Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Choosing Hijab in a Bi-Cultural Interfaith Family

Photo: Courtesy of Ismail Suayah; O Magazine

Regular commentator, Shafiq, of The Student View, kindly sent along this article, Cover Girl. I found that the article, written for O Magazine, by American Krista Bremer about her own mixed family, her Libyan husband Ismail, and her daughter Aliya, gives a very good, personal perspective on some of the issues which face bi-cultural and interfaith couples, particularly in raising children. I have excerpted the article below, though I encourage you to read it in full; and, I will make some observations afterward before starting the discussion with some questions.

COVER GIRL by Krista Bremer

Nine years ago, I danced my newborn daughter around my North Carolina living room to the music of Free to Be...You and Me, the '70s children's classic whose every lyric about tolerance and gender equality I had memorized as a girl growing up in California. My Libyan-born husband, Ismail, sat with her for hours on our screened porch, swaying back and forth on a creaky metal rocker and singing old Arabic folk songs, and took her to a Muslim sheikh who chanted a prayer for long life into her tiny, velvety ear. She had espresso eyes and lush black lashes like her father's, and her milky-brown skin darkened quickly in the summer sun. We named her Aliya, which means "exalted" in Arabic, and agreed we would raise her to choose what she identified with most from our dramatically different backgrounds.

I secretly felt smug about this agreement—confident that she would favor my comfortable American lifestyle over his modest Muslim upbringing. Ismail's parents live in a squat stone house down a winding dirt alley outside Tripoli. Its walls are bare except for passages from the Qur'an engraved onto wood, its floors empty but for thin cushions that double as bedding at night. My parents live in a sprawling home in Santa Fe with a three-car garage, hundreds of channels on the flat-screen TV, organic food in the refrigerator, and a closetful of toys for the grandchildren. I imagined Aliya embracing shopping trips to Whole Foods and the stack of presents under the Christmas tree, while still fully appreciating the melodic sound of Arabic, the honey-soaked baklava Ismail makes from scratch, the intricate henna tattoos her aunt drew on her feet when we visited Libya. Not once did I imagine her falling for the head covering worn by Muslim girls as an expression of modesty.

Last summer we were celebrating the end of Ramadan with our Muslim community at a festival in the parking lot behind our local mosque. Children bounced in inflatable fun houses while their parents sat beneath a plastic tarp nearby, shooing flies from plates of curried chicken, golden rice, and baklava.

Aliya and I wandered past rows of vendors selling prayer mats, henna tattoos, and Muslim clothing. When we reached a table displaying head coverings, Aliya turned to me and pleaded, "Please, Mom—can I have one?"

She riffled through neatly folded stacks of headscarves while the vendor, an African-American woman shrouded in black, beamed at her. I had recently seen Aliya cast admiring glances at Muslim girls her age. I quietly pitied them, covered in floor-length skirts and long sleeves on even the hottest summer days, as my best childhood memories were of my skin laid bare to the sun: feeling the grass between my toes as I ran through the sprinkler on my front lawn; wading into an icy river in Idaho, my shorts hitched up my thighs, to catch my first rainbow trout; surfing a rolling emerald wave off the coast of Hawaii. But Aliya envied these girls and had asked me to buy her clothes like theirs. And now a headscarf.

In the past, my excuse was that they were hard to find at our local mall, but here she was, offering to spend ten dollars from her own allowance to buy the forest green rayon one she clutched in her hand. I started to shake my head emphatically "no," but caught myself, remembering my commitment to Ismail. So I gritted my teeth and bought it, assuming it would soon be forgotten.

That afternoon, as I was leaving for the grocery store, Aliya called out from her room that she wanted to come.

A moment later she appeared at the top of the stairs—or more accurately, half of her did. From the waist down, she was my daughter: sneakers, bright socks, jeans a little threadbare at the knees. But from the waist up, this girl was a stranger. Her bright, round face was suspended in a tent of dark cloth like a moon in a starless sky.

"Are you going to wear that?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said slowly, in that tone she had recently begun to use with me when I state the obvious.


Photo: Courtesy of Krista Bremer; O Magazine

On the way to the store, I stole glances at her in my rearview mirror. She stared out the window in silence, appearing as aloof and unconcerned as a Muslim dignitary visiting our small Southern town—I, merely her chauffeur. I bit my lip. I wanted to ask her to remove her head covering before she got out of the car, but I couldn't think of a single logical reason why, except that the sight of it made my blood pressure rise. I'd always encouraged her to express her individuality and to resist peer pressure, but now I felt as self-conscious and claustrophobic as if I were wearing that headscarf myself.

In the Food Lion parking lot, the heavy summer air smothered my skin. I gathered the damp hair on my neck into a ponytail, but Aliya seemed unfazed by the heat. We must have looked like an odd pair: a tall blonde woman in a tank top and jeans cupping the hand of a four-foot-tall Muslim. I drew my daughter closer and the skin on my bare arms prickled—as much from protective instinct as from the blast of refrigerated air that hit me as I entered the store.

As we maneuvered our cart down the aisles, shoppers glanced at us like we were a riddle they couldn't quite solve, quickly dropping their gaze when I caught their eye. In the produce aisle, a woman reaching for an apple fixed me with an overly bright, solicitous smile that said "I embrace diversity and I am perfectly fine with your child." She looked so earnest, so painfully eager to put me at ease, that I suddenly understood how it must feel to have a child with an obvious disability, and all the curiosity or unwelcome sympathies from strangers it evokes. At the checkout line, an elderly Southern woman clasped her bony hands together and bent slowly down toward Aliya. "My, my," she drawled, wobbling her head in disbelief. "Don't you look absolutely precious!" My daughter smiled politely, then turned to ask me for a pack of gum.

