I am...a New Yorker

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Tuesday, November 5, 2002
In Henna and Hijab

The sidebar is as exhausted from the rushed preparations, as if I was married myself.

I am...prone to letting my eyes wander down to the curving, dotted pattern of henna on my left hand. It is a confused memory. Conflict. Sisterhood. Modesty. Celebration. Confusion. Congratulations. Concern. Connection. Alienation.

On Saturday, a coworker was married 4 weeks after meeting her now-husband. I have to chuckle when I think of how short a time ago it was that she asked if I would marry Rafe to keep him in the country and told me what a bad idea that was. I'm certainly not one to rush.

But she said she just knew he was The One, so what can you say? It is truly a marvelous thing, as the Imam pointed out during the ceremony, that our company -- a Jewish non-profit -- was so supportive of this coworker, raised Christian, when she converted to Islam.

Likewise, her fiance was welcomed warmly by everyone at work. By all accounts, he seems a nice enough guy. Although I was initially so shocked I had nothing to say for the first couple of days after the announcement, he has gone out of his way to be warm to myself and her other friends.

Frankly, I think we're all just so delighted with good news here in New York. It seems to me we celebrate the happy passings of life all the more, now.

Naturally, my favorite part of the weekend was the henna party on Friday night. Heck, I've been craving a henna tattoo since I saw Monsoon Wedding and, years before, when a friend had one done before a wedding. With the exception of the fiance's brief appearances (and the accompanying scurry for headcoverings) and the last hour or so when the husbands came to prepare the food for the wedding, it was all women.

Although I am so absurdly shy at first in any new situation, I truly enjoyed listening to the others talk, several of their conversion to Islam. Most of all, I liked the sight of women speaking kindly together, laughing, dancing, decorating one another.

The bride was forced to be still for several hours straight, rather uncharacteristically. But it was well worth it. Her henna was lovely, and terribly intricate.

bride's palms
The bride's palms

bride's hands
The Bride's hands.

My left palm
My left palm. This tat didn't come out very well; the tubes of henna weren't as good as the homemade. It has all but disappeared, except the dot in the middle, made with the homemade henna. Notice the bride's hands and feet in the background.

my left hand

Back of my left hand. This tat came out rather well, pity the photograph didn't.

EJ in a hijab
Yours truly in a makeshift hijab; it actually reminded me more of Soviet bread lines and Leonid Bresnev's intimidating brow.

The whole head wrap thing bothered me. Although recently I've had this internal debate about modesty perhaps being the way to go, I still think of it in terms of individual choice. I'm very uncomfortable with it being compulsory. Although the sisters' head coverings were varied in size, shape, style, colors, material, etc. and it wasn't the full burqua -- I have an inherent discomfort with the burden being put on women.

I take the Golda Meir perspective -- if it's men who are out committing rapes, why put a curfew on women? Put the curfew on men. Similarly, I wonder why it is that physical/sexual restraints for men are not more widespread? Why aren't men expected to wear veils, when beards are a far stronger sexual indicator than hair on the head? After all, there is no great difference between a woman's hair and that of a girl; girls are not expected to cover.

But, of course, someone's wedding is no time to bring up the politics of the hijab. The bride and groom oooed and ahhed at how "right" I looked covered up. I didn't tell them how completely conspicuous I felt, just joked that I do not accessorize for just anyone. Indeed, the scarf was hanging in my eyes until a friend of the bride helped me pin it.

So it was my first time at, or rather, in a mosque. I went to the same mosque for an open house on September 11th, but didn't find my friend. I debated about going in alone (again, shy in the new situations) over dinner downstairs. I left with Rafe when he appeared, after he finished praying.

At any rate, the ceremony was very much like any other wedding I've been to, except that there was more translation necessary. Also, the main Imam was stuck in traffic, so the ceremony began late and, while the first Imam began the proceedings, he could only do so much, so as not to step on the toes of the other. He couldn't finish the ceremony, so he went into great detail about what is appropriate in a relationship, what is expected of each partner, etc.

Of course, I have a problem with the man/wife relationship being described as the most sacred and such, as it seems to be in every religion. So what of us spinsters? Have we nothing sacred to offer the world without a man to complete and complement us?

Some of the sisters I met the evening before asked what I thought about the ceremony, about the mosque. One, a convert of just 2 weeks, was particularly anxious for my reaction. I did not have much to say. It was really so much like any other wedding, as I said. Several women told me repeatedly how beautiful I looked in the hijab.

"Does it make you think?" asked the statuesque, blonde Bosnian expectantly. She had helped me adjust the scarf earlier.

Just then, a man walked up and said, "Excuse me, sister, may I get a plate?" as he squeezed by.

"See! He thinks you are a sister, a Muslim!" she said, excitedly.

It reminded me of the Skinny Yemeni, who I dated about 5 years ago. He used to say, no matter what country I mentioned wanting to visit, that I would blend right in, because I look like I belonged there. The funniest was when he'd talk about my "Chinese eyes." So, slap a scarf on me and I'm a Muslim.

Oy vey.

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Replies: 1 Comment

You are very lucky to have experienced that! I am marrying an Indian Hindu in about a month, but alas we will not be having a Hindu ceremony. I'll be having my hands and feet mehndi-ed though. I can not wait for that! :)

Posted by erica @ 11/06/2002 11:15 AM EST

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