We were already closed. The girl came in and politely asked for a glass of water. She couldn’t have been over 18 and was covered in a black shapeless abaya, her head wrapped in a dark hijab that framed her pale and perfectly oval face. Glass of water in hand, she produced a plastic cup hidden in the fold of her dress and asked me to refill it. As if needing to give an explanation, she added “It’s so hot outside”. Summer has finally exploded in Southern California and in looking out the window it was hard not to notice a group of girls, more or less her age, prancing around in tank tops and shorts.
The Muslim family had caught my eye a little bit earlier, sitting on the patio at a long table, the patriarch in the middle, with a long beard so black it looked dyed. An assortment of kids of different ages were sipping smoothies and two teenage girls, dressed in black, rounded the tableau. Their eye make-up looked incongruous against the black veil, maybe the only concession to the plain and shapeless garments. While the girl walked out I couldn’t resist wondering whether she was happy with her circumstances or whether she envied the carefree looking girls scantily dressed, laughing loudly and running around as a pack, no parents or brothers in tow.
We live in a country that has always prided itself in the more or less smooth integration of the different immigrants that reached its shores over the centuries. Every ethnicity wears its origins on its sleeve and no one is denied the possibility of professing their faith and customs yet, as more diverse and orthodox cultures have moved here to look for better lives, we are having a hard time accepting their ways. And should we? Or should we draw the line where others’ basic freedoms are violated, at least in our eyes? Was that girl happy, as many Muslim women profess to be with their status, or she just accepts what she knows and is denied the chance of exploring different ways of being that might better suit her?
I recently read an article in which a panel a doctors suggested the practice of “nicking” might be a better alternative to the female circumcision – if we allowed a little “nick” on the outer labia, maybe the communities who force a full-on circumcision on girls might opt for it, instead of endangering their daughters. I find both practices repulsive and a deep violation of the female sexuality but could this be a middle ground to appease everybody?
My instincts revolt at everything that diminishes, violates or plainly stops women from embracing every opportunity they might want to choose, any suppression of their rights, lack of access to education or independence and I personally perceive having to hide one’s body or an arranged marriage as barbaric oppressions. But the more I come in contact with real examples of customs that are so alien to me, I find I have more questions than answers.