Nada Awar Jarrar was born in Lebanon to an Australian mother and a Lebanese father. She has lived in London, Paris, Sydney and Washington DC and is currently based in Beirut. Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian, The Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and Lebanon’s English language newspaper, The Daily Star. Her first novel, Somewhere, Home won the Commonwealth Best First Book award for Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Her latest novel, An Unsafe Haven, was published by the Borough Press, and was launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2016.
I saw her hair for the first time – thick ringlets of dark brown that formed a circle around her delicate face – mid-way through the semester, when she appeared in my creative writing class minus the veil that usually covered her head. Her clothes were different too, casual and more appropriate for her age, I thought. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out in front of the whole class: “Wow, Rabab. I love your hair.” Her reaction – a watery smile that did not reach her eyes – warned me not to comment further.
It was several months later when, to my surprise, Rabab decided to take another writing class with me. I was surprised because I thought I had offended her by pointing out the change in her appearance.
The course, entitled “Writing Identity”, explores the ways that we as writers fashion changing identities for ourselves through our work. Rabab submitted a childhood memoir in which she described the first day she had to go to school wearing a headscarf as the moment she was admitted into “the sisterhood of Greys & Whites,” the moment she became just one of many, nameless little girls wearing white veils and grey uniforms, the moment she could no longer reveal her true self to the outside world. “I was a rainbow coated with grey and white,” she wrote, “but still they failed to decolourize me on the inside.”
When I recently sat down to talk to Rabab, she told me she had not been coerced into wearing the hijab. It was “the norm” she said at her Islamic school for girls who had reached a certain age, a tradition she also accepted because the women in her family had always been veiled.
But from the moment – aged eight years and ten months – she was made to wrap a scarf around her head that also covered her ears and neck, Rabab no longer felt like herself, hated what she saw every time she stood in front of the mirror before she went out. In time, she also developed an eating disorder that she attributed to her anxiety over wearing the veil. Then at 19, having endured a relentless inner struggle, she felt she finally possessed the wherewithal to approach her parents and try to convince them that removing her headscarf was the only option if she was to remain true to herself.
It took months of extensive research on Islam for Rabab to conclude – and to point out to her mother and father – that while wearing the veil was recommended in Islamic tradition, it was not considered a religious duty in the same way, for example, that prayer and fasting are. Her parents, prominent members of their community who worried about how the extended family might react, were open-minded enough – and ultimately loving enough – to go along with their daughter’s wishes despite the possible repercussions to themselves and to their place in the community.
“I remember the day I was preparing to go to university with my head bare, my mother helped me brush my hair while at the same time scolding me about going out without a scarf,” Rabab told me with a smile. “She was feeling guilty, I think, about having brought up a girl who could think for herself.”
Growing up in Beirut in the 1960s and up until the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, the only veiled women I came across regularly were the Druze religious initiates in my father’s mountain village. The women wore floor-length, black dresses and long, white scarves that not only covered their hair but often their mouths and noses as well, so that the only features visible to the outside world were their eyes. But these were initiates, I knew, who had vowed to devote their lives entirely to God and were, at least when it came to spiritual matters, separate from the rest of the community.
In our mixed Beirut neighbourhood where Muslims and Christians lived amicably alongside one another and where there was a thriving, international expat community, we did occasionally come across veiled women. But I was brought up in a secular, liberal household that encouraged me to believe that these women were the exception rather than the norm, so that seeing them did not make much of an impression on me as a child.
After the end of the civil war when I returned to Lebanon from nearly 20 years of studying, living and working abroad, I began to notice an increasing number of veiled women in my old Beirut neighbourhood, as well as everywhere else it seemed. The demographics of the city had changed, I knew. The 15-year conflict had forced people living in the capital to move away from dangerous areas and to settle permanently elsewhere. At the same time, the 20-year Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon drove tens of thousands of families out of their villages and to the outskirts of Beirut. Still – and despite the circumstances – the sight of so many women who I believed had been made to cover their heads against their will, disturbed me.
Then we began to hear of how a number of European countries had passed laws banning full-face Islamic veils in public places. There were disturbing images on television of girls not being allowed into school and news of growing anti-Muslim sentiment inspired by these laws. I was appalled by what was going on but also found myself wondering if banning the hijab might not be a way of freeing these girls and women of a deeply sexist custom forced on them by their communities. It was some time, however, before my prejudices made way for a deeper and ultimately more compassionate understanding of my fellow Arab women.
Working first as a journalist covering Lebanon and the region, and eventually publishing four novels that attempt to explore the effects on the everyday lives and relationships of ordinary men and women of the many conflicts that continue to plague the Arab world, I have come across women for whom the idea of removing the veil would be akin to going out in public in one’s birthday suit. During my conversations with these women in Beirut and around the country – and more recently with women from rural areas in Syria who have taken refuge in Lebanon – I learned that while wearing a headscarf may not always be a personal choice, it is one that is deemed, by some communities, as necessary for women and their families to live piously and therefore enjoy a secure existence.
I was also astonished to discover that some women make the decision to cover their heads willingly. During the two years of my mother’s illness, and before her death several months ago, she was treated at home by a family physician who appeared one day with a scarf wrapped around her usually bare head. When I asked her why she had decided to put on a veil in middle age, she said she had been so moved by her recent pilgrimage to Mecca that she resolved to remind herself everyday of that intense spiritual experience through wearing the hijab. A short time after her return from the haj her teenage daughter said she wanted to take the same step, but the doctor forbade it, saying that this decision had to be an informed one, not taken merely because of a desire to conform. Perhaps, I deduced, for well-educated, middle-class women, the decision becomes a personal one.
All these close (as well as distant) encounters with fellow Arab women have given me significant food for thought so that when it came to considering the question of what it meant to be a “dangerous woman” and I contemplated writing about my mixed feelings about the veil, I was able to come to a conclusion of sorts (although I acknowledge that even that might change in the future).
A dangerous woman is one who despite the constraints put on her by society – whether religious and conservative or secular and free-thinking – insists on remaining true to herself whatever the sacrifices she has to make to achieve this. If this is indeed the case, then I, as a committed feminist, cannot presume to speak for all Arab women on the issue. As sad as it often makes me feel to see young girls wearing headscarves in school playgrounds and as disappointed as I sometimes am to meet women I have known well who suddenly decide to start wearing the hijab, my opinion hardly matters.
I console myself with the thought that even for a young woman as brave and intelligent as Rabab, who struggled long and hard both with her own conscience as well as with her family to find convincing reasons to remove the veil, the decision to do so was indeed important but it did not change her in fundamental ways.
“My beliefs, perceptions and personality in general did not change as a result of removing the veil,” she explained. “It’s just that by taking off the hijab, my outer appearance became congruent with who I actually am.”