“He who leaveth home in search of knowledge walks in the path of God.”
“You are the Ayatollahs of secularism!”
Laurent Levy could have said that to the school council that refused to let his two French daughters wear the hijab. The teenage Muslim converts fought for their new belief with their father’s support – a liberal and an atheist activist, with a Jewish background. At the school hearing, Levy argued for over six hours, passionately defending his daughters’ right. However, he lost the case as the French law forbids students from wearing “ostentatious” symbols of religion at school.
This story captured my attention in 2003 as I just moved to Holland and Islamophobia was getting intense. In 2002, a left-wing activist murdered anti-Muslim politician Pim Fortuyn. In 2004, a Dutch man with Moroccan origins shot filmmaker Theo Van Gogh eight times, cut his throat and pinned a note of threats to his torso with a dagger. Freedom of speech was reciprocated with freedom of violence.
Two murders and the backdrop of 9/11 caused half a million Turkish, and Moroccan, people in Holland to be seen as a homogeneous mass. Anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders said the Quran should be banned, headscarves taxed and those wearing the niqab fined, to prevent the country from being Islamized.
Amidst these waves of fear, I felt lucky to be the perfect “outsider”: a Vietnamese atheist expat. Muslims and native-Dutch citizens find it hard to fit me into any stereotypes of the West vs. Islam discourse, and therefore find it fairly easy to tell me their inner thoughts. It has been a joy to carry the label of neutrality; an interested outsider from a far eastern country, familiar enough to understand diverse cultural patterns, yet distant enough not to be seen as a threat, or someone who readily takes a side.
Then I was dragged into the discussion on the niqab as a mediator between two camps: friends who saw the niqab as a sign of oppression, and those who argued it is a symbol of faith. Shortly after, in one of our frequent gatherings, my Muslim colleague Nailah arrived in a black headscarf. We stared at her, speechless. She looked so different, hardened and tough against the dark fabric contour that covered her ears and neck. Her eyes were intense and alert, but at the same time, so distant from the person we knew. It seemed implausible that a simple garment could make such an impact, and we were all left to do some uncomfortable reflecting.
The fact that Nailah, a woman without a single oppressed bone in her body, decided to adopt the hijab told me that Islamophobia has backfired, causing strong-minded to make a strong and clear statement that it’s their choice to dress however they want. Nailah said that if Geert Wilders pushed through legislation to fine women for wearing niqab in public places she would also veil her entire face.
As my interest in the subject grew, an Indian colleague at the university gave me a wonderful tool that enabled me to continue the investigation with a different approach: a niqab. That evening, with trepidation, I put it on. As I gazed at my own massive black shape filling the bathroom mirror, my heart missed a beat and I felt an adrenaline rush. Through a tiny narrow slit revealing its eyes, a mysterious creature was staring at me. I then rushed to call every friend on my Skype list and filmed their stunned reactions. There was a lot of cursing, high-speed questioning and then (relieved) laughing after they learned they had been framed.
Inspired by the response, I brought the niqab with me on a holiday in Switzerland. My friend lives in a conservative German-speaking region where the niqab is absolutely not welcome. To me, this sounded as though it could be an interesting place to wear the niqab. A friend volunteered to follow me around with a camera and record the event.
As I walked into downtown Luzern, covered from tip to toe by the black niqab, I felt nervous, excited, and naked. I was completely covered by the flowing niqab, but at the same time brutally exposed to the public because of the unusual outfit. I tried to look calm, knowing this was unnecessary since my whole face was hidden, but my heart continued to thump quickly. I wondered if people could actually look through me, read my thoughts, feel my nerves and silently laugh at my fear. I also felt guilty at the deception, as if I had stolen a faith.
As I merged into the throng of people, I was conscious of stolen, confused and possibly angry looks. Having walked past me, many could not resist quickly turning around and venting their emotion less subtly. A group of elderly women purposely bumped into me from behind and walked straight away, chattering loudly. A man shouted something to my face as he hurried after his dog. A mother grabbed her child’s arm and swung the confused girl away from me as they passed by. In the supermarket, I met a large Muslim woman with a colorful headscarf. She looked up and stared at me with surprise. As I walked by, she stopped picking up tomatoes and followed me through the fruit department, pushing her empty trolley.
