Since arriving in Jordan, I have been unable to move past one blaring cultural difference between myself and most of the female population here: the hijab.

Walking from the Global Hope office to my home stay may only take 20 minutes, but along the way I pass the full spectrum of female fashion. Nearly every woman I see wears some form of hijab, or head scarf, and covers her arms and legs completely in accordance with the religion of Islam.

Some women wear long black robes or floor length jackets to further conceal their bodies. Others wear face veils in addition to the hijab (this is called niqab). Other girls wear tight jeans, heels and fitted long sleeve shirts paired with a brightly pattered scarf around their hair.

Frustrated

Whatever the take on the fashion, it differs starkly with my uncovered brown hair as I walk through the streets. In my new context, my typical outfit of tennis shoes, jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt has gone from frumpy to, well…the verge of scandalous.

This scarf is a hijab. Some women choose to wear colors and patterns instead of black scarves.

Boys notice. I’ve never felt unsafe in Amman, but I’ve certainly felt harassed. My look doesn’t necessarily stand out—in fact, some people ask if I’m Jordanian—but my hair does. In some areas, it’s enough to attract stares, honks and the occasional, “yela habibi,” or, “come here babe.”

Like I said, I feel safe in Amman, but these encounters infuriate me. I often wonder…is the hijab the answer?

The Minority

Sometimes, I find myself fixating on this difference between me and the women I’m around. For many of us living outside of the Muslim world, the thought of a woman covering her hair, or her hair and face, or her entire body seems like a violation of women’s rights. In fact, some countries in Europe have banned the hijab (hair covering) or veil (face covering) in government offices and schools.

But what does it mean to the women who wear it? What’s it like living in a place where covering your hair is the norm as opposed to the exception?

Some women in Amman wear the niqab, but the regular hijab is much more common.

In the U.S., I’ve never asked a Muslim woman about her hijab. I try as hard as I can to ignore it, thinking they probably attract enough extra stares and comments without my nosy inquisitions. But here in Jordan—where I’m suddenly the minority—I’m free to ask more about the practice.

Possible Solution

So why hijab? First of all, the Koran (the holy book of Islam) requires women to cover themselves because—quite frankly—women are beautiful. Essentially, covering yourself as a woman is supposed to prevent drawing sexual attention to yourself.

The women I’ve asked about the hijab find my curiosity funny. They laugh at my questions about something that’s such a normal part of their lives.

“Of course I like wearing it,” one woman told me, “I’m much more comfortable around men this way.”

The streets of Amman are not a dangerous place for women, but that doesn’t mean they’re free from being hassled.

I heard similar responses from many women. I started thinking, maybe this was the answer to the unwanted street comments…

Test Run

On Saturday, I took a walk downtown. I wandered from shop to shop in my jeans and long-sleeved shirt, shaking my head at the occasional comment or leering passerby.

Then I went home, put on a floor length jacket, Googled, “how to wrap hijab,” and secured a scarf around my hair. I headed out on the town in my new garb for a test run.

I hesitantly took my first steps down the street, pulling awkwardly at my hijab. Surely somebody would notice that I wasn’t a local. But as I walked block after block through crowds of people—crowds of men—I realized that no one noticed.

Not only did no one notice, but no one said anything. Not a single comment.

Whose Problem?

In a way, I felt liberated. In this situation, my hijab freed me from unwanted, disrespectful advances. I could relax a little. Personal opinions aside about the symbol of the hijab, it definitely had an effect on how men perceived me.

But should that be my responsibility? If men behave inappropriately towards women, why should we cover the women? Are women solely responsible for maintaining respectful relations between the sexes?

Maybe somebody should have a little powwow with the men.

Me trying out the local dress for a walk through downtown.

The dilemma looks different in different cultures, and it never applies to 100% of the population, but any woman—covered or not—should feel comfortable around men. There’s a way to pursue a woman respectfully, and it usually doesn’t start with shouting, “yela habibi,” at her on the street.

Regretfully, I won’t be able to sit down and chat with every guy who makes an inappropriate pass at me. But I, as well as Jordanian women I’ve met, refuse to avoid walking, shopping and commuting alone in this town just because of some disrespectful men.

So guys and gals, teach your friends and sons how to respect women…and their fellow humans in general. It will make life a lot easier for all.

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About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. Katie L. said... 

    Reply

    December 12th, 2011 at 9:55 am  

    Thanks for your great article, Laura. I really appreciated your conclusion–it’s something both men and women need to hear. It’s amazing to me how often this issue is put at the feet of women and ignores the fact that men have the ability to moderate their behavior/thoughts/etc.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 12th, 2011 at 11:23 am  

      Thanks, Katie. It’s true–girls catch a lot of heat for “immodesty” in milder forms within the U.S., but it’s definitely an issue the spans the gender gap.

  2. Julie B said... 

    Reply

    December 12th, 2011 at 3:56 pm  

    I love that you put this to the test yourself! I recently was part of a conversation in the Y locker room about female fashion and its influences on a man’s thoughts/behavior… and whose burden that is. I’ll have to share your article with the girls.

    By the way, you’re still obviously very pretty with the hijab!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 13th, 2011 at 9:04 am  

      Haha–thanks, Julie! It certainly is an interesting topic. I was amazed that even women who believe in covering themselves still tried to do so in a way that was distinct or colorful (not all, but most). The desire to be “pretty” is in most of us as women, but knowing how to dress in a way that feels attractive yet is appropriately modest is tricky.