In the following days, Aliya wore her headscarf to the breakfast table over her pajamas, to a Muslim gathering where she was showered with compliments, and to the park, where the moms with whom I chatted on the bench studiously avoided mentioning it altogether.

Later that week, at our local pool, I watched a girl only a few years older than Aliya play Ping-Pong with a boy her age. She was caught in that awkward territory between childhood and adolescence—narrow hips, skinny legs, the slightest swelling of new breasts—and she wore a string bikini. Her opponent wore an oversize T-shirt and baggy trunks that fell below his knees, and when he slammed the ball at her, she lunged for it while trying with one hand to keep the slippery strips of spandex in place. I wanted to offer her a towel to wrap around her hips, so she could lose herself in the contest and feel the exhilaration of making a perfect shot. It was easy to see why she was getting demolished at this game: Her near-naked body was consuming her focus. And in her pained expression I recognized the familiar mix of shame and excitement I felt when I first wore a bikini.


Photo: Courtesy of Krista Bremer; O Magazine

I imagined Aliya in a string bikini in a few years. Then I imagined her draped in Muslim attire. It was hard to say which image was more unsettling. I thought then of something a Sufi Muslim friend had told me: that Sufis believe our essence radiates beyond our physical bodies—that we have a sort of energetic second skin, which is extremely sensitive and permeable to everyone we encounter. Muslim men and women wear modest clothing, she said, to protect this charged space between them and the world.

Growing up in the '70s in Southern California, I had learned that freedom for women meant, among other things, fewer clothes, and that women could be anything—and still look good in a bikini. Exploring my physical freedom had been an important part of my process of self-discovery, but the exposure had come at a price.

Since that day in Venice Beach, I'd spent years learning to swim in the turbulent currents of attraction—wanting to be desired, resisting others' unwelcome advances, plumbing the mysterious depths of my own longing. I'd spent countless hours studying my reflection in the mirror—admiring it, hating it, wondering what others thought of it—and it sometimes seemed to me that if I had applied the same relentless scrutiny to another subject I could have become enlightened, written a novel, or at least figured out how to grow an organic vegetable garden.

On a recent Saturday morning, in the crowded dressing room of a large department store, I tried on designer jeans alongside college girls in stiletto heels, young mothers with babies fussing in their strollers, and middle-aged women with glossed lips pursed into frowns. One by one we filed into changing rooms, then lined up to take our turn on a brightly lit pedestal surrounded by mirrors, cocking our hips and sucking in our tummies and craning our necks to stare at our rear ends.

When it was my turn, my heart felt as tight in my chest as my legs did in the jeans. My face looked drawn under the fluorescent lights, and suddenly I was exhausted by all the years I'd spent doggedly chasing the carrot of self-improvement, while dragging behind me a heavy cart of self-criticism.

At this stage in her life, Aliya is captivated by the world around her—not by what she sees in the mirror. Last summer she stood at the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway, stared at the blue-black outline of the mountains in the distance, their tips swaddled by cottony clouds, and gasped. "This is the most beautiful thing I ever saw," she whispered. Her wide-open eyes were a mirror of all that beauty, and she stood so still that she blended into the lush landscape, until finally we broke her reverie by tugging at her arm and pulling her back to the car.

At school it's different. In her fourth-grade class, girls already draw a connection between clothing and popularity. A few weeks ago, her voice rose in anger as she told me about a classmate who had ranked all the girls in class according to how stylish they were.

I understood then that while physical exposure had liberated me in some ways, Aliya could discover an entirely different type of freedom by choosing to cover herself.

I have no idea how long Aliya's interest in Muslim clothing will last. If she chooses to embrace Islam, I trust the faith will bring her tolerance, humility, and a sense of justice—the way it has done for her father. And because I have a strong desire to protect her, I will also worry that her choice could make life in her own country difficult. She has recently memorized the fatiha, the opening verse of the Qur'an, and she is pressing her father to teach her Arabic. She's also becoming an agile mountain biker who rides with me on wooded trails, mud spraying her calves as she navigates the swollen creek.

The other day, when I dropped her off at school, instead of driving away from the curb in a rush as I usually do, I watched her walk into a crowd of kids, bent forward under the weight of her backpack as if she were bracing against a storm. She moved purposefully, in such a solitary way—so different from the way I was at her age, and I realized once again how mysterious she is to me. It's not just her head covering that makes her so: It's her lack of concern for what others think about her. It's finding her stash of Halloween candy untouched in her drawer, while I was a child obsessed with sweets. It's the fact that she would rather dive into a book than into the ocean—that she gets so consumed with her reading that she can't hear me calling her from the next room.

I watched her kneel at the entryway to her school and pull a neatly folded cloth from the front of her pack, where other kids stash bubble gum or lip gloss. Then she slipped it over her head, and her shoulders disappeared beneath it like the cape her younger brother wears when he pretends to be a superhero.

