Yesterday in the U.S. it was the 4th of July: fireworks, parades, flags waving around, all in celebration of those unlikely rebels who picked a fight about taxes and ended up with a country. The 4th in Abu Dhabi was ….Wednesday. But thinking about all those Americans celebrating Independence Day reminded me of a conversation I had a month ago with an actual freedom fighter.
She was an unlikely rebel: not yet twenty, a tiny little person whose eyes (sporting startlingly bright blue contact lenses) looked almost too big for her face. Her abaya, demurely loose, had some slight embroidery at the cuffs and along the hem, and her long hair was secured in a tight ponytail that draped down her back.
Did you see it? The rebellion in that description? I didn’t notice it either, until she herself pointed it out to me: her hair. Proper hijab would demand that the sheyla resting on her shoulders be wrapped tightly around her head and cover every inch of that long ponytail.
“No,” she said. “I am wearing abaya for respect, to be professional, but I do not wear sheyla today because I must also be myself. I must show that a woman can be uncovered and not be – excuse me for this word – a whore. I can be decent Emirati woman and not be covered.”
You might find it ironic that a girl wearing a full-length, long-sleeve black robe would talk seriously about being “uncovered,” but she wasn’t laughing.
She has decided that it is her goal in life, regardless of her job, to show people that you don’t have to dress a certain way to be a decent person. “People are same,” she said, “what people are wearing should not matter so much.”
On a heavily chaperoned school trip to Paris, this bare-headed girl decided to prove her point. She went to what she called an IzRAELee restaurant, “in the Jewish neighborhood,” without wearing hijab. Two friends went with her, in their black robes, and she said that the older people in the Israeli restaurant stared, but she had a conversation with the younger people. “We were curious, all of us,” she said. “How do we live, you know, that sort of thing. Is important, to know these things about each other.”
What did you eat, I asked, wondering what this Arab girl would eat in a Jewish restaurant in the heart of Paris.
She smiled, triumphant. “Falafel, of course!” Pause. Nodded her head as if conceding a point. “Pretty good falafel, too.”
At the end of the school trip, the Emirati boys in the group told the pony-tailed revolutionary that she’d changed their minds. They’d thought she was a “bad girl” at the beginning because of her uncovered head, but now they saw that she wasn’t bad, at all. “Some girls, they like this,” she said, plucking at the sheyla on her shoulders. “So okay, but for me, no. I need to be my true self.”
Hers is a small rebellion, a quiet rebellion; there are no screaming protesters or explosions in the streets. But if I were to meet this girl again, I would want to give her a 4th of July sparkler to celebrate the independence of her uncovered spirit.
In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof writes about women he met in Iran, whose are using hijab in their own private revolution.