A Muslim Woman in Israel Seeks the Courage to Wear a Headscarf

What if I cover my hair and someone comes up to me and speaks Arabic and, not knowing how to answer him, I respond in Hebrew?

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From the age of six, I wanted to put on a head covering and cover all my hair, just as Islam requires of every female believer. The scarf was a symbol of maturity for me; I wanted to be an adult. After all, I was already going to school and I had a teacher, diary and my own pens. The scarf was another step toward the maturity I so much desired.

My mother objected firmly. When I reached the age when decisions come from the head and not from the heat of the moment, she said, she would be happy for me to wear a scarf. But at the age of six, there was no way. She agreed I could put it on once a week, on Fridays, when we went to my grandmother on my father's side. The entire family would be there on a Friday morning, so it was the perfect place to show off my white headscarf.

Maybe it was clear to everyone that, when I reached the age at which a woman needs to put on a head covering, I would too - especially because my father was religious. But the tight jeans came and with them the teenage years when no one wants to be different. Following the herd also characterized the youth of my people. I also started to study in a Jewish school where the headscarf would have been social suicide. So it didn't happen; in fact it has never happened.

The time will come when I will wear a head covering - and when it does, it won’t be as a nonreligious person who found religion. I am not looking for answers; I am looking for the courage to put it on. Maybe I don’t do it out of the fear that bureaucracy and racism will prevent me from getting ahead; that lighthearted meetings will be harder when I show up with my head covered. I have no doubt that’s the case. People tend to develop a certain antagonism, due to prejudices and stereotypes; a negative atmosphere will accompany such meetings. Maybe this is called looking for excuses and not going all the way with something I believe in. But what is all the way? How do you know where the end is? Does it even have an end?

What if I cover my hair and someone comes up to me and speaks Arabic and, not knowing how to answer him, I respond in Hebrew? Something similar happened to me a few years ago, when an older man spoke to me in Arabic and I answered in Hebrew. That bothered him, apparently. He didn't understand how I could call myself a Muslim when I don't know how to speak Arabic. He took ownership of my religion, because I didn't speak Arabic. Language was more important to him than faith. It is still a bit hard for me to forgive him.

"What type of Muslim are you? Who doesn't read the Koran? Who doesn't pray?" I did pray and I did know how to read the Koran, but he hurried to judge me and didn't give me a chance to get a word in. And I, who was taught to respect my elders, thought that it was OK that he spoke to me with disrespect. Today I understand that I didn't have to keep quiet, since whoever does not respect me does not deserve my respect. Sometimes I think how he would have responded, if at the time, I had been wearing a head covering - he certainly would have dropped dead on the spot.

It is not easy to accept that I understand Arabic and answer in Hebrew. There have been many times when I didn’t say right away that I know Arabic, especially when meeting Arabs.

When I began my studies in Jerusalem, I met an Arab girl, a new immigrant from Canada, who was very nice and our conversations were always fascinating. One day, on our way to a coffee shop, a friend of hers called, asking her where she was and with who. She responded that she was on her way to a coffee shop and was with some crazy person from school. I was insulted when I heard that, but I didn't ask her why she thought I was crazy, I acted normally and started weighing my words. I hate it when I have to start thinking about what I say; it usually means I am going to disappear - that it is the end of the relationship. Many Arabs had called me crazy before I met her and I never understood why. What makes me crazy?

After a while, I remembered that during one of our talks I spoke about Ramadan and said I also was fasting. What is crazier than someone who fasts when it is not relevant to her? So I'm the crazy one who fasts on Ramadan and speaks Hebrew. If I had a head covering would she still have thought I was crazy? I have no doubt the answer is yes. Wearing a head covering, fasting during Ramadan and speaking Hebrew! What is more absurd than that?

It’s different with Jewish friends. In most cases, they try to guess what I am; my slight accent causes them to toss out a lot of guesses, most of which are way off the mark. In the end, I accept happily - at least until they understand what my being Circassian means. When I can't go with them to pubs or clubs and drink alcohol, somehow I am pushed out; I drop a level on the social scale. What do I know? What experiences do I have of the hot nightlife of the twenty-somethings? They are certain they know how the world works, since they passed the selection to get into some club. Some of them avoid me when they discover I believe in my God - as if they just discovered that my future is to be a terrorist. In most cases, it happens when someone who is covered-up passes us and they ask me: "What, you'll be that way too? You're modern, you certainly won't go out that way. It’s so primitive." To be religious is to be primitive as far as they are concerned. If Haredim receive such contemptuous looks when they pass by them, how would they accept the "primitive" religious woman inside me?

It doesn’t always happen. I have Jewish friends who I go to coffee shops or restaurants with, since they don't care that we don't drink beer or stay out too late. That's the real thing, true friendship. But even then I always think, if I had a headscarf on would they still be my friends? Would they still sit with me in a coffee shop? But I don't let it take control of me, since the questions would never end.

True friends are always difficult to find. Whoever wouldn’t want to be my friend when he thinks I am different from him, shouldn't be my friend when we are alike. I have the possibility of choosing who to be like and with whom I should leave out a detail or two. That is one of the advantages in being a minority within a minority; you can adapt yourself to every side, even if it’s sometimes exhausting.

I've tested all my friends. They will continue to be tested as long as I have the strength to do so, since when I put on my headscarf the wheel will turn and the burden of proof will be on me. They will examine me endlessly and I will no longer be able to play the game I play today. Maybe I used to think that a headscarf is a religious matter, but in a country like ours it is also a social affair.

Muslim girls in headscarves.Credit: AP

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