As I pulled away from the curb, I imagined that headscarf having magical powers to protect her boundless imagination, her keen perception, and her unself-conscious goodness. I imagined it shielding her as she journeys through that house of mirrors where so many young women get trapped in adolescence, buffering her from the dissatisfaction that clings in spite of the growing number of choices at our fingertips, providing safe cover as she takes flight into a future I can only imagine.

Krista Bremer is the winner of a 2008 Pushcart Prize and a 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. She is associate publisher of the literary magazine The Sun, and she is writing a memoir about her bicultural marriage.

I feel like we can all relate to Krista Bremer's description of the balefulness of the tween, the growing identification with peers, and the assertion of greater individualism that accompanies late childhood as a prelude to adolescence. Though in the case of Aliya, clothing choices and their implication for her, now and as a woman, are an obvious outward symbol of religious choices she seems to be making, little boys go through similar identification processes, symbolizing their identifications in ways that may or may not be less outwardly obvious for Muslims, especially in Western culture, but may still involve choices like dressing more modestly--no shorts except for sports, no muscle shirts, etc. Other religions require specific symbols to be worn by both girls and boys, or even boys especially, for example Sikhism, or Conservative/ Orthodox Judaism. So, in an interfaith family making the decision to raise the children in both faiths and let them choose later, such changes in apparel may signal a choice for either a boy or a girl. One that is followed by more steps like those that Aliya is taking in learning the Quran and the Arabic language.

On the other hand, tweenhood is a rather fluctuating time of taking up and dropping interests, moving from one social group to another, forming and unforming friendships, and beginning the dance of challenging the same gender parent. Perhaps Aliya will move away from Islam, and when she has finished her quiet rebellion against her mother, post adolescence, will move toward Christianity. Maybe she will go on to university and have any of the common undergraduate identifications with existentialism, Jungian religiosity, agnosticisim, indifference, comparative religious studies with no firm allegiance to any one, or (hopefully not) a cult. She may have an influential friendship or a romance with someone of another religion and take up that one. She is still quite young to be making lifetime choices of this nature--as she has been given a choice.

The writer, here and in the full article which includes more of her own experiences growing up, does address the issue of cover as covering insecurities.This can also be particularly common in mid-late childhood, as girls and boys go through an awkward stage of being neither fully childlike nor fully adolescent, and often have an unshapeliness that defies fashion. They may be too stick like, or too chubby in a late baby fat kind of way to be fitting properly into increasingly young adult styles. Adolescence has other body image issues, partly as a result of mentally accepting a changing body, emotionally dealing with hormones, and finding an adult identity within society with its now greater complication of romance along with other changing relationships (familial, and social).

However, this is not to reduce covering to a form of neurosis, which it clearly isn't. Never the less, Bremer does write as if her daughter has become more alien to her: "half of her", "a moon in a starless sky", "a four-foot-tall Muslim", "a child with an obvious disability" who makes her feel hypertensive, claustrophobic, self-conscious, and protective. Part of a child's evolution involves parents accepting that their children are different from themselves, and have different opportunities and choices to make, as Bremer acknowledges by the end.

I do find it particularly interesting that Krista Bremer recognizes that both parents seemingly agreed on raising their children in both faiths and letting them choose, while confident the child would choose their own religion and the culture that goes with it. Each then goes about doing the appropriate teaching of the faith but also probably some "suasion". Some are more "persuasive" than others. I do think all couples have some issues where they "agree" in this same manner, either consciously or unconsciously expecting a certain outcome. Usually, as long as they are cognizant at some level of the possibility that there may be a different outcome, and can handle the disappointment, this isn't too big an issue.

What are your impressions of the article?
Do the experiences described resonate with any you have had, or know of, as a child or a parent?
Is a 9-year-old mature enough to make such decisions? How old is old enough?
Do you have the sense that Aliya is making a firm choice, and following the path of Islam?
How accepting is Krista of her daughter's decision? Is she still hoping for a reversal?
What issues may come up with her son in the future?
How accepting do you imagine Ismail to be?
Do you agree with the idea of raising children in more than one faith and letting them choose?
What approach would you take/have you taken to the children's religious education in an interfaith family?
Religiosity, and sometimes even religion, changes over the course of a lifetime. How should parents react as their children go through this evolution? How do they/have they reacted in your experience?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Dentographer said...

very interesting,kudos to the parents for being so open minded on giving their daughter much freedom of choice.
its a tough stage,personally i dont even know if i can do it.

though i admit,the part where comparing hijab directly with disability,is the least to say,demeaning.

and i noticed that both her parent and slightly in ur addendum you both were wondering if its just a phase that she passes through and "grow out" of.
i didnt understand why it was refered to as a way for her to runaway from the developing body of a young female and thinking that she is doing this because she is rather cover it completely than dealing with it in front of the mirror.

may be it is what makes her feel at peace,given that this story is only the experience of the mother,i think for us to get the full image,we should hear the daughters side of the story.

really nice post,i enjoyed it!

Wendy said...

"What are your impressions of the article?
I have to admit I could understand her mother's angst. I do not belong to any organized religion and must admit I would not want my child to embrace a religion as strong as Islam.

