By Maryah Converse
Culture and Ideas Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards
When I tell people that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan, the response is usually predictable: “Wow. How was that?”
How am I supposed to answer that in few enough words that their eyes don’t glaze over? Overwhelming. Amazing. The hardest job you’ll ever love. A place where I was always and inexplicably a foreigner and a daughter of the desert at the same time.
And sooner or later, they ask the inevitable question: “Did you have to…?”
Sometimes they know the right word (hijab) for the scarf wrapped and pinned about the head and neck. Sometimes they use the politically charged wrong word: burqa. European politicians use this word to describe the niqab face veil, usually black, which is the free choice of several educated Muslim women I know. The actual burqa is a specific garment, that head-to-toe tent, usually blue, with a grate over the eyes, which women in much of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan are forced to wear on pain of death or disfigurement.
Most often, though, people just give an all-encompassing wave from my head to my toes and leave the words up to me. “The hijab? No, I did not wear hijab. Except in mosques, of course. And that one time when my student’s grandfather who had been imam of a local mosque for twenty years wanted to speak to me, and his daughters asked me to wear hijab so that he would be comfortable sitting in the same room.”
“You weren’t pressured to cover up otherwise?”
“No.” Except for that one time that I never talk about.
~ ~ ~
I find it ironic that Americans ask it that way, “cover up,” because that is exactly what “hijab” means: dress modestly, not just on your head but in all your dress, men and women alike. In Jordan, modesty is equally the long shift dress known as an abaya, and the wide-cut pleated slacks that men wear. Yet, when Americans say “cover up,” most are only talking about my hair, just like when they (and yes, many Muslims) say “hijab.”
When I first moved back to Jordan again after the Peace Corps, I had a classmate who used to harass our teacher Ishraq about her sleek, stylish scarves. “I can see your hair!” he would exclaim when a wisp snuck out at her temple. “Now you have to marry me!”
I found it patronizing and insulting, and it always made me angry. Once, I confronted him about it, asked him to stop. “Why?” he asked. “It’s what her own religion demands. She even agreed with me when I asked her.”
I could not convince him that his literal interpretation of a fundamentalist reading of a polyvalent text divorced from its historical context was unfair and insulting. I tried to explain that like the Calvinism that had shaped his cultural and religious heritage, Islam teaches each Muslim to read the Qur’an and other historical sources and commentaries in order to reach her own understanding of God’s commandments. I pointed out that the Qur’an says that only God can know who is a believer in her heart, and what God sees in a Muslim’s heart matters on Judgement Day more than who has seen a wisp of her hair.
“But that’s what it says in the Qur’an,” he always insisted, even though the Qur’an only asks the modest woman to cover that which is usually covered, and the modest man to do likewise.
Which is why I never talk about that other time.
Too often in America, we infantilize these women as passive victims of a patriarchal oppression, but the Muslim women I knew in Jordan were strong, independent, opinionated, and sometimes defiant. Those are the stories I want to tell, the ones that undermine stereotypes instead of reinforcing them. Even though oppression is very real in many majority-Muslim communities, the position of women in those communities is so much more complex than a compulsory head covering.
~ ~ ~
The only woman other than me who did not wear hijab in the school where I taught in the Peace Corps was the counselor I’ll call Maram.
“My father told me not to,” I heard her tell the Islam teacher with titanium conviction. “He taught all his daughters that the hijab is a sacred symbol of faith, and that we should never wear it just because all the other girls were doing it. In fact, my father forbid his daughters from wearing hijab,” she said with steely pride, “unless and until we felt from the bottom of our hearts that we were called by God to do so.”
Since childhood, I had instinctively understood the hijab to be a sacred symbol, like wearing a yarmulke or a crucifix. This was the first Muslim woman I had heard explain it so succinctly, the first of many. And the first of many men I would come to know who insisted that their wives and daughters should make an informed, considered choice whether to cover themselves and to what degree.
Maram must have said the same to our students when they asked. Some of the more assertive, independent eighth graders relinquished the headscarves they had only recently begun wearing. I overheard one girl, defending her decision, proclaim, “Miss Maram said….”