Slowly, I started to experience an unpredictable and rapid change inside: I was excited. At the outset, the sensation was of nakedness; now the feeling was of liberation. Very quickly I had realized that nobody could see me while I could see everyone. I was “hidden” and everybody else was “seen,” and thus, vulnerable. In the end, I didn’t have to care who I was in others’ eyes: I was neither beautiful nor ugly; young nor old; chic nor shabby. Nobody could see if I was happy or annoyed or take advantage of any physical or emotional clues I happened to express. There were no reference points that others could ascribe to me, rightly or wrongly. I had become an entity devoid of some earthly human baggage. The contrast of being invisible and visible at the same time was both comforting and exciting. Never before had I been able to tap into the emotions of strangers all around me and my own ego in such a profound way.
That said, I did not have an identity when I was dressed in niqab. In places where the niqab is more prevalent, I would have been just one of many black-robed shapes. This thought struck me as I returned home. I was so numb at the idea that I immediately had to stop and force myself to reason. Why do we need to reveal our physical appearance? Next to nobody would care if I wore jeans or a long dress, looked happy or annoyed. Whenever I don’t have time to do my hair and need to rush out for some groceries, I often cover my face with a pair of massive sunglasses. When it is my turn to pay at the counter, I would take them off and hope no one I know would recognize me.
Of course I could keep the glasses on, but that would be very antisocial and impolite, wouldn’t it? In the end, people don’t care if you wear sunglasses and walk around, but they do care if you have a meaningful conversation while having those glassy shades cover your eyes. Maybe that’s the point. Facial integrity matters the most when people need to communicate with each other. This got me thinking and the chance to test these thoughts revealed itself on the way home.
As I stepped onto a bus, the passengers almost froze looking at me. I approached an empty seat next to a middle-age woman in a glowing silky red suit. I then slowly took off the black veil covering my face, gave her a broad smile, looked straight into her eyes and politely asked: “Madam! May I sit here, please?”
The woman’s jaw almost dropped. I could feel that everyone in the bus seemed to have the same sense of surprise. For them, I probably did not just take off my veil; I stripped myself naked. The woman gave me a quick nod and I settled in next to her. She uncomfortably tried to fix her gaze outside the window. I looked out as well and spotted soft and misty snowflakes.
“The winter here is much colder than in Holland,” I said, rubbing my freezing nose.
The woman turned to look at me, nodded and then looked away. After a few seconds of silence, she looked at me again, seeking eye contact. I turned to her and smiled. She then pointed to a huge pile of gray snow on the sidewalk and said: “And it is not always romantically white, is it?” We both chuckled, and quickly started to talk cheerfully about weather, traffic, shopping and fashion, at which point she felt comfortable enough to ask the burning question: “I thought those Muslim women who choose to veil would only show their face to family and friends?”
I replied: “But you are my friend now! Are you on Facebook?”
Back in Amsterdam, I gave my niqab away. I would never deny the empowering experience I had, but I was also convinced that I should be aware of others’ feelings. The reason was simple: people in non-veiling cultures have been accustomed to socializing through facial cues and body languages. Not revealing my face means not giving people enough clues for trust building or hints for action and reaction. The lack of facial expressions instinctively triggers suspicion and withdrawal.
I know the conversation I had with the woman on the bus could never have been so smooth had I kept my face veiled. I wouldn’t mind veiling in a culture where people have become experts on picking up social cues from behind a cover, but I would be reluctant to trade my newfound feelings of empowerment for something so crucial in non-veiling cultures. I’m living in a place where facial cues are sources of effective communication and a template to build trust. In the end, isn’t that the beginning of everything that connects humans with one another?
The experiment in Luzern helped me to realize that wearing niqab was only way I was able to come close to the heart of the matter: to feel, think and reason with a completely different mind than an observer. As my perception of the niqab changed, I wondered how much of the understanding I had about Islam could also change if I dared to shrug off assumptions and prejudices and walk in someone else’s shoes (or niqab.)