"Do the experiences described resonate with any you have had, or know of, as a child or a parent?"
I have not had to personally deal with this kind of issue.
"Is a 9 year old mature enough to make such decisions? How old is old enough?"
Well, she at least has a choice. I would like to see children be able to make a choice and not feel pressured in any way. Is a 9 year old mature enough? I don't know. I think I would like to see people always studying and examining religion.
"Do you have the sense that Aliya is making a firm choice, and following the path of Islam?"
Often little girls want to emulate and please their fathers so she might be doing this for/because of him.
"How accepting is Krista of her daughter's decision? Is she still hoping for a reversal?"
I believe she is still hoping for a reversal. She may also feel alienated and fear losing some part of her daughter.
"What issues may come up with her son in the future?"
I don't know.
"How accepting do you imagine Ismail to be?"
I would say that it depends on how he embraces his own faith. I am inclined to believe that most people who are brought up as a Muslim would want their children to follow.
"Do you agree with the idea of raising children in more than one faith and letting them choose?"
"What approach would you take/have you taken to the children's religious education in an interfaith family?"
I have not had to face this but I would not want to have a child knowing that they would 'pushed' to follow a particular path.

"Religiosity, and sometimes even religion, changes over the course of a lifetime. How should parents react as their children go through this evolution? How do they/have they reacted in your experience?"
I should hope that parents be supportive. I understand that this is not always easy. Being a parent is not easy so I think it could be very hard to sit by and see a child make a choice a parent might not agree with.
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?
Cultural and religious differences can be difficult. I think it takes a great deal of effort and understanding at times to deal with situations. There have been more than a few times when religion and culture have caused me to step back and think a bit more before I speak. I am actually better at this now that I have visited my husband's country a couple of times and see where he's coming from.

Chiara said...

Dentographer--thank you for your very insightful comment! I will begin with your remark that the author and I seemed to imply Aliyah’s wearing hijab (both the scarf and the modest clothes) was a "passing phase" or stage. For my own part, I did and do wonder about this as part of the type of assessments I do professionally which look at different life stages including the tween 9-12 one. During this time children are old enough and developed enough to explore a variety of socialized activities and physical skills and many do. They also experiment with fashion, behaviours, and musical likes that imitate those of adolescents in a toned down way. Some of these pursuits and identifications remain with them and some are passing. In Aliyah's case, her mother indicates that her interest in religion via fashion is recent.

I don't think religion is a passing phase, but one's attention to it and how one shows that mirrors life phases often. For example, tweens are often interested in rituals, including clothes, adolescents are interested in abstract and philosophical concepts of theology, and are more reflective and questioning (in keeping with Piaget's developmental phases of cognition). Young adults are more pragmatic, new parents have renewed concerns about ritual and transmitting religion. Career, income, and social concerns vie for the adult’s time and attention. Middle age brings a renewal of reflection, often in the form of recognition of mortality, and older adults often return to more active practice of their faith.

Aliyah seems to be right on time tween wise, but what concerns her mother is that she is opting for Islam rather than the Christian expression of religiosity that she was expecting, despite her commitment to her husband that their children would be raised as both, and then be allowed to choose. Aliyah could for example do what many little Christian girls do, become more interested in praying to Jesus, in wearing religious jewelry like a crucifix or crosses, joining a church group, being part of a church choir, etc. If Roman Catholic she could be planning for her Confirmation, reading about the saints and picking her saint's name, planning her dress (somewhere between the wedding dress look of a First Holy Communion, age 6ish, and an adult wedding dress), etc. Her mother would even be happier if Aliyah were just running around enjoying nature, but Aliyah isn’t, she is exploring Islam and committing to learning more.


Chiara said...


You are right that the hijab could be a very healthy sense of being at peace with oneself, and one’s body in the world. I think both the author and I were referring to the body image issues that start preoccupying tweens, and are more marked in adolescence. In the tween age this is all about leading up to puberty, and how the body is changing in keeping with that. For girls this does involve comparisons with each other about breast development and its timing, height, weight, curviness, hair styles (and body hair), colouring, facial features etc.

There is a long lead up to menarche which is an issue in itself. There are both personal issues around all of this and trends in ideal body shape, hair, colouring, etc which they are aware of. Some have their body maturing faster than that of their peers or too fast for their emotional sense of wellbeing. Others are dismayed at how loooong it is taking for them as compared to others. And all this well before the issue of romance is anything more than a “yuck”. In this context, hijab could be an expression of submission to Allah, obedience to parents, a personal sense of modesty in public, a refuge, a fashion statement, or all of the above.

As you rightfully point out, this is really the mother’s story and Aliyah is not given her own voice but rather seen through the mother’s prism of her own childhood and wishes for her daughter. We aren’t as privy to Aliyah’s thoughts on the matter except by her actions as reported by her mother. The story is also left open-ended, but I get the sense that mother is really hoping this is a passing phase, and Islam will go back to being a fun day to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Thanks again for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

Chiara said...

Wendy--thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic! They stimulated more thoughts of my own.

I'm not sure Islam is necessarily a "stronger" religion than others, as I have seen it practised--or not--in varying degrees of conservatism and adherence. In that sense (as opposed to a theological one) any religion could be more or less strong.
Perhaps you meant something different though. If so, let me know.

I'm not sure a 9 year old can make an informed choice about religion except to explore it further, or to identify with it more. It is unusual to have such an option as most are just raised whatever their parents are or want them to be and leave it at that. Parents don't often make the decision to raise a child with 2 faith experiences and let them choose, although American journalist Cokie Roberts (Irish Catholic) and her Jewish husband did, and then wrote an excellent book on it. I forget now but I think their 3 children chose different paths and there were more interfaith marriages.

