. 

I do cover my head for the sake of God, but not because I believe that God has commanded that I should hide my hair from people or suffer hellfire or, worse, an eternal loop playing in my head of that Call Me Maybe song. I do it because I'm proud to know God the way that I do and I want people to know that about me. Adopting this cultural symbol is the most efficient way of doing this.

My hair is not shameful and nor is my body. Every article of clothing I wear, from head covering to shoes is a choice that I'm comfortable with. Yes, these choices have been made as a result of strong influence, but not due to the power of others over me. I mean, not any more power than Vogue or InStyle exert over hundreds and thousands of people.

Thirty six has not vaccinated me from attempts by well meaning people who care for me to exert their power over my appearance. My dad said something again when I was in Daytona about people in Tennessee potentially lynching us. Some of my non-Muslim friends have said they're not totally sure why I insist on doing it. Other people close to me are awkwardly silent about it.

But this? Is not about them, about you, about the world or what it thinks of how liberated, oppressed, modest or pious I am. This is about me and God and what He/She/It has compelled me to do. 

My wardrobe today is a consideration of things that I find beautiful. It is long sleeves that convey the thin veneer of the formality of my personality coupled with ethnically inspired prints and flowing fabrics that suggest that I am so much more underneath than what you see on the surface. The scarves are block colored or perhaps a Sudanese inspired print, and are carefully chosen and wrapped with delicate intention. I wrap in a way that pays tribute to my African and Caribbean sisters.Finally, I almost always wear a pin or brooch in the hijab that I make sure is in a distinctly American style -- because it's not me if there isn't any American in it. 

My clothes are a tribute to the seamless beauty of our earth's varied, elegant and powerful aesthetic. And here's something that I will divulge that will be surprising but I'm entirely comfortable with. Sometimes, I don't feel like covering my head in public, so I don't. This is a rare thing, but it happens. 

I wear these clothes not because I must be modest and what to hide from the world, but because modesty is my aesthetic. I find it beautiful and special. Like most Muslim women, I do dress for the sake of God…in that I think God really wants me to be my true, authentic self.

Tuesday
Jan172012

The Dr. King & I: Intentions and Realities. # HappyMLKDay

MLK Day History: You cannot know where you are going unless you know where you have been.

I woke with the intention of making today meaningful.

When we first decided to move to Memphis, the first thought that came to me was "That's where they shot Dr. King." Yes, I called him Dr. King because in my family, you always put Dr. in front of someone's name if they're a doctor. And, yes, I thought the words exactly like that ... "they shot him." Like an army of people fired shots at the Lorraine. Aside from proving that I'm careless when I'm thinking to myself, this is illustrative of how many view race, if not life itself.

The National Civil Rights Museum rests quietly beneath a vintage green sign with red letters proclaiming the words "Lorraine Motel" on it.   It happens to be two trolley stops away from our apartment. To give you an idea of how much I wanted today to mean something, Tariq commuted 45 minutes to join us for our very own Family Civil Rights Remembrance Lunch today.

Because this is Memphis.

This is where Dr. King died, you know.

In the morning, I explained slavery to my daughter.

She was horrified, as she should be.

Then I explained segregation.

That seemed to confuse her, as it should.

I repeated the "content of his character" line like you do when you're trying to be inspirational about race. I explained non-violent resistance. I'm not sure what stuck, but it felt significant at the time.

We stepped off the trolley towards the museum, and there were so many people. I realized going into the actual museum was a bust.  I've been there once already, so that wasn't too big of a deal. There was music playing, food cooking, laughter... people, there were funnel cakes!

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis Memphians come out to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday



Funnel cakes!

At the place where "they" shot Dr. King!

This was not a place for martyrs.

This was a party. The smell of funnel cakes summarily decimated my romantic notions surrounding today and drove home an obvious reality.

Today is the birthday celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, there are funnel cakes.

I know the readership of this blog enough to know that most of the people reading right now are not exactly like me.  I write for people who want to learn about difference or diversity, so it follows that most people reading here are not "like me".  The funny thing about being "brown like me" is that you're not "black" or "white".

Bask in the brilliance of that little gem.

When you're "brown" (I'm totally doing air quotes), you don't carry a lot of American baggage.  Hold your envy, my friends, I have baggage of a different type. Slavery, separate water fountains, back of the bus and such, though?  Not so much. I own this history, but I do not live it the way someone who is "black" or "white" would.  (Again, with the air quotes).

From my position, I see shame, guilt, anger, finger pointing and even justification when it comes to these topics. Some decry this nation's racial past as shameful , others justify it as natural, many are somewhere in between. Some rant about how nothing has changed and others talk of how there's nothing left to do. Some people get angry if race is brought up at all while still others seem to make everything about race.