My teacher Ishraq was an equally strong woman who chose to wear a neatly pinned, stylish headscarf. Fluent in English even without ever leaving Jordan, she had a college degree, a good job, and a stubborn mix of defiance and defense of tradition.
The love of her life was paraplegic in a country where disability is traditionally understood as a curse on entire extended families. Her father refused to allow their engagement, then forbade her from seeing her beloved at all. Ishraq told me that she understood her father’s concerns. He worried that for her to marry this man meant being his caregiver for the rest of their lives, meant being the primary breadwinner in a culture where men were heads of household.
She acknowledged that she might never have children, in a country where both husbands and wives derived their honor and prestige, even their names from their children. Her father did not understand, she said, that she wanted to measure her worth instead by her career successes and by honoring her heart. Even when her father imposed house arrest, Ishraq continued to defy him and maintain her relationship.
Out of respect for these and so many other strong, proud, devout Muslimah in and out of hijab, I do not like to talk about that other time, in Jordan’s desert south. I do not want to contribute yet another story to the dark side of the hijab we read about week after week in Western media. I want to represent the best things about the Muslims I have known and respected.
Still, I know all too well that there is a defensive hijab, worn not out of conviction but out of fear. I once succumbed to that dark side myself, and it haunts me every time I talk about the hijab.
My friend Philip, once an Arabic linguist in the military, was visiting me in Jordan. I had been showing him around the ancient rose-red city of Petra in the south, and we were headed back up north to my apartment in Amman. It had just started snowing in the mountains, and we missed the last bus up the King’s Highway. I was brainstorming our options in Arabic with a man at the bus station I’ll call Tamer.
Philip and I could take a local bus east to Ma’an on the Desert Highway, but Tamer called a friend and discovered that the last one of the day had already left. And I did not want to go through Ma’an. It was the only city in Jordan I had never visited, the only place that Peace Corps had forbidden us to go.
Wherever else I have ever gone in Jordan, I always felt completely safe. Everyone knew that the secret police were watching over me. If CNN ever picked up a story about an American coming to harm in Jordan, the kingdom would lose the generous foreign aid they depend on, and even the country’s conservatives didn’t really want that. This was not enough to reassure me in Ma’an, though.
Periodically, disagreements between tribes turned into real violence on the campus of the university there. At the time of Philip’s visit, several students had recently been killed and injured in Ma’an, prompting further violence and deaths as far away as the University of Jordan in Amman. Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Jordan, but which exists nonetheless, favoring a militant response to Israel and a government closer to their conservative Salafi interpretations of Islam. The Brotherhood’s adherents are most concentrated in the area of Ma’an. On the rare occasion when riots break out in Jordan, which had also happened in recent years over the skyrocketing prices of bread and fuel, they usually happen in Ma’an first.
Finally, Tamer said, “I’ll drive you.” In America, I would never agree to this, but in Jordan, my adoptive ties with the second largest tribe in the small kingdom and my convincing Bedouin accent gave me a sense of security. Plus, I was with Philip, a protection on several levels, at least symbolically. We agreed to a surprisingly reasonable fare for this ride in the back of Tamer’s roughly twenty-year-old station wagon. The seats were covered in wool rugs, handwoven locally, possibly by Tamer’s grandmother. No one wore seatbelts.
We chatted on the drive, mostly in Arabic. Tamer wanted to know where I had learned my incongruously perfect educated Bedouin-become-urbanite Jordanian Arabic accent. I talked about my two years of Peace Corps, teaching English in a small Bedouin village in the north of the country.
“But you don’t live there now,” he guessed, knowing we were trying to get to the capital.
“No, I live in Amman now. I teach English at a community college, mostly to business people.”
I got Tamer and Philip laughing with stories about unlearning the most egregious markers of my hick Bedouin accent once I had moved to the city.
As we approached the Desert Highway, though, Tamer quieted. “You have a scarf,” he said, “right?”
“Yes,” I said, “I have a scarf.” Jordan’s mountain passes, not much higher in elevation than Petra, were filling up with snow, and Philip and I had gone pashmina shopping in the Amman souk earlier in the week. I had scarves in several colors, on my person and in my bag.