I agree that Krista seems to be desperate for this to be a passing phase and hoping for a reversal. She seems admirably honest that this is her issue, and trying to be open, but she does have some very negative associations with hijab as Dentographer highlighted. I also think Ismail is rare, since all the Muslims I know, including the "non-practising" ones want their children raised Muslims. Rather like "cultural Jews" still want their children identified as Jewish, including a bris.

I think Krista's son will go through similar phases, appropriate to boy's development which is a little age shifted to later compared to girls but involves analogous issues. She may worry as much or more about a half Arab Muslim adolescent, young man in the current climate in the US.

I also agree that allowing or helping children learn to make their own choices is one of the hardest parts of parenting. Certainly exposure to another religion enables one better to see the assumptions of one's own, and to be more cautious in speaking. In terms of a mixed marriage it certainly does help to visit the home countries of the partners and get to know their life, friends, family, and society there. It gives a much better context for understanding the person as a whole.

Thanks again for your comment!

I liked the article because it deals sensitively with very common challenges for mixed families, especially interfaith ones.

I hope others will share their thoughts and experiences too, whether on the post or the issues raised in the comments so far.

Dentographer said...

am new to read about someone being so professionally analyzed according to her behavior,this is pretty deep!

we all went through the maturity phase,comparing stuff and all,boys and girls,and yes,its not a stage that was pretty,even for those who were happy,they were at a time not,and were the bad side of the comparison.

personally,i found peace when i stopped measuring beauty by the physical appeal,and somehow,and it might just be a coincidence,but every time in my life i meet some one who is above average in the physical terms,usually he/she is not at peace when it comes to personality.
it happened repeatedly in my life that i was convinced that beauty is truly within,that i started to actually sit and talk with any person before i make even a first impression,and honestly the difference was dramatic!

i am muslim,and i also wonder what made a young girl like her to choose this path,cos even in muslim families,girls only consider hijab when the body curve start to look pretty prominent.

you never know,may be her early embracing to something she truly believes in might be the reason that she becomes one of the futures most remarkable females in the world,i.e. let us stay optimistic that anything she is doing,she is doing it for positive reasons and hopefully will have positive out comes.
i truly wish her the best,where ever she finds sanctuary.

Wendy said...

Chiara - by stronger I mean that is not an easy one to remove oneself from. I live with someone who is very, very moderate but I feel Islam has many more daily rules and rituals then most Christian religions and some Jewish sects. To me it quite dominates life and especially when living in MENA countries. To me it seems less flexible than the religions I am familiar with. Does that help to explain how I see things?

Chiara said...

Dentographer--LOL :)
I certainly hope that Aliyah has a very bright future with the type of inner beauty that comes with serenity and confidence. It seems that in some Islamic cultures wearing the headscarf is more common around age 9 so I wonder if she is in a school where that is so (my sister has taught in one), or is just wanting to imitate girls a little older than herself.

This seems like a family that is doing and will do fine, but if they ever did show up in my clinic office I would really want to know more about this:

I watched her kneel at the entryway to her school and pull a neatly folded cloth from the front of her pack, where other kids stash bubble gum or lip gloss. Then she slipped it over her head, and her shoulders disappeared beneath it like the cape her younger brother wears when he pretends to be a superhero.

Why doesn't Aliyah wear her scarf at home, and in the car? Why does she wait till she thinks her mother has driven off and then put it on? Why is she more comfortable being her visibly Muslim self at school than at home? What is really bothering mother so much? Why does she see her daughter as needing so much protection? How bicultural/interfaith is this family really?

Then I would expect some tears, and anger, and eventually everyone doing even better. :)

Thanks for the follow-up!

Wendy--Thanks for the explanation, that is much more clear. I have to say though that the day to day impact is different depending on the Muslim country one is living in and where, both in terms of expectations of personal practice, and in the social structures, including government, education, law, etc.

Thanks again for the followup.

I had an email comment from a woman who wears hijab in the US that Aliyah was more on track about the hijab than many women in the US who get tired of the stares and the ignorant assumptions. I hope she will comment here on the blog and elaborate as her own experiences seem to mirror some of what Aliyah's mother fears for her.

Thanks again!

Susanne said...

Did the mother say what her faith was and how involved she was in it? It seems I remember mention of celebrating with Muslims at an Eid party, but I wondered how involved their family was in participating in church or mosque activities. I know many Americans today call themselves "Christian," yet that doesn't mean they actually follow much about the faith. They are more nominal/cultural Christians than maybe "practicing" ones. (Sure I believe in Jesus, but that's about the extent of my Christianity.) Not saying this is right or wrong simply that if the parents weren't involved in church activities, I'm not surprised at all that Aliya didn't identify with any church friends. Perhaps she didn't have any.

Either way, it's cute to see the little girl dressed in her Islamic attire and read her story. I saw this same article posted on about 4 other blogs except they were all Muslim women posting it. It seems it went viral! :)

And as one living in NC, I must say I identified with some aspects of this article including trips to Food Lion and the Blue Ridge and that southern drawl. :)

Thanks for sharing!

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for your comment, and perspective! I agree that there is little mention in the article of the mother's faith, only of Christmas at the maternal grandparents' home and lots of presents under the tree. In fact the whole approach to raising the children in both faiths is vague, and seems more predicated on the ambient culture, and socializing occasionally with the Arab Muslim community who welcome all to the post Ramadan celebrations in my experience.

