For my reprieves from the academic, and for inspiration for my creative writing, I like to walk a trail around a lake in a community about a mile from where I live. This former summer community is an island of artsy-ness and progressivism, and higher real estate prices than the brick ranch houses like the one I live in. A locally famous folk-singing lesbian couple reportedly lives there, and that gives the community extra cachet.
Many of the cars in the neighborhood sport bumper stickers with the word “coexist” amidst symbols of various religions, and no one seems to enforce the residents-only rule for fishermen or picnickers.
Since no signs are posted against taking walks around the lake I feel no guilt in taking my constitutionals there; I return the greetings of dog-walkers and fishermen.
One afternoon, deep in the poetic reverie the lake and trees and birds inspire, I came across a sight spooky against this natural sunny backdrop: a woman completely swathed in black with only slits for her eyes. The incongruous sight of women, peering out of slits of cloth, in full Islamic regalia, behind the wheels of minivans or paying for goat meat at the Publix is no longer that unusual in my neighborhood, though it still takes me aback. But here on a sunny afternoon, amidst ducks and geese, and gazebos and picnic tables, came this creature who looked like the Ghost of Christmas Past with two small children: the boy around four years old dressed in typical Western clothing of pants and a shirt. The girl, about age seven, wore the traditional headscarf and long dress.
And there I saw myself.
I will never understand the feminist defense of this obliteration of a woman’s identity. This defense is put forth even by 18-year-olds, who repeat the regnant doctrine of relativism. I posed the question to my college freshmen, “Don’t you think it’s better for women to wear clothes that allow them free movement and the ability to communicate?”
“Well,” goes the answer, “to them [“them” being the key word] their dress represents freedom because no one views them as sex objects. And what do they think of our way of dressing in shorts and stuff?” This from a girl dressed in a shoulder-and-cleavage-revealing tank top.
I have had debates about this with liberals. But particularly for those who do not speak the language, facial expressions convey meaning and indicate good will and friendship. I was so used to greeting everyone I passed around the lake with a smile and a hello that in this context the isolation of this woman glared. For all their Simone de Beauvoir-inspired academic talk and analysis about the “gaze,” feminists cannot see this blatant disregard for the connection of the woman, particularly the woman who cannot speak the language, with the outside world. Not even able to feel the sun on her skin, the woman was cut off from the human community, encased in a shroud. I had visions of old footage of women from the Soviet Union in headscarves, shoveling the streets, pushing wheelbarrows.
I looked at her children: the boy who wore the clothes that gave him freedom of movement and allowed him to blend in with other children. But there was the girl, already being trained by the scarf for a reclusive life of subservience. I saw myself in the little girl, saw myself, the immigrant daughter of Slovenian parents who felt that the value of a daughter was in her service and that an education beyond eighth grade was a waste.
But I grew up in a culture that in the 1960s and 1970s did not adopt my parents’ ways. Rather, I and my Eastern European friends adapted to American ways. We adapted the fashions, the manners, and the attitudes.
A field trip to a public library, in Rochester, New York, opened a new world for me. With my precious yellow library card I took home books from a mote-filled library (now long closed after the riots). Once the books were in my room I could steal moments from my chores and before bedtime. I was drawn to a series of books bound in pink about a family of Victorian girls.
And that was my introduction to the culture of the West, specifically its wonderful patriarchal and chivalrous culture, borne of Christianity.
I don’t remember the titles or the author of the pink-bound books, but I do remember reading about a family of girls who were treasured by their father. These books exposed me to a culture that cherished, protected, and respected women—and that contrasted to the ways of my peasant parents. After reading the books I began to see that daughters of Americans were not treated like servants and sequestered in their homes. I began to think about putting myself through college and started a fund from cleaning houses and babysitting for neighbors. Books became my refuge and I began to reject some of the ways of my parents.
This process is called assimilation and at one time it was the expected course of events. For me, it represented freedom.
But as I remember the little girl in her headscarf in 2007 I see no such future for her. Indeed it is becoming more common to see college women wearing the traditional scarves, sometimes with blue jeans. Those who call themselves “progressive” would keep her in her headscarf, veil, and long gown. They defend her “choice” of wearing the garb of her mother. In fact, fashion shows and magazine spreads assimilate this fashion. A recent one in Marie Claire promoted such attire as adapted by designers. The hijab is chic.