Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Naina and the Dancing Hijabis

**This post might (will) be offensive to ultra-religious and hijabi types but I am PMSing and I just want to be mean and offensive today. So there**

Last week we went to the Fetes de Geneve, basically a giant fair along the lake in Geneva. They had a ferris wheel, other strange rides and more importantly lots and lots of yummy food stalls at the not-so-usual for Geneva bank-breaking prices. Interestingly most of the stalls were Indian. Samosas here I come. There were also wicked looking cocktails (sadly I was still on antibiotics and cortisone so I had to abstain) and cotton candy and churros.

Oh yes, when I say we went to the fair I include my dog, Naina. She was excited, sniffing at the ground, the air, trying to figure out what all the excitement was about.

We were about 30 feet away from this ninja...errrr....hijabi woman. Did I mention most of the fair attendees were the Arabs who descend on Geneva in the summer? She had her index fingers up in the air and was sort of jerking around rather rythmically.

I was thinking, cool the woman is dancing. A bit strange to be doing a bhangraesque dance while in full religious regalia but she's happy, she's at the whatever. Then she comes closer and starts shaking a finger in my face, ""

What the fuck? My dog, on a short leash (maybe a two-foot leash, while she was really about 30 feet away) was happily sniffing some other dog's pee on the ground (charming, yes, but that's my dog) nowhere close to this woman. If you're afraid of dogs why come closer to one to admonish its owner?

I said, "My dog has no interest in you," and she gave me a dirty look. Okay, so I think it was a dirty look since all I could see were her eyes and I really need to see someone's entire face to interpret expressions.

We continued walking. And I realized either I was the modern equivalent of Moses or people were just jumping back on either side when we passed. I am not exaggerating. Mothers would pull their kids back, husbands would bark out something to their wives and they would just fall back. Yes, the good religious folk were fleeing the polluting presence of my dog. You do have to wash yourself seven times if you are touched by a dog. I love touching my dog. She feels great, silky and fluffy and warm. I am perennially unclean I guess.

Then this 7 or 8 year old brat runs forward with an inflatable baseball bat (I wonder if his religious parents knew the bat had pot leaves all over it) and behaves like he is going to swat her on the head with it. I looked at him and said in my sternest, mean voice, "I don't think so," and he slunk away.

If he had even touched her I would have hit him. I was getting really pissed off about this. No one says you have to love my dog or even pet it or whatever, but quit behaving like idiots. All dogs are not itching to attack you, especially one that has its nose to the ground sniffing or trying to look pathetic so that I'll give her a churro (I did).

Geneva is an incredibly dog-friendly city so when we stepped into a weird parody of a country western bar tent, the waitress immediately brought water for her. She got tons of petting including from this very cute and very energetic two-year old.

This kid kept running to Naina, petting her (roughly) on her head, poking at her paws, her eyes, pulling her tail and sticking a finger up her nose. She was very sweet and very into the dog but Naina, who usually cannot get enough of being touched, retreated under the table, looking at me reproachfully each time this girl touched her somewhere she didn't want to be touched. Still, she did nothing. Just moved her paw or her face away while I tried to teach the kid to be gentle. Eventually, she would just pat her face and her head very sweetly and semi-gently.

Usually when I am out walking I keep Naina really close to my side, walking at my heel so that she doesn't bother people. I know some people are afraid of dogs so I try to be a good citizen.

Now as stepped into little Arabia again, even though I still kept her close to my side I wished that some some hair or something of hers would get on to some of the people jumping back from her. Okay, so I might have held her just a little bit more out there than I usually do. I was getting sick of this strange dog paranoia.

The said dog however was having a grand time. An old man knelt down and hugged her and a little girl petted her belly. Naina was in doggie heaven.

Then I saw a woman wearing a headscarf, looking at her eyes. Her eyes get a lot of attention..since one is blue and the other brown. I braced myself for another negative reaction, some jumping out of the way, abject terror.

Instead this woman rushed over to Naina and hugged her tightly (which she tolerates but does not like) and petted her. Then she called her son who was on some spinning ride and brought him over so he could pet her as well. We managed to communicate despite her broken English and my total lack of Arabic.

She said Naina reminded her of her dog at home. That her dogs too had eyes like Naina. She wanted to know nothing about me but everything about my dog. How old was she? What did her name mean? etc. etc.

We spent about 10 minutes talking about the dog. "Bye, bye Naina," she screamed out as we left. I smiled.

I had confronted a stereotype and it was slightly altered but to be honest hijabis still make me uncomfortable and the Arab invasion of Geneva strikes me as odd. They love what Geneva has to offer. But they still don't want most of it in their own countries. Why?

Perhaps as a (semi) Muslim woman I am even more sensitive to this whole head scarf/hijab thing. I don't remember hearing any of these debates when I was a child but suddenly it's a big thing. When did it become such a symbol of identity.

As a child I was told proudly that no woman in three generations of my family had observed purdah. It was seen as a step forward. And now there are young women choosing to wear hijab as a right. To some they are asserting their rights as Muslim women. To me they are regressing and setting women back.

I am not sure I understand this at all. This need to set yourself apart when there is no need to. Dress modestly. Be religious. Pray five times and definitely avoid my dog. But why make yourself into a spectacle? Why attract more attention when the stated purpose of the hijab is to attract less?