The approach to Christianity seems a very secular one, and a consumerist one. The first part is, as you point out, a common one these days (though less common in the US than in Canada). The latter part, the consumerism, had me off and thinking about the particular founding Protestantism(s) of the US, and the role of Calvinism with its valorization of material success for the greater glory of God--an unusually strong pairing of money and faith. Nothing like the Catholicism of the meek shall inherit the earth which has contributed to the impoverishment of certain former colonies. But I head off on a thesis topic... LOL :)

I'd be interested in your summary of the ways in which this article was presented on other blogs, and the reception it received. My own interest was in the fact that it seemed a more positive appreciation of interfaith couples than one often reads, and yet on closer reading there are subjacent issues.

One of those is what a couple thinks they are doing when they believe they are exposing their children to both faiths. How balanced is it? How much faith/ religion/ culture/ family is there in the mix? Do they attend services in both places of worship? Do they send the children to religious studies in both faiths? Is it with the idea of forming their own religious identity or better knowledge/ understanding of the "other" faith? Do they send the children to public schools? What is the faith base of the public school or that particular one? Do they send them to the best academic/ sports/ arts private school which just happens to be whatever religion? Do they make use of exemptions or alternatives for religious studies classes at the school? How do they handle what choices the child makes? Including about marriage and faith?

Let us know your impressions and further thoughts! Thanks again for your comment!

Chiara said...

This morning I was lucky enough to walk through a park at the same time as a lovely class of students on a field trip. They were all non-white that I could tell (a couple of giant sun hats), and included East Asians and South Asians, and maybe some West Asians (aka Arabs). There were a lot of girls in pants, and longish skirts, and only some boys in shirts. Besides the sun hats, and a remarkable lack of sun hats/caps, there were a couple of headscarves. They were all excited and chatting, and walking 2 by 2 holding hands--except for the boys crying jubilantly with their arms raised the name of the festival they were attending on the other side of the park. They were very well-behaved and keenly looking around.

When I got to the level of their East Asian teacher, I complimented the children and asked her what school they were from. She told me the name of the public school, and then I asked what grades: "Grade Ones and Twos." (ages 6-7, with maybe a few recently turned 8 year olds). I complimented the children again and headed off.

A quick check online shows they are from a "downtown inner city school", where 85% of the children are from non-English speaking homes, representing "50 language groups". They reside in the 20+ nearby apartment blocks (aka including subsidized housing)with one of the densest population concentrations in North America. About a third of the school population is kindergarten age (mostly 4 and 5, some 3 turning 4 and recently turned 6).

The school has amazing outreach programs to university and college institutions, public health programs, a literacy centre for parents and other family members, and public school funding of second language programs (ie after school instruction in a language other than English or French, whether one's family language or not). 1/2 the student population participates in this program. The school wins awards for its community outreach and ecology program, with a school-community herb and vegetable garden. Its curriculum is inclusionary (rather than one of the ethnicity based curricula), and focuses on social justice themes and socialization skills as well as academics.

I am impressed to say the least--mostly by the children themselves.

In keeping with the theme of this post, I do wonder what the meaning is of a headscarf on a 6-7 year old. Most likely, "from a conservative Muslim family." Maybe I will see them in a med school class one day, and find a way to ask. :)

Chiara said...

EDIT: ...only some boys in shorts...
No children were topless!!! LOL :)

Susanne said...

Chiara, glad the kids all had shirts to wear! ;) Thanks for sharing about seeing those well-behaved children. That's really wonderful!

Oh the article was well-received on the blogs where I saw them. Lots of "alhamdulilahs! :)

Thanks for trying to understand my perspective. I suppose I look for people actually being involved in religious activities when they say a child chose a certain faith. I hardly think unwrapping presents at Christmas as the whole of following Jesus. :)

Chiara said...

Susanne-thanks for your follow-up. I thought there might be happiness about Aliya's choice, which is appropriate. I agree that there is more to raising children in a faith than Christmas presents. Parents often transmit premises or beliefs they unknowingly hold from their own faith system, but still the children don't necessarily have the framework unless they have been taught.

I have a friend who is a Christian married to an atheist. Although she knew he was from the beginning, it bothered her more than she thought, and of course became more of an issue when they had children. Their compromise was that she took them to Church, and Sunday school (which she also taught) and he never discouraged that. He also began saying he was agnostic rather than atheist. I would call him more of a lapsed Protestant, but he is free to call himself what he wants.

I also had a patient who thought she was raising her children to make their own choices about religion beyond simply believing there is a God. However after she divorced her husband and his new wife took the children to the Billy Graham Crusade and they were all born again (like the new wife). My patient was "distraught" shall we say, especially when the children started worrying about her soul, and thinking she might be going to Hell. It made her reconsidered her own beliefs and what Church she might join. Last time we met she was considering the Unitarians.

Cokie Roberts and her husband raised their children with both sets of rituals, observances, and holidays, Catholic and Jewish, which I think gave the children a better idea of what they were choosing. She tells a hilarious story of the first Passover dinner she prepared, following a menu and recipes very rigorously, only to learn mid-way through dinner that she had prepared traditional Sephardic dishes for her Ashkenazi inlaws. She and her husband decided to follow a Sephardic menu as their own celebration with their children, and so she made the new "family favourites" each year. She also has a hilarious story about VIP guests and a turkey. Bottom line, she is a better reporter than full time wife (not working because she followed her husband's career to some remote place gave her a depression and her husband found her a job in journalism to restart her career).