      I hope your peeps are figuring out the balance, andI’m glad someone out there is talking about the topic!

  3. Laura said... 

    Reply

    December 13th, 2011 at 1:19 pm  

    Stump,

    I love your articles (especially the goat phot-blog!) and this one was definitely thought-provoking for me.

    I can feel your frustration, knowing what things should be like and comparing them to what they are, in this case the respect issue. It makes it so difficult to try and live with an outward mindset when they obviously aren’t even attempting to do the same. The verses that keep coming to mind are from Romans 14. It doesn’t matter what their perspective is, or what the situation, if we’re causing them to stumble in any way we need to stop. I admire you for wearing the hijab and putting this attitude into practice, even when it’s frustrating. It sounds like an almost surreal experience. Are you still wearing the hijab?

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 14th, 2011 at 11:06 am  

      Laura, thanks for your comment–I hadn’t thought about those verses. I actually didn’t wear the hijab past my trial run, mostly because wearing it in Jordan is optional, so choosing to wear it shows modesty AND indicates that you’re Muslim.

      The Jordanian Christian women I was around didn’t wear it. They certainly dressed conservatively so as to prevent others from “stumbling,” but they sort of pushed the envelope respectfully by keeping their heads uncovered.

  4. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    December 13th, 2011 at 10:08 pm  

    Laura, I felt like I was walking through this process with you as I read. :) I really liked seeing how you thought through it and figured out what to do. When I was in Kosovo, I had to find a balance of going against the cultural norms or blending in. Either way, it’s always a learning experience! And most of all, my hope is that in any culture, our decisions should be based on how we can love and honor God and others best…even through how we clothe ourselves. 😉

    And I second what Julie said about you still looking pretty :)

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 14th, 2011 at 5:04 pm  

      Hey Breanna! It is such a challenge to know how to “fit in” appropriately as a foreigner. Living with a Jordanian host family helped a lot–they had a good perspective on what dress and behavior mean in the context of the local culture.

  5. Phil Grizzard said... 

    Reply

    December 16th, 2011 at 1:54 am  

    At the risk of setting my foot inches from my mouth, I’d like to take the plunge and give a male perspective. I actually have thought about this topic quite a bit recently.

    (First off, I concur with all who say you look adorable in the hijab, Laura.)

    As a married man, walking an American college campus in the summer makes me wish all women wore jihabs and floor length jackets. (Well OK, most of the year. And OK, not just on campuses.) I mean for crying out loud, I try not to think of women like that, but some make it awfully tough! (Although I never catcall or honk, I just try to get my eyes to move elsewhere.) I can totally understand the temptation of powerful male leaders to require that type of dress of women, to help themselves avoid “stumbling.”

    But at the same time, sometimes I’ll wear tight clothes when I feel like it. I run shirtless in the summer, wear tanktops in the gym, and I KNOW all the chicks are checking me out. 😉 Jk about that last part, but the possibility is there, you know what I mean. I like that freedom, yet my attire choice could be making some women struggle and wish – just like me – that the other gender covered up to make things easier.

    To me, gender fairness is more important than the modesty. If rigid Muslim countries required “hijobs” (the male version – that I just made up) in public, then at least it would be fair. I could really see the appeal in that, if it were loosely and fairly enforced. (Local officer addressing everyone at the public volleyball court, for example.)

    But that kind of law just not feasible in an open society. Modesty has to be voluntary. I appreciate the “other” Laura’s choice to be modest, and upon reflection I recognize I should be doing the same.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 19th, 2011 at 5:20 pm  

      That’s right, Phil–it’s nothing but sweat pants and hoodies for any future jogs :) (kidding)

      Thanks for your honesty about the college campus. I’m sure others feel the same way.

      Interesting you mentioned the “hijob”…it turns out that there is a man dress code in Saudi Arabia (maybe other countries as well…) that falls under the authority of the religious police. Women there are also required to wear an abaya (a long, black robe) and in some cities, head scarves. I guess this is more fair (although women are slighted in other ways, like not being permitted to drive), but it’s still not a CHOICE to be modest.

      And one interesting twist, I’m in Senegal right now (a primarily Muslim country) where modesty is culturally important…but for a woman, that just means covering your knees. Yesterday, I was in a room of men and women where women were getting dressed–walking around topless–when the call to prayer went off. A couple of men were praying right there in the room with topless women.

      This isn’t the norm everywhere, but I just wanted to mention that people who are Muslim abide by all sorts of rules of modesty as well. We mostly just hear about places like Iran and Saudi Arabia where conservative dress is mandatory. Also, it’s just interesting to see a different take on what conservative means…like in India, knees are also supposed to be covered and a scarf is worn over the curve of a woman’s chest, but their stomachs are showing. We can’t even get away with that in U.S. high schools!

      Enough of the tangent. Thanks for your introspection on this topic.

  6. Phil Grizzard said... 

    Reply

    December 20th, 2011 at 1:50 am  

    Laura, you can tangent anytime. It’s amazing what you know about the world, and I love learning about it. Wow. The difference in cultures and definitions of modesty is fascinating, and it is important to know that “the Muslim world” is not uniform. That is really interesting.

    Topless?!?

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