The Best Story Since That One about the Creepy Cab Driver

in case you missed that story
My mom is the director of a small and relatively new university library in the Gulf. It opened a few years ago to wide acclaim because not only is it the most gorgeous library since the Library of Congress, but it’s one of few libraries (by US standards) in the region. There isn’t a great demand for books in an oral culture, you know?

Before it opened, there was a promotional DVD made highlighting the building’s beauty and state-of-the-art technology. Well of course this required students to fill the video conferencing rooms, and sit in the fancy new presentation rooms, and to demonstrate how to check out a book—using the self-checkout stations. My mom volunteered me for that particular role and I gladly complied because self-checkout stations are the greatest library innovation since the barcode scanner.

What I didn’t know was that this video would be shown on the local television station. In fact, it wasn’t until several months later that a friend facebooked me with news that she had seen me on Sharjah TV checking out a book. I responded by telling her that I had also been featured in an interview with Campus Journal—a newspaper distributed to colleges and universities in the Emirates—so no doubt, what with all that media attention I’d received, I was well on my way world domination. One obscure media outlet at a time.

Since then (2006), I have been mentioned in half a dozen more obscure publications and was once spotted in Yemen on an Indian television station talking about how America really isn’t a nation of haters because Look! We have a statue of Liberty!

It was about this time that I defined “world domination” as “appearing on al-Jazeera speaking Arabic.”

Well, last week I got pretty close.

I was walking with some friends to grab lunch from the cafeteria on campus. On the way, we stopped in front of a crowd of women holding signs bearing a language we couldn’t read. Wait, does that say Hijab? Oh yeah! And I think that says—Killed?!

And then a woman, wearing clothes that covered all but her eyes, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if she could talk to me about the hijab. Imagine, for a second, this scene.

Me, in my slightly-tanned-with-freckles skin and red hair, wearing black capris and a purple scoop-neck tee. And her, in black gloves, abaya, and headscarf, nothing of her body visible but the eyes.

As she related to me in broken English the story of Marwa Sharbini, it occurred to me just how expressive one’s eyes can be.

She wanted to assure me that the hijab is not a symbol of oppression or terrorism. I responded to her, in Arabic, by saying that I knew it symbolized neither of these things, that I’ve lived and traveled in the Middle East for years, studied it in school, had lots of Muslim friends, and know quite well that more often than not, women wear it with pride. I understand, I told her. It’s a good thing.

She smiled, thanked me for my time and returned to the demonstration.

I was about to rejoin my own friends when another woman stopped me. She had overheard me speaking Arabic and wanted me to let her record me on video talking about the hijab issue. Because, you see, she is a program producer for a radio station in Jordan as well as a blogger for al-Jazeeratalk. Of course, I had no idea what “al-Jazeeratalk” was, but it had “al-Jazeera” in it so how could I pass it up?

Well obviously I couldn’t.

And it’s not in Arabic, and it’s not quite al-Jazeera. But get on my good side now because damn. I really am going to take over the world.

(I come in about two minutes in to the report whose link has since passed, allahyerhamu.)

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  1. Mark and I watched you, and we loved you. However, we noted the very circular argument that is all Western educated Middle East student's interpretation of the hijab…While we know that yes, it is almost always a religious choice made by each individual woman and NOT oppression, we also can't help but still hold up that social pressure pretty much makes a decision to not wear the hijab impossible. Social rejection and gossip are only the beginning of the powerful social controls in the Middle East. So, who's to say that it's entirely a noble, personal choice? Is there personal choice when so much social pressure is present, yet they still claim it is up to the individual? My respect for women who wear it, especially in foreign countries, is never weakened because of this. But perhaps Arab women ignore this question when there is something worth protesting. And Marwa al-Sherbini's story is CERTAINLY worth protesting. WOW.
    Love you! I miss you even more now that I saw your lovely face and voice in sync. 🙂 Good job, and good luck! Have fun in the Gulf, baby.

  2. Hey Annie bananie!
    Thanks for the comment. I totally understand what you're saying. I wasn't trying to claim that all Muslim women are free to choose the hijab. I was more trying to emphasize that it doesn't always symbolize oppression. Of course i didn't get into specifics in the video, but I don't think social pressure is the same as oppression. I agree there is a lot of social pressure to wear it; I don't think many women who wear it are *oppressed* (of course there are many notable exceptions to this) and that's the distinction I was trying to make.
    Thanks for reading (and commenting)! When are those wedding pictures coming up?

  3. Way to go Anna. Showing up in a for real TV interview. It's always going to be one of those situations where you wish you could tweak your comment just a little bit more each time you review it, but you did great. You thought you were making your point clear enough but then critical thinkers always find the little holes. It never really is the perfect explanation at the end of the day, but you got the message out there and at least you have this blog to clarify that there is a nice distinction between social pressure and oppression. I think I will borrow this for the sake of future comments on this topic. I can even reference this post and point out how we need to move away from the hyped buzz word of oppression and take it to the real topic of social pressure that is the overall issue in this very patriarchal muslim society as Annie and Mark point out. But then it comes back to your point about religious agreement of the tenants of Islam to support the foundations for the social pressure as are welcomed by the faithful followers. Circular logic again but also in reverse, where you can't blame the snowman's father for insisting that he not join the other winter decorations inside the house, by the warm fireplace that are hung by the chimney with care.

    You said it best when you pointed to the fact that they typically view it as modesty. Something that the western world has little value for. Of course, when I as a western woman living in Saudi have to wear the Abaya, I do feel oppressed because it is not a part of my religion to be modest to that extent. But I agree to do it so it takes the oppression away and simply becomes my civic duty.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Dolly. It's such a complex issue and it's nice to have the conversation added to here. If I weren't feeling so lazy right now, I would probably contribute further. As it is, I think I'll just leave it at thank you for reading, watching and commenting, and now I'll just go to bed.