I do think that most couples and families work out their interfaith identities well, even if there are some rough patches, a predictable one being on the birth of children, and the "suggestions" from the inlaws on each sides.

However there can be differences even within the same faith in terms of observance, public schools or not, etc. I should know, my parents were raised in Italian Catholic families with completely different attitudes towards formal Church involvement. It caused some friction inlaw wise but we all survived it! :)

Thanks again for your comment!

oby said...

Part 1...

I had read this story a month ago(I have a subscription to O magazine) and though my story is not exactly the same, I recognized a lot of the same feelings in it.

In many ways I don’t even see this as a story about Islam or hijab…it is about a little girl who is on a journey and “trying on different hats” (as I like to tell my daughter) to see which one fits her best. It is a search about identity and captures beautifully a mother’s ambivalence of letting go. When your child is born you have a picture in your head of what you think that might be. If your upbringing was great it might be similar if it wasn’t it might be a fantasy of creating for your child what you wished you had growing up. Having a child is like putting legs on your heart and allowing it walk freely around in the big bad world. The sense of vulnerability is greater than that of anything you will ever feel…anything. It is a combination of awe, love, fear of the millions of things that you had never thought of before but which now play over and over in your head like a bad movie, a huge sense of responsibility, feelings of guilt for any number of reasons real or imagined, it makes you confront your own feelings of insecurity and anxiety. It is the most humbling experience one can have. Having said that…

I remember when my daughter tried on Indian clothes for the first time. For those of you not aware there ain’t nothin’ subtle about Indian clothes…the brighter the better! And I don’t mean one color at a time either. Oh yes, they have skirts covered in mirrors and tops with little jingly bells on them. They can be beaded six ways to Sunday and for good measure add a pair of thick ankle bracelets that jingle with every step you take. Now me, I was more of the subtle, Ralph Lauren type (read classic and boring) in terms of preference for clothes…not to loud, nothing that screams “Here I am!” when I walk into a room. My daughter, on the other hand, was most definitely born with the Indian gene for ostentatiousness. If it jingled, flashed, shone or otherwise blinded you with color she was like a fish to water!! She reveled in her shiny (and I do mean literally shiny) outfits. I admit at first I felt a touch squeamish because it was not like me at all and I thought “what will my friends say”. I quickly realized that even if it made me uncomfortable I had no right to impose that on my daughter who was, after all half Indian and came by this love of gaudiness honestly. I will admit I have truly gotten into the spirit of things and relish wearing a jingly top or two myself! It is amazing how what once seemed “over the top” is perfectly normal and pretty once you stop worrying what others will think.

As for Aliya…like my daughter she might be trying on hats. ( no pun intended)Why the Muslim one and not the Christian? Maybe the family does not actively practice their religion. Perhaps the father watches a lot of Arab TV and she sees women broadcasters or other women in hijab and it feels OK and familiar , maybe she has a great relationship with some muslim “aunties” and they wear hijab and she relates to them. Or maybe like my daughter with Indian clothes, she saw other girls wearing hijab at functions and wanted to do so herself. I am personally of the belief that unless she is raised actively with the religion (and she might be…I don’t know) I think for her to want to wear hijab as an expression of her religion is a bit of a stretch at least at 9. I am sure she realizes that hijab and Islam go together and she sees all the Muslim ladies do it and therefore equates it to religion, but as for a deep grasp of religion I think she might be a bit young for that. I don’t think she can think in the abstract well enough to “explore” that on anything more than a superficial level-yet. I admire her desire to know more and maybe she has already chosen and will continue to do so for her life. But I see it at this point anyway as an experimentation rather than a concrete, well considered choice.

oby said...

Part 2:

Why she wears it when she enters school leaves me wondering too. Perhaps she feels her mother’s ambivalence and doesn’t want to incur her disapproval or maybe she feels it is for modesty…this one I am finding a bit iffy. In the third grade kids still play together and to be modest would indicate there is something to be modest about. Perhaps she is a mature 9 year old but when my daughter was 9 she wasn’t worried about “modesty”. She wasn’t even thinking about modesty. (Although I was) And she shouldn’t be worried about it at 9. She was a healthy little kid unencumbered with thoughts of showing too much. She wasn’t immodest but she was a regular kid who ran and jumped and played with a lot of gusto and enthusiasm. Now that she is entering 6th grade and developing she is much more concerned about modesty and rightly so. If Aliya is worried about modesty I have to wonder if someone has been emphasizing that to her. ( seems a bit young ,especially in the USA when both parents are not devout, to be concerned about that.) but I also have to wonder if wearing the hijab has not given her a recognizable identity among her peers. For example, my daughter played the clarinet in school band. She was so good at it that the teacher asked her to please tone down her playing so the other kids could get a chance. The teacher is finally switching her to base clarinet because she blows so strongly that she is blowing everyone out of the room. She is the only base clarinetist in the school besides another kid in upper classes. Not surprisingly she LOVES base clarinet and wants to go professional…we’ll see. My point is that she stands out and loves the base clarinet because it gave her a special identity that no one else has. Maybe the hijab serves that purpose for Aliya…she gets emotional strokes. I am only exploring possibilities. All of this is part of growing up and finding your voice. Maybe she will stick with it, maybe not.

oby said...