I wrestled with such thoughts until one day, something happened that launched me into action. That day, I came to my class and asked my students to provide words associated with “Islam.” To my gasping surprise, all of them gave “terrorism” as one of their first three entries.
The next day, I went to my manager’ office and announced that I wanted to take a sabbatical in the Middle East. “Middle East?” he asked, eyebrows raised. “Yes, Middle East!”
I could see that my program manager was trying to comprehend why, of all corners of the world, I would choose such a volatile one. I started to share my experience and intention for the sabbatical. As we talked, a few pale hairs on his bald head sprang up like curious antennas. Later, as he walked me to the door, he could not resist throwing in some comments that helped explain his few moments of speechlessness: “Well, I’m jealous, you know! But I’m worried too! Come back in one piece please!”
After my niqab experience, some people I met would say, “Oh! So you are the crazy girl who terrorized the poor old folk in Switzerland.” However, that fascination frequently turned into confusion when they heard about my Middle East plans: “Don’t you think it is too early to have a midlife crisis?” “As a thirty-something unmarried girl, you are supposed to (re)read Bridget Jones’s Diary or Eat, Pray, Love.” “But you are Vietnamese! And you’re female.” “Why Islam? Why the Middle East? Why now?”
Indeed, nothing explicitly links a yellow-skinned, single, atheist Vietnamese woman with a prophet in the Arabian desert in the seventh century. It seemed that my birthplace and gender predestined me live as a stereotypical Asian person: study hard, work hard, marry a lawyer, give birth to two more Asians and stay away from trouble. The privilege of discovering the world, exploring unknown paths, pursuing individual passions and embarking on unusual missions are reserved for the white man. I reckon if I were a tall Dutch guy with similar interests and excitement on the subject, fewer people would think my sabbatical was weird.
As I slowly revealed my travel route, many friends became worried. It involved some of the countries that convince the world that hell is real and it is on Earth. They couldn’t comprehend why a girl would want to wander alone in a place where they believed the sound of gunshots is more frequent than the sound of laughter; where news is inevitably of conflict, terrorism and kidnappings; where a drop of wine is enough to put someone in jail; where music is banned; where women are supposed to walk five meters behind their men; where “infidels” like me deserve a place in the hell fire. All in all, I would do much better to stay where I was, according to them, being a good lecturer and telling my students good stories.
As I packed my bags, the Arab Spring was making miraculous changes across the Middle East. Three of the countries on my travel map were without governments, one was practically at war, and protests and conflicts characterized the daily life of the whole region. There weren’t going to be many holidaymakers on this trip.
But I was full of excitement and anticipation. My heart raced whenever I contemplated my journey to the very heart of Islam. In the desert of Saudi Arabia, a religion was born, and went on to conquer much of the world. Like the spreading wings of a powerful eagle, Islamic warriors headed west, across northern Africa and deep into Europe. Muslims put the glorious Persian Empire under the shadow of their wing in the east, and crossed through India reaching the heart of Asia. This was what I wanted to explore, following this route of conquest, city by city, first westward, then eastward. I spent long days and nights reading the timeline of Islam’s conquest, linking all the main battles together. I was overwhelmed to find that nobody seemed to have documented traveling this route before. The thought was energizing, and I became impatient, restless even.
I didn’t tell my family about the journey. My mother thought I was sipping tea in my sunny Amsterdam apartment while I was aboard a plane to Saudi Arabia, watching a TV show in which an Imam was explaining why young faithful Muslims can absolutely marry without love.
As the plane took off, my heart throbbed loudly and my mind numbed with excitement. The man next to me smiled, reached out his hand and introduced himself as an Indian businessman working in Jeddah. We talked and he was amused with my travel plan. I shared with him the mantra I have been telling myself: “I come from the East, live in the West, and now am trying to understand the Middle. Must be quite a fortunate balance, mustn’t it?” We high-fived.
And so my journey along the path of Islam as an Asian atheist woman began.
This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.
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