What I seldom see is what I saw today: celebrating.

I was not here when you were here, but I know we have come a long way. Today, my brown kid sat in a sub shop just around the corner from the Lorraine with black kids and white kids and all the kids ate the same food and nobody told them they couldn't sit wherever they wanted, and God love 'em every one, they all drank from the same soda fountain. As we walked home, we passed the site of the first schoolhouse for "colored" children and I had no idea how to even begin defining "colored" to my daughter.

That is something.

We can remember and we can be vigilant and we can be happy.  These things aren't mutually exclusive.

I woke with the intent to make today mean something by going to the place where Dr. King died.  I intended to honor his memory and legacy.  I realize now that it's not how or why he died that should be the focus, but what he did while he was alive that is most significant.

We live his dream.

Today, I woke with the intent of making this day meaningful.

So, it was.
Friday
Jan062012

Lyrical Life: West Side Story

When I was really young, we watched a lot of American musicals.  It seems odd at first glance, but I think my parents, actually my dad, probably loved musicals so much because they were very similar to Bollywood movies.  In the very early 80s, finding a Bollywood video was not an easy feat.  So I guess he made due with movie versions like Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady and, of course, West Side Story.

The song "America" in West Side Story made my dad laugh really hard and I never quite knew why.  I just remember how gorgeous Rita Moreno was in that number and how much I wanted to be JUST LIKE her when I grew up.  Now that I think about it, I probably liked her so much because she was one of the only famous faces at the time that I had a remote shot of looking like as an adult.

I watched the video on YouTube the other day and started giggling.

I get it now, Dad. It is a funny song.

Anyway.  It's a great little number. Enjoy.



I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev'rything free in America
(For a small fee in America!)

- "America", Stephen Sondheim
Monday
Jan262009

Mommy, Why Do You Wear Make Up?

A few days ago, Sarcastica wrote a great post about getting her eyebrows waxed.  Of course, when this young woman writes about anything, there's usually something deep and meaningful at the heart of her post.  She wrote,
It’s complicated because when we do these things like colour our hair or wax our eyebrows, it makes us feel better. Yet we really shouldn’t feed into this whole outlook of what a woman should look like. I would never get plastic surgery or anything like that, but I would diet…in a way, I often wonder how that’s any different from plastic surgery. It’s still trying to change your body shape and fit into the media’s definition of “beautiful”.

What would you tell your daughter (or son for that matter) if they asked you why you were always worried about your weight, or waxing your eyebrows?

What will I tell my daughter when she asks me that question?

I want to convey to her that appearances are secondary.  I want her to learn that who we are far outweighs what we look like in the cosmic scale of things.

But I won't stop going to the beauty salon to prove that point.

Now, I've thought about it.  We buy into society's vision of different things all of the time. And society's ideals are not always bad.

When do a society's visions or ideals of a thing not make us better?

When they oppress us.  When those ideals make us feel bad about who we are and the things we cannot change.  When they put ammunition in the hands of some so that they might cause pain in the lives of others.

As women (and men), we ultimately have a choice.  We can decide which parts of a vision we would like to emulate.  We decide for ourselves which pieces of a vision are fair and right for us.  And, conversely, we decide which parts we find a little flawed or wrong for us.

What will I tell my daughter when she asks these questions?

Something along the lines of this:

Remember that just because everyone thinks something should be a certain way doesn't mean that the way is right.  Nor does it mean that the way is completely wrong. 

You have to decide for yourself what beautiful means.

Listen to what your heart tells you is beautiful first.  Consulting outside sources is problematic since no one will treat you with more compassion than your own heart.

We don't have to accept every single part of society's vision of what is beautiful.  In fact, we don't have to accept any of it.  The important thing to remember is that what we do accept should be our conscious choice.

Other people will choose differently and that doesn't make them wrong.  In terms of what is beautiful, no choice is a moral statement.  It's simply a statement of preference.

We cannot let our preferences control us.

We should not let our preferences control others.

And, dear daughter, if you choose to be a I-won't-leave-the-house-without-lipstick-on kind of woman like your mother, that's perfectly fine.  Just remember that looking better on the outside will not make you better on the inside.

If for some reason, you do forget to put lipstick on when you leave the house, don't forget that the people that love you, that really, really love you, won't even notice.

You can put all the decorations you want on yourself, but, in the end, you will always be you

Make sure that when the decorations come off that you're still beautiful in the ways that truly count.

And don't you ever use the idea of "beautiful" to hurt someone else.

Because that is not beautiful, at all.