Monday, August 29, 2011

Indecent exposure.

At the rockclimbing workshop a few years ago, I was wearing a headscarf and as I raised a part of the cloth up to cover my mouth while laughing, a male friend sitting opposite me got all bothered and hissed at me to cover a sliver of neck made visible because I lifted the cloth.

Before we continue, here's how I used to wear the headscarf, which is common in Southeast Asia (and funnily, in Denmark!). A large square piece of cloth is folded into a triangle and held with small pins under the chin, on the shoulder. The cloth I lifted was the bottom piece.

I am not a mannequin.
Another male friend was also fond of pointing out strands of hair below one's temples that tend to come out after a long day wearing a headscarf. Specifically, he would announce "Mr Tumnus!" to indicate this phenomenon. Mr. Tumnus is a character in C. S. Lewis' Narnia. He is a satyr, which in Greek mythology, are bottom-goat-top-man creatures that are the companions of the fun-loving gods Pan and Dionysus. As part of their nature, they play pipes, drink wine and love all kinds of pleasures.

Yeah, so he has some serious sideburns.
So he just compared a girl who is striving to achieve modesty in her physical appearance to a half-animal male mythical hedonistic creature? It's not funny unless the girl herself claims the title for her self.

On both counts, I felt ashamed -- without knowing exactly why. I didn't expose that bit of skin on purpose; I knew that situation I was in required a certain kind of 'modest' behaviour, which ironically I was trying to uphold when I covered my mouth when laughing.

Inwardly, I seethed. The fact that he had a problem with a sliver of skin which under non-headscarf circumstances would not have aroused such hostile (or perhaps sexual?) feelings in him creeped me out. Why couldn't he just have looked away?

What I should have said to both of these guys was, "Lower your gaze, dude! You shouldn't be looking in the first place. And if you have a problem with a sliver of skin showing, then you have more problems than neither I nor any amount of cloth can help you with."

This is not uncommon. Muslim men do this disciplining of Muslim women's appearance, all the time. It's only a question of being aware of it. Is this a part of believers being guardians and enjoining good and forbidding bad among each other? (See 3:104, 3:114, 5:105, 9:71 for some examples).

In that case, I don't see Muslim women stepping up to the plate to tell Muslim men to stop wearing their short-sleeved T-shirts, or T-shirts with "PLAYBOY" written on them, to stop playing hockey and soccer in shorts or wearing board shorts at the beach, to grow beards because otherwise they look feminine and attract the wrong kind women with their clean-shaven faces (you know, a kind of woman that doesn't want a tough man?), and to wear turbans, and to stop saying "sial lah"* or "siol" at the end of every other sentence.

And we don't, because we don't have the social privilege of speaking to men that easily. But to my Muslim brothers and sisters out there busy policing those with or without headscarves, here's a verse from the Qur'an to ponder:
"What! do you enjoin men to be good and neglect your own souls while you read the Book; have you then no sense?" (2:44)
Sial is a slang word used in colloquial Singaporean (Singlish) which comes from Malay, used to indicate admiration, anger, envy or conviction. Sial is considered vulgar because it means 'bad luck' -- implying that the user is wishing misfortune on the other speaker.

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