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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


I travelled to Chicago for the holidays and for the first time in my life I saw, at the O'Hare airport, a woman in full purdah. She was dressed completely in black, with a veil over her face. As I walked behind her I saw the pale soles of her shoes pushing up against the hem of her skirt. She took small but quick, assured steps.

Her husband wore a long beard and on his shoulder, the strap across his chest, was a light blue baby bag, with an applique of a white dog. They had two sons who were squirming impatiently inside a double-seat stroller. The husband pushed the stroller and as he and his wife made the rounds of the food court he talked to her. After a while they stopped in front of McDonalds. My throat constricted with amusement and dismay.

I walked past them, staring, burning with curiosity, trying to catch a glimpse of the woman's eyes. Nothing was visible behind the veil. I wondered how people's faces looked to her from inside of that citadel of black crepe. Naked, cool, vulnerable -- things to avoid or be envious of?

She looked to me like Lazarus coming out of his grave when Jesus called him, like someone who should be dead but isn't. But unlike Lazarus she wasn't able to shed the cloth that encased her body. She looked erased, a faceless moving blot, a spill of black, an accident among the colorful crowd. Not even a glimmer of her eyes was visible; her voice seemed to come out of a void. This nothingness was what frightened and disturbed me most of all; it was a solid nothing, it was a black thick lump of invisible flesh.

I don't think very often about the female body when I consider women's rights. I want women to be seen as equal to men intellectually, to be paid for their work the same as men are, to be allowed political and social freedoms. I forget about the body and the fact that any kind of independence and freedom for women has to begin with their bodies, with being allowed entire possession of them. Nothing is more complete than the obliteration of the body, even when this obliteration comes simply in a black garment.

I realize now that I forgot to look at the woman's hands. Perhaps they were bare. Who knows what I could have seen?


Blogger rabfish said...

Hijaab is a complex phenomenon, and it does not merely represent obliteration of women and their bodies. Depending on its use and the context it can be profoundly liberating as well; I say this as a feminist who wore hijaab for four years. I wore it because for me it combined anti-racism with feminism; it marked my identity as a practicing Muslim woman, and it clearly delineated that I was a subject and not a just sexual object. Women of color experience sexual objectification in particular racialized ways, differently from white women. White men in particular used to object to my wearing hijaab because they instinctively experienced it as a theoretical limit on my sexual availability to them, a limit that to me gave me greater freedom to be a person choosing my own life and not an object based on someone else's desire.

I have not worn the full niqab (face covering) in the West; I don't fully know why women do here. I understand it better in countries where I have lived in where it offers you some relief from harassment on the streets (not ideal, but I would say that part of feminism is celebrating women's right to make strategic choices. How quick would we be to wholeheartedly dismiss a woman in the west who wore makeup to the office?). Niquab arouses strong feelings in me, but before judging someone I would take the time to investigate it from their perspective, so I don't erase her agency in the matter, and so that I can respectfully witness where she might be operating out of limited choice in a way least objectifiying and insulting to her.

One of the things that upset me most about wearing hijaab was the easy paternalistic assumption by white people, including white feminists, that I was oppressed. Why would they assume that? Because its a practice so profoundly foreign to them that instead of first taking steps to understand it from my perspective they would judge it based on their lives?

You've written your post well; I've written in the spirit of dialogue. Thank you.

December 30, 2005  
Blogger rabfish said...

Not sure you know this but you got chosen as one of the Friday Femme Fatales on blogcritics ( which is how I found your blog. I hope my comments on women and hijaab don't discourage you from doing more, because your writing really is spectacular.

December 31, 2005  
Blogger Green Whale said...

I appreciate enormously your comments; like most people I'm limited in my perspective by my Western and Christian upbringing and by my insufficient reading on world religions. I'm so glad to hear from the other side, especially when it speaks like you do in the spirit of honesty and dialogue.

I did think, as I wrote my blog, about the possibility that full purdah can be liberating, can be a protection against the devouring sexual gaze. Being invisible can be a very good, very useful thing. It surprised me how saddened I was, though, to see this woman in full purdah, even though it occurred to me that my dismay may very well surprise her. Thank you for reading and commenting and opening my mind.

December 31, 2005  
Blogger Rebel Girl said...

Nice to see that Green Whale's writing has attacted notice - she deserves it!

Femme fatale indeed!

January 03, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Thank you, Rebel. I don't seem to find your writing on Dissent, only the other contributors'. I'm still a novice at this.

January 04, 2006  
Blogger Rebel Girl said...

GW - I don't have time to post on our blog much - too many other duties - sigh. My colleagues, however, use it well.

More later perhaps - keep up the good work here --

January 05, 2006  
Blogger rabfish said...

Hey :)

Most forms of hijaab doesn't actually make you invisible, per se. Your face still shows. In fact it makes you extra visible. Niquaab, when your whole face is covered, is a different matter.

April 18, 2006  

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