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?