Part 3: sorry it is so long...

As for issues of modesty for the mother I can totally relate. My personal belief is that in the USA we have oversexualized our children and forced them to grow up quickly far quicker than they can emotionally handle. All for a buck. It is nauseating and trying to sell daughters on the idea that sleazy does not equal pretty feels like trying to bail the ocean with a thimble sometimes. I agree that girls use clothes and popularity to determine the hierarchy and pecking order, ( I hate that) much as boys use sports and physical prowess to determine their hierarchy. I was an absolute zealot about what my daughter wore, what she watched on TV and at the movies. I tried to do it all while allowing her to retain her sense of childhood and not worry about such things at such a tender age. That was my job at that time. Some of my friends used to give me flak about being overprotective. I tried to get them to understand IMO, once a level of what is allowable is breached it is like trying to stuff a genie back into the bottle. I wouldn’t allow her to be shoved forward into early adulthood just because society offered a buffet of options. And I am here to tell you, until you are intent on looking for modest summer clothing you don’t realize how fashions come and go. One year trying to find longish (just above the knee shorts was next to impossible.) My solution? I went to the thrift stores where clothing had been donated from other summers and found many suitable options. Thankfully, my daughter was on board with this. I never let her wear a 2 piece suit. She had to wear a one piece exactly for the reason Aliya had…it is too hard to have fun and play when you are worrying about your pants or top slipping (and I see a two piece as a bit of a rite of passage for a teen girl.) And that is how I put it to my daughter….the slipping part I mean.That constantly being on guard is not fun and by wearing a one piece she could totally not worry about that and have fun…it was only this year that she was allowed a two piece-a tankini- as modest as I could find and still be a two piece and be mainstream. Once the novelty wore off she went back to the one piece suit. It can be a difficult proposition…trying to guide and protect while all the while knowing that your child has her own personality and ideas and as a mother it is your job to raise her to separate from you in order to find her own way. It is an impossibly difficult task filled with conflict. Your heart wants them to stay little forever so you can keep them close and your head knows she must move forward in order to develop her own sense of self. Tricky indeed. AND prone to a lot of angst on each side. I think the mother shared that jumble of feelings. The hijab was the object of choice for her (mother’s) internal conflict about disengaging from her child, but it could just as well have been makeup or high heels or dating or boys or a million other things.

Anthrogeek10 said...

Sorry for the delay.
I read it in it's entirety and find that due to the holes in the story, it is all just speculation regarding how dedicated the parents are to their respective faiths.
I do not think a 9 year old is capable of making lifelong decisions regarding faith.Others on your reading list have commented clearly about that topic; I would be just reiterating many of their comments. No need to waste the time of either one of us regarding that.

I will share a personal experience. When I was in 8th grade, it was common to go through the sacrament of confirmation. I attended Catholic school. The Church told us this is the "threshold" where we would be adults but we did not have to go through with it. I wanted to be an adult and go with the group, opposed to stepping back and thinking about if being a Catholic was the right thing for me. Ahh well. My Dad was such a strong Catholic I did not want to disappoint.

Your correct regarding your observation about Muslims wanting to raise the children in kind. The mothers husband is an outsider of sorts-as it seems.

Chiara said...

Oby--thank you for your comment(s)! Sharing your personal experience helps frame this as the mother-daughter developmental stage which is a big part of it. I firmly believe "separation-individuation" psychological stages are harder on the parent than the child. True it is hard to know any more that what is written about the motivations and evolution of the foray into covering for both mother and daughter. It would be great to have an update in a few years.

I don't think little girls pay much attention to their bathing suit bits when they are having fun. The auther was referring to a girl a few years older and with breasts, playing table tennis with a boy her age and worrying. However, the part I edited out for length, and because it was focussed most on the mother's past, I think exaggerated the "sexual gaze" and its impact on girls that age. She seems to exaggerate how many males are looking and with what intensity and motives. I haven't found that to be true in years of observing people in pools and on beaches. Some girls are very shy, and some boys/men very inappropriate but it is rare.

True that the mother focussed on hijab as a sign of her daughter's separation-individuation, and also true that really raising children is a series of separations and individuations, beginning in infancy, and continuing through adulthood. So both mother and Aliya will have a few more!

Thanks again for your comment, and sharing.

Chiara said...

Anthrogeek--thanks for commenting. I thought this would be close to your areas of interest. About your personal experience, peer pressure is intense at that age, and school pressure too. Fortunately most of us have only done things like sing soprano-descant in the school choir, read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and wear some pretty awful (in retrospect) fashions to fit in!(Not mentioning any names of course! LOL :) ).

Thanks again for your comment. Drop in when you get the chance and good luck with the job search! :)

oby said...

Yesterday my daughter and the group she is in camp with went tubing. my daughter allowed herself to fall through the tube and then when she jumped up through the hole the back in her bathing suit bottom(tankini) slid halfway down her butt. She layed on top of the tube struggling to get it back up while the boys behind her were laughing.

Coming home she said "oh Mom, It was so embarrassing." Nothing like a lesson learned through experience.

Susanne said...


"and wear some pretty awful (in retrospect) fashions to fit in!(Not mentioning any names of course! LOL :) )."

Two words: poultry print???


Chiara said...

Oby--thanks for sharing that. The lessons of youth! Fortunately later on the looks are more discrete--sometimes! :)

Susanne-this still makes me ROFL!!! :)


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