Dignity and invisibility

A couple of days ago, I walked into a store, looking for a plain, simple three-quarter length sleeve tunic. Something that would be light enough to wear over pants during the summer. In a neutral or quiet color, such as beige or light blue.

The salesperson asked if she could help with anything, and I said that I was looking for a tunic. She directed me to a rack with several different styles and colors. Some with bright blue patterns. Some with purple flowers. Some that were a very bright turquoise.

I shrank inwardly—I didn’t think that I’d like the way they looked on me—but tried them on anyway. Bright blue patterns didn’t suit me. Neither did purple flowers. As I had expected. I had somewhat more hope for the turquoise tunic, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I quickly decided against it. The fit wasn’t right, but even more problematic was the color….

“That color looks great on you,” commented the salesperson.

“But you could see me from ten miles away in this!” I said, trying to sound like I was joking, but feeling really uneasy at the idea of ever wearing anything like this outside. “Do you have this in any other color?”

She pointed to a rack of bright fuschia tunics.

“Uh… that’s kinda… bright,” I responded. “I’m looking for something with more, um, dignity….” I stopped, immediately wanting to take back what I had just said. Trying to offset my offensive words, I lamely added, “I just don’t think it would really suit me.”

The salesperson told me that they would probably be getting another shipment of tunics within a couple of weeks in different colors. I thanked her for her help, and quickly left.

Good grief, I thought to myself as I left the store. So… I still reflexively associate wearing neutral or subdued colors with modesty, and modesty with being as unobtrusive as possible, which somehow is equated with dignity. And also reflexively interpret a woman standing out by wearing something bright as meaning that she is somehow less dignified. And I actually said that aloud. On some level, I actually thought that it was a reasonable thing to verbalize. Wow. Just wow.

It’s at moments like these that I glimpse the extent of the indoctrination and social conditioning that I am in the process of trying to recover from.

Rationally speaking, I don’t think that it’s “undignified” for a woman to wear bright colors. Nor do I think that what women choose to wear is some sort of a barometer of their intelligence or spiritual “level” or anything like that. No, I don’t consciously think that way any more. But unfortunately on some semi-conscious level, I still do believe it. I still do somehow associate dignity with being unobtrusive. When it comes to women, that is.

Why do I believe this, when I don’t rationally agree with this idea? When I’ve lived in communities in which I saw and personally experienced the price girls and women pay for such notions??

When I first encountered conservative Muslims, very few women wore hijab, but it was upheld as a non-negotiable obligation in the literature on Islam that I was given, nonetheless. Among the things that the literature emphasized was that women’s hijab wasn’t to be bright, eye-catching or even particularly attractive in any way. This was the ’80’s, way before the rise of “hijab fashion”—and there would have been no way that we as converts would have been able to get away with wearing anything like what the “hijabi fashionistas” wear now. Women who did try to find a middle ground between hijab and being fashionable were few and far between in my experience, but when they did appear, efforts would be made (often by sisters) to inform them of all the ways that their hijab needed adjustment. The “Muslim guilt” would be laid on—interestingly enough, even by girls and women who did not themselves wear hijab in their day-to-day lives.

But looking back, I suspect that it was the shame that had the greatest impact on me, even more than the Muslim guilt. My ex and his ethnic community were very concerned with honor and shame. He would comment scornfully on the way that women in his community dressed who did not adhere to his idea of modesty—which in those days was most of them. “Her chest is all out!” he would say, with reference to a woman wearing a v-neck, or whose shirt wasn’t buttoned all the way up.

It didn’t occur to me to ask why he didn’t just look away if the sight bothered him so much. Or to ask what gave him the idea that he had the right to look, evaluate and judge every woman he came across. I didn’t ask this question in part because I had already learned as a teenager that boys and men arrogate to themselves the right and the power to “rate” girls and women in terms of their desirability and presumed “easiness.” It had annoyed me, and deeply disturbed me, but I had never thought that I could question it. That was just “how things were,” I assumed, so I didn’t question the Muslim men who acted that way either.

