Strength and Dignity are Her Clothing

Salma Gundi's picture

           I made my first overseas flight without my parents in my twenties. I had just finished graduate school, and stayed with them until I could afford my own place. My parents had left for India weeks prior, and I would soon join them. I had visited India twice as a child—oblivious to the cultural differences between India and the US. No worries. My mother prepared (translation: warned) me via written “what to pack” instructions she left on a note taped to the bathroom mirror. “Lots of long dresses. Nothing sleeveless. No short skirts.” (Meaning nothing that showed my knees). I sighed when I saw the last line on the list. Seriously? Not that she’d never before explained to me of the inappropriateness of women showing their legs in Indian society. But I had planned to pack some shorts and skirts anyway, and would just feign ignorance (or dementia). But there it glared at me in bold print through neon yellow highlighter. “NO SHORTS IN INDIA.” Great. It’s going to be hotter than Mercury out there (not actually possible), with AC not promised everywhere. #firstworldproblems.

            Flying Gulf Air I endured hours-long layovers in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. I kept myself entertained with Duty Free window shopping in aisles of perfume and purses I could not afford. And who knew you could buy 22K gold jewelry at an airport? I also passed time lounging on the restroom sofa reading books. Other times I’d snack on bottled kiwano juice and some sort of salted cherry-date-plum fruit roll up while people watching.

            Many women in The Gulf wore a niqab, which covered their bodies and entire faces apart from the eyes. Coming from California, seeing women “covered” per Islamic tradition rarely blipped my radar. But in light of my mom’s wardrobe limitations, this time it did. I felt sorry for them. They could never wear pretty feminine clothes or even comfy clothes in public. No shorts with a t-shirt. No little black dress. As for a shopping spree with the girls—why bother?

            I felt sorry for myself too. Because as much as I Loved Lucy in 1976, I didn’t want to dress like her in 1996.  But for the next twenty-plus days I would have to. I would not have felt irked if the Indian climate wanted to cooperate with this compulsory wardrobe modification. But in the Mumbai heat? Not fair.      

            Thanks to all the juice, I had to make frequent trips to the restroom. On one trip I passed around a group of niqab-covered women congregating nearby. As I washed my hands with the rose-scented soap I could hear a cackling hen party coming from the lounge sofas. As I walked over to dry my hands I couldn’t help but double-take at the women—niqab removed—some of the most stunning women I’d ever seen. I guess underneath the veils—perhaps in line with female modesty—I expected they would look…plain. But next to these women with their high cheek bones, gazelle-like necks, arched eyebrows and makeup applied to perfection—not to mention their Versace and Gucci attire—I felt…homely.

            But then I remembered how most of the world would never see their beauty. I found this fascinating, having just flown in from a nation where women feel expected to parade beauty and to show skin. (Ever tried hanging out at a resort pool in the US wearing a long-sleeved rash guard and board shorts?)  

            Pulling up to my uncle’s house in a Mrs. Roper dress, I noticed several neighbors wearing black burqas. Under the Eastern sun, this type of garment (which covers one’s entire face and body, with a mesh screen for the eyes) seemed so—oppressive. Archaic. Anti-social.    

            But I had bigger problems. And by the end of the trip I’d had enough. Because the men in India (or Rapistan as I had come to call it) seemed to get away with frequent brushing by and pinching, or just standing way too close—whether in line for fresh coconut juice, or in line at the airport. And each time it happened I hoped I would not turn around and have to snap off someone’s fingers. I thought of the women covered for the sake of modesty and protection from evil-intentioned men. And my pity turned to envy.

            I heard a pastor once say that he could think of nothing on earth more beautiful than a godly woman. The Bible encourages the internal beauty of female modesty (1 Peter 3:3-4.) Yet Islam has Western Christianity beat in the modesty department. And many Westerners view the Islamic covering of women as absurd. But from the perspective of avoiding unwanted attention, these women have an edge on Western women. Covering seems to carry benefits—the least being a reduced incidence of body shaming or eating disorders. (Covered women would hardly feel driven to engage in juice cleanses or cellulite scraping.) 

            In the perfection of Eden, Adam and Eve wore no clothing, yet felt no shame. I look forward to the day when I no longer have to feel incensed over lustful gazes and hands where they don’t belong. Perhaps when Eden gets restored and sin gets abolished, we will no longer wear clothing. Not sure though…I heard some buzz about royal robes. And I hope to at least wear something snazzy to all those feasts and banquets.  

            I heard about a preacher who visited the US from an African nation. After preaching one morning he later expressed his surprise to see so many prostitutes attending church that day. I never met those women, but I'd guess they were just average American female congregants. Though not much for gambling, I would still bet my life’s savings that at least half of them did not list “Prostitution” on their resumes. But how funny (translation: pitiful) that foreigners perceive American women this way based on a lack of modest attire. My mother had not wished for me to sweat like a serial killer sitting in the front pew of church. She just didn’t want men to treat me like a prostitute. (Her words—not mine.) If only my covered legs could have stopped them.      

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