Thursday, November 26, 2009

Just a scarf?

The young woman wore a dark, long-sleeved, floor-length dress with a matching hijab. She was working behind the counter at a local store. She smiled at my wife and at me and started totalling our purchases.

This was my second contact with this young woman. She had checked me through a few days before, when I bought a large, wooden toy stove for my new granddaughter. The hijab wearing woman had asked if I would need help carrying the stove to my car and I had laughed that I was not that old. Well, I allowed, I might be that old but I wasn't that out-of-shape.

She had asked who the stove was for — a granddaughter perhaps? I had replied, "Yes." As she taped the loose parts, ensuring I would reach home with the complete stove, we had chatted. I paid, we parted and soon I was struggling through the parking lot with a stove that grew bigger and heavier with every step. I was that out-of-shape.

Driving home I thought about her head covering, her colour coordinated scarf, her hijab — a traditional headdress worn by Muslim women. But before I worked through my thoughts, I was home.

Now my wife and I were back and we had the same young woman checking us out. I think she recalled me — the foolish old man, too proud to accept help carrying an immense, heavy, wooden toy stove to his car.

My wife had a number of delicate canisters and each had to be individually wrapped to make sure they wouldn't knock together and break. As the young woman worked, she chatted with my wife and with me. She asked about our family and Christmas. She confided that her family was quite large and if they celebrated Christmas it would be one expensive festival.

The hijab, unlike the burka, does not cover a woman's face. This young woman's charming and disarming smile was not hidden. When we took our bags filled with Christmas gifts to leave, her thank you followed by the invitation to come again, had the warmth of sincerity.

I'd like to say that I treated this young woman exactly the same way that I would treat any counter person, but I didn't. I tried to be friendlier than usual. I went out of my way to not look at, and to not react to, her obvious Muslim attire.

I mentioned this to my wife and I told her how, if a Muslim family was approaching a store door immediately behind me, I would walk through and then hold the door open for them. I will wait a few moments longer for a Muslim family. I go out of my way to let Muslims see that I treat them just like I treat others.

I see my actions as my own, small way of fighting terrorism. I will not be bullied into treating my Muslim neighbours differently because of the actions of a few nasty extremist crazies living, and dying, many thousands of miles away.

My small, positive actions don't seem like much, almost nothing.

But then I think of France. Last June President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "In our country (France), we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity." The burka — the all-concealing Muslim dress, with mesh covering the eyes — is "a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement," he said. " . . . it will not be welcome on our territory."

In 2004, a law banning the Islamic headscarf — the hijab — and other highly visible religious symbols from French public schools sparked heated debate. He's not smiling and ignoring the head scarf. He's not holding any doors.

Interestingly, in Tunisia — Muslim North Africa — a similar ban has been enforced and ignored in waves since 1981 when a government decree prohibited women from wearing Islamic head scarves in public places. Tunisian human-rights activists accuse authorities of depriving women of a basic freedom guaranteed by the Tunisian constitution.

Photo credit: Shahrazad. [The two images of Iranian women wearing hijabs.]

When I was in Tunisia about a decade ago I would see women walking together, some wearing hijabs, some wearing western dress, while still others in the same group wore body-covering robes hiding all, including their faces. I thought it was pretty cool.

At one point during my visit, I was able to slip into a women-only-club in downtown Tunis. Dozens of western dressed Tunisian ladies held a business luncheon from which all men were barred but for some waiters, the musicians in the band and a smooth talking Canadian photographer. How I managed smooth talk my way in using my limited high school French, I don't know.

But I do know that those women would agree with Sarkozy. They talked about how Saudi and Iranian women must wear the hijab by law and often wear the full burka, not by choice, but out of fear. These ladies might not hold the door for a woman wearing a hijab.

Confused? Me too. But, I think I'll keep smiling, chatting, and holding doors.


"I go out of my way to let Muslims see that I treat them just like I treat others." My wife thought this too subtle. If I go out of my way, I do not treat Muslims as I treat others. My behaviour has been changed by the events of this decade.
The picture on the left accompanied the story I wrote for the paper on Tunisia. This woman had passed on the hijab in favour of the cap and white cuffs of the Police de Circulation, or traffic cops.

For more info on Muslim dress, check out my post "Social" Networking. A lady from Iran contacted me and has added first-hand info. Ah the virtual world is a wonderful place, and that's reality.

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