I am liberal, unabashedly so and feminist, unreservedly so. And I find religiosity and religious people rather frightening. I believe they have the right to believe and do what they want to do but I can't understand it. Or want to understand it. And I have the right to find them frightening and strange.

Interestingly, it is liberals who support the right to wear the hijab. And so uneasily I find myself on the side of a more conservative viewpoint. I believe (and I am sure many will disagree) that wearing the hijab is injurious to women...and men.

It pre-supposes that women are just their bodies and their hair and by controlling these two, society is made safer. It pre-supposes that men are lustful animals unable to control themselves. And it pre-supposes that women have to curtail their personal freedom and bear the responsibility for men's inability to control themselves.

I have a solution.

Instead of women wearing hijabs, why don't men wear blindfolds? I'll even throw in the white canes for free.

And then Naina and I can go to the fair without dancing hijabis and bratty kids.


Lonesome Dreamer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lonesome Dreamer said...

I wonder if you would say the same things about a nun who also covers her body and hair and is religious...would you be so insulting and frightened of her and her views...I bet 100% you would not. In fact, I am sure you would praise her for her dedication and strength to stick to her religion against the odds.

Yet you are so against a Muslim woman observing her religion without, as admitted, understanding or even wanting to.

It's funny/ironic/sad that you call yourself a feminist yet cannot allow/support a woman's decision to cover her self modestly as her religion dictates.

It's all about choice...and people like you who want to prevent women from making choices that you don't approve (who are you really to decide what is acceptable or not) are completely FRIGHTENING to me.

Now I agree with you that they should not have acted all weird about your dog...Islam says not to keep dogs as pets but doesn't say anything about running away from them....however I am against everything you have said about the hijab and Muslim woman.

Interesting...if you want to know about oppressive women...take a good, hard look at India instead of pointing fingers.


Jawahara Saidullah said...

Disagreeing with me is certainly your right. First of all, let me say I have a problem with all ultra-religious people, regardless of their religion, so it's not just hijabi women.

And, no, I don't believe that most of them (note: not all) make a conscious, indepdendent decision to wear the hijab.

If a nun is forced to wear her religious paraphrenalia I would have an issue as well. But most nuns are not forced to become nuns. And not all catholic women are nuns...or are supposed to be nuns.

I also have no issue with dressing modestly. I do so myself and am always fully covered. I do have an issue with the hijab because I have seen it being used as an instrument of subjugation. And women who actually choose to wear it are few and far between.

I grew up as a Muslim and do know people who observed purdah and even as a child I saw that they were not making their own decision. So, yes, I have an issue wiht it.

If it really was about choice I would support it. But it is not so.

As far as India is concerned, yes there are major problems there but the point is that women do have *all* the rights that men do. In practice, is this not always applied? Absolutely! And it is sad and horrible. But the fact that the law is on their side bodes well for the future.

I don't see that same hope for Muslim women in most countries.

Having said that, I respect the fact that you feel strongly enough about your choices to defend them. And I applaud that but on the subject of hijab we agree to disagree.

Lonesome Dreamer said...

{{As far as India is concerned, yes there are major problems there but the point is that women do have *all* the rights that men do. In practice, is this not always applied? Absolutely! And it is sad and horrible. But the fact that the law is on their side bodes well for the future.

I don't see that same hope for Muslim women in most countries.}}

How can you say that you grew up as a Muslim and yet are so ignorant of the difference between Islamic teachings and culture? Those women forced to wear the purdah is because of CULTURE not Islam/religion.

Please separate the two....Islam gives a woman the choice to wear the's culture that dominates in those few regions that force women.

Jawahara Saidullah said...

Oh please, the predominant numbers of burqah wearers/hijabis are Muslim. Please don't give me this tired culture reason. In India, in fact, purdah for non-Muslims only really began wiht the Muslim conquests. Regardless of where Muslims are-Saudi Arabia or India or Egypt--purdah follows. A wee bit of a coincidence that the culture of all these places had purdah before (or despite) Islam.

Rajeev said...


Just came across your blog and I liked it. Glad to know you are a rationalist (from your writings, anyway).

This comment is not related to this particular article, but I didn't know where else to comment.

It's good to know that things like religion, culture, local customs, which earlier were not subject to any kind of questioning, reasoning, analyzing etc., are now being opened up. I have no problem with people believing in what ever they want to (like a personal god, fairy tales, gnomes, the flying spaghetti monster etc). Its only when they start imposing their views on the rest of us (like using loudspeakers for mosques, temples, blocking roads during religious festivals etc.) that it pisses me off. Like Dawkins says, only religion has a free pass over everything.

In Bangalore, pubs, bars, concerts have to shut down by 11pm. But on religious festivals, in the heart of the city, we have groups that celebrate loudly with drums and what not till the early morning. Again, on some festivals, we have the temples having all their proceedings on the loudspeakers when it is so irritating. Is their god deaf, that he requires loudspeakers to know what's going on.

But I wouldn't be allowed to play rock music, or read out Albert Einstein in the dead of the night. They would book me under some law.

Why do things like religion and culture always have a free pass, and is it possible bring them to heel?

Would like to know your views on this.

rajeevcrk at gmail dot com