“You should put it on,” Tamer said, and I knew he did not mean for warmth.
I thought about Maram and Ishraq, and about an Afghan family friend back in the States who had worn hijab since her Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. “I wear the headscarf,” she told my mother, “to remind me of being in the Great Mosque with millions of pilgrims from all over the world, all gathered for the same great, peaceful purpose.”
I thought about a Pakistani-American friend. Coincidentally, after months of careful consideration, the first morning she wore a headscarf to school was September 11, 2001. Despite the backlash against Muslims that followed, she still wears the hijab today, as a statement of political defiance as well as religious devotion. Her sweet, erudite, Pakistani-American Muslim husband affirms her freedom to wear the hijab according to her own understanding of the Qur’an, but after she got married, the policing of her appearance by friends and family online became too much to bear. Rather than compromise her understanding of Islam, she retired from social media.
Thinking of all these women and more, I unwrapped the pashmina around my neck and pulled out my wallet, where I usually kept a couple safety pins clipped into the lining. The hijab was a symbol of the sacred, of peaceful unity, of devotion, and sometimes identity politics. Yet here I was, pinning a scarf under my chin, purely out of fear for my safety. I was queasy now over more than just my concerns about Ma’an.
As I wrapped myself in hijab, Tamer spoke in a low, urgent voice. “Listen,” he said, “you be careful in Ma’an. I’ll get as close as I can to the Amman bus, and you get right on it. If anyone talks to you, speak Arabic in your heaviest Bedouin accent, understood?”
He looked in the rearview mirror at Philip behind him. “You let her do the talking. You don’t say anything. Just stick together and don’t speak English until you get up the Desert Highway.”
We assured him that we would follow his advice.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” our driver said with forced confidence. “But you have to be careful in Ma’an.”
Driving into the Ma’an bus station, Tamer urged, “Remember, no English!” We thanked him and reassured him yet again that only I would speak, and in my thickest Bedouin accent.
No one bothered us. I asked the bus driver if he was going to Amman, he said yes, we got on the bus, sat down together—Philip on the aisle as a Jordanian husband or brother would do—and that was it. Some ten minutes later, barreling up the road, we began talking quietly. In English or Arabic, no one turned to look or even perked up an ear. Eventually, I unpinned and unwrapped my pashmina. There was no actual danger, and perhaps there never had been. Perhaps Tamer had overreacted, fallen into that paternalism that I usually chafed at in Jordan.
I was raised, in Ben Franklin’s own state, to believe that those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither. As a woman, though, almost every time I walk down the street, whether in Ma’an or Harlem, I know that it is rarely so simple. Sometimes I have to wonder, on my block in Newark, if I’m nervous because the man following too closely behind me is black, or just because he’s a man. Recently, on the sidewalk of a small town in New Hampshire, I found myself shrinking backward, heart racing with the same reflexive defensiveness to a white man in his seventies being genuinely friendly.
Wearing hijab was the right decision for myself at the time. Regardless, I felt that I had lost something. I had lost the sense that I was always safe in my adopted country and culture, always protected. Perhaps in part I do not tell this hijab story because, although my fear was real at the time, a sense of shame still lingers years later. It’s the same shame I feel when I wonder if I have profiled someone on the sidewalk for his color. I still regret that I succumbed in some small way to that dark side of the hijab, despite my sincere admiration of Islam and love of Jordan, despite my best, most sincerely felt intentions.
And I understand, in some very small way, what it means to wear the hijab out of fear, not devotion.
Maryah Converse was a Peace Corps educator in Jordan, 2004-2006, and was studying in Cairo during the 2011 Arab Spring. She has written for publications including From Sac, New Madrid Journal, BLYNKT, Silk Road Review, The Matador Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Gulf Stream Literary Magazine nominated her work for the 2017 Best of the Net collection, and she has twice been an honorable mention in the New Millennium Writing Awards. Maryah holds a Masters in Near Eastern Languages, teaches Arabic and English as foreign languages in the New York area, and blogs intermittently at bymaryah.wordpress.com. This story previously appeared in From Sac, Volume 4, 2016.