So when the issue becomes one of shame, the onus ends up being placed on the woman to avoid shame by being as invisible as possible. Because being seen means being judged by male eyes, which seldom ends well. The less you as a woman are seen, the better. There’s safety in obscurity.

It sounds so crazy-making when I try to pull this apart and examine it. Yet another way that we held ourselves up to unreachable standards, and then blamed ourselves for failing to attain them. Yet another way that we enacted our own subjection daily.

But these ideas were all the more powerful for being unexamined. Lip-service was paid now and again to  “male hijab”—the idea that men should lower their gaze. But the reality was that every sermon preached, every dars held, every book written about how women should dress and behave reinforced the idea that men’s gaze at women (provided that it had the veneer of religiosity) was in fact God’s gaze. That the men ranting on about women’s supposed immodesty were somehow reflecting how God saw us. They claimed as much.

We learned to look at ourselves through the imagined eyes of other conservative Muslims—especially, through the eyes of men. We learned to be always aware of how they would see us if we wore or did such-and-such. We internalized that gaze, and those judgmental voices. To this day, they have not left me.

Reading several recent heart-rending posts by Muslim women about their experiences in the mosque with barriers and space allocation is almost too painful. I too well remember all that pain and frustration. As I read their posts, I see behind the reflections about access and equality and whatnot this same dynamic that I am so familiar with: the assumption on the part of imams, mosque boards, and communities that women’s invisibility is more dignified, especially in sacred space.

That women should be fine with arrangements that marginalize them and make them invisible (and even prevent them from seeing or hearing the imam, except perhaps via a closed-circuit TV). That since some women apparently prefer such arrangements, then it it not necessary to ask where such preferences come from, what fosters them, and what their long-term effects are. Or that even if we can admit that not all women prefer things this way, there is always some excuse why these arrangements can’t be significantly altered at the moment. Somehow, there aren’t enough resources, or there isn’t enough space, or the community has other priorities. Or whatever.

It isn’t really urgent, because as long as women are invisible and marginal, and men’s presumed “natural” propensity to gaze at and judge girls and women continue to be simply assumed to be “the way things are”, then everything stays in place. The patriarchal order is constantly reaffirmed.

And how do you even oppose this stuff? Men condescendingly assure you that as a woman, you can’t possibly know how men “naturally” react to the sight or sound of a woman. That you are just being sentimental or emotional or you have been led astray by feminism (God forbid!) and that you are delusional. Because this is just the way the world is. And men have defined the way the world is for you, and not only that, they have kindly deigned to enlighten you about this, and you turn and say that you don’t buy it?! That you think that this is a socially constructed way of thinking that can be changed? How dare you be so brazen, so immodest as to think that your gaze at the world counts for anything? Why haven’t you learned that as a woman, your job is to avoid the (male) gaze, not to gaze yourself??

I wonder if this nexus between dignity and invisibility will ever be broken. In my unconscious mind. In the conservative Muslim communities that I know.

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  1. #1 by Ify Okoye on May 28, 2012 - 11:23 pm

    Wow! As I continue to read your posts, it’s as if we’re on quite a similar path toward recovery, “adventures in recovery,” I like that phrase. I decided recently that I’m pretty sick of being invisible and of looking away so I don’t have to see the reality of what I’ve let myself become. I’m re-designing my entire wardrobe and have been toying with the idea of cutting all of my abayas and making them into shorter tunics that I can wear with pants or a skirt. We should start a support group for converts recovering from their early experience in the Muslim community.

  2. #2 by Coolred38 on May 29, 2012 - 7:15 am

    Was lead to your blog by another lady…I was muslim and married to a muslim for 20 years…dropped him and islam several years ago. Your posts are very similar to my thoughts and experiences…keep up the writing. It is the cheapest form of therapy out there.

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