Getting to the Root of Things
By Yahiya Emerick
Have you ever wondered about some of the odd things that go on around you? Perhaps you had a weird uncle or saw someone quitting a long line just when they were about to reach the front? Well I’ve been wondering lately about some things and I’ve put some cerebral muscle into trying to understand the reasons for their existence. Here is a rambling exploration into a few of the little things that I’ve noticed in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world and a bit of commentary on each. No heavy article writing here; just some musings while taking a break from other projects at 11:30 pm at night.
The first thing I wanted to mention was the way in which non-Muslims perceive the Muslim style of dress, and vice-versa. Generally speaking, non-Muslims don’t like our prevalent cultural or religious fashions. Take the turban, for example: so many combative and coarse non-Muslims have disparaged it as a “rag” and they often call Muslims, Arabs in particular, “Rag heads”. Now, besides the fact that that is a very inaccurate statement, for the turbans I’ve seen look pretty well-made to the point of being expensive, it is also one of those cases of selective blindness. If some non-Muslims make fun of Muslims for wearing a wrapped cloth on their head, what is wrong with them that they cannot see their own neighborhood residents? Quite a number of African American teens routinely wear “do-rags” on their heads, which are essentially nylon stockings stretched over the skull. Many white teenagers and even grown men wear handkerchiefs tied around their heads “pirate-style”. This is quite a prevalent practice among white men and some women. But handkerchiefs? I’m old enough to remember when old men used to carry such “handkerchiefs” (or bandanas, if you prefer) in their back pockets to blow their noses with! It seems to me that the people who are calling Muslim turbans “rags” don’t seem to realize that it is actually their own community members who wear “rags” on their heads, not the expensive linen turbans of some in our community.
And the hijab- oh, how non-Muslims hate that one. But have you ever wondered why? And have you ever wondered why it seems that it is non-Muslim women who rail against it most of all? Look, in a nutshell the presence of the hijab is the greatest threat to the overall mental self-perception that non-Muslim (and non-hijabi Muslim women) have. It strikes out at everything they have been taught about themselves and who they are and challenges the very foundations of both their lifestyle as well as their self-image. That may sound heavy but consider the following: as creatures of this earth we are, necessarily, subject to the innate whims of our flesh. Basically, our more animalistic nature drives us to scrounge for food (resources), look for mates (for procreation of our gene pool) and to fend off enemies when we feel threatened. The common thread that runs in all of those things is the simple desire to gain as much pleasure as possible (food, sex, stimulation) while seeking to avoid pain as much as possible (threats, scarcity, rivals).
This is at the core of who we are and you can look this stuff up in a zillion psychological studies and behavioral reports if you don’t believe me. (Of course, we Muslims already knew all this stuff because there are many Qur’anic verses and hadiths that say as such.) Fast forward a bit: every animal in the world has its own way of dealing with these issues. We do as well. Look for correlations in the animal world for almost everything you see in the human world and you’ll be astounded! Don’t you remember all those nature documentaries showing animals strutting their stuff and showing to attract mates? The nest preparations, the gathering of resources, the mating dances, the fights against rivals- it’s all there.
Have you ever heard a woman being asked why she is putting on so much make-up, perfume, revealing clothes, etc…? They give the same answer every time: “I want to look my best”. Best? Best for who? How is that style in your best interest? Surely comfortable slacks or a long dress would be in someone’s better interest, at least health wise, than those tight, tight jeans. How is literally painting sticky goo all over one’s face going to make them look their best. Isn’t a person’s own face good enough?
The sad truth, that is often acknowledged, sometimes quite blatantly, is that those women who “do themselves up” are relying on all the gimmicks to attract the roving eye of potential mates. That’s all it’s for. Period. No matter what the woman says to herself, that girl wearing a miniskirt in the middle of winter is not doing it because it is in her best interests. She’s sacrificing her comfort to get the attention of men. Make up, revealing clothes, all the time spent on the hair: it is all for putting on an alluring (hopefully) show. But it is all a lie, an act. It’s saying, “I’m not good enough to get a mate with the looks I was born with.” Have you ever heard a woman complaining when someone sees her without her make up on? It ain’t pretty.
I tried an experiment once. When a pretty woman walks by, how do people react? I spent quite some time observing the faces of people in these types of circumstances. Picture this: a well dressed (to attract, of course) woman walks by a crowd of people waiting for a bus or something. Obviously, the men all look at her. Oh, the wolf stares! My God don’t women realize that if they wear modest clothing they can reclaim their private space? Don’t they know they have the right to “own” their own beauty?
But what is amazing to me is not what the men did, for that was predictable, but what the women in the lines did. After several trials, I found that the waiting women noticed the approaching female a bit quicker than the men, they stared harder at her, with faces that bespoke hostility (to a potential rival), and also that they were likely to talk about the passing women after she left, criticizing her attire or looks. Oh, how primitive we are as a species!
Fast forward again: from birth, females in the modern world are bombarded with messages of hyper sexuality. It didn’t used to be that way. In Western countries just a century ago there was a clearly defined standard of modesty that was followed. But with all the upheavals that happened, WW I, WW II, Cold War, etc…, Westerners developed a very lax attitude towards religion and morality. All the fear and death made people feel that God didn’t matter and that the focus should be on fulfilling ones self. It didn’t help matters that Greek and Roman philosophy, which is more of a crux of Western Civilization that Christianity, was always lurking in the corners with its hedonism, materialism and Machiavellian tendencies.
Today, little girls play with Barbie Dolls, no, scratch that, now they play with dolls with series names like Bratz, or Home Girlz, which show hyper sexualized girls with tons of make up, tight jeans and a sassy, Devil-may-care attitude. Then there’s the music. Little girls are taught to have the air-head of the moment teen queen singer as their “idol”. The themes of the songs revolve around campy self-affirming messages mixed in with chants about boyfriends and fun. And the TV shows! Oh. My. God. They are just awful.
I hadn’t paid much attention to shows directed towards kids on Saturday mornings, or in the afternoons for quite a few years. Then I was blessed with a family of my own. Look, I know there are some diehard Muslims who refuse to purchase a TV set, and I applaud them, but for the 99.99% that make up the rest of us, TV is a useful tool and has its purposes. (We did cancel our Cable service a number of years ago and thus have such limited viewing choices that our TV is most often shut off.)
My wife and I thought we would be safe with our child by just buying videos so we could really monitor what he was watching. Simple videos like Spot, Kipper, Thomas, Dragon Tales and Adam’s World soon piled up on our shelves. Then we discovered that PBS had some nice kid shows. Caillou, Arthur, Cyber Chase and Clifford. We trusted them to have safe programming for our kid to unwind with sometimes. Lo and Behold, one day a new show was put in the mix: Maya and Miguel. I was getting my kid’s lunch ready when it came on for the first time. After ten minutes of listening to it I was horrified! My God, it parlayed the worst elements of pop-teen culture into a cutesy colorfully packaged show centering on an ideal Hispanic family in American suburbia. I didn’t mind the cultural stuff for I have a great deal of respect for traditional Hispanic culture. What bothered me was that every episode had hyper beautified teen girls in all the latest (tight) fashions parading around from boyfriends to make believe rock stars and saying every decadent and sassy thing. After only a few days I learned to turn the TV off right when it comes on.
Out of curiosity one day, I surfed ABC, CBS, NBC, UPN, Fox and WB11 one afternoon from about 2pm to 5pm. I was so utterly confounded at how after school programming has changed since I was a kid some twenty-five years ago. The cartoons were full of weirdness, witchcraft and violence, the teen dramas were about nothing but 12 year olds and their boyfriend/girlfriend problems, and the accompanying music styles, slang and commercials were urban hip hop style, for the most part, with a generous helping of disrespect for parents thrown in. What are those TV producers doing to our youth! (I’ve even decided to not let my child watch Sesame Street anymore for all its new hip hop elements, dance party segments and such.)
Now what I’ve discussed about the music and video images shown to young girls on into teen hood can be delved into quite extensively, and there are great studies out there that you can look into, but what about social culture for girls? Basically, American culture today promotes such a poor image of young girls as to be almost unbelievable. The message is: “You’re not good enough if you don’t look good. You know you’ve made it if you have a boyfriend and all the best material goods.” Consequently, the girls try to outdo each other in the fashion craze of the moment- to do what? To attract boys’ attention (and the money they lavish on their conquests). Everything about who they are and what they want is wrapped up into this one thing, so much so that otherwise smart girls also feel pressure to acquiesce to this vain pursuit and some even “act dumb” to make themselves that much more alluring to boys. (That’s an oddity, isn’t it?)
My God, all those misguided secular feminists who walk around saying, “Well, young girls are taught to be submissive and thus they are being taken advantage of. We need to throw off traditional gender roles and empower women.” Are they loony? Men have always taken advantage of women since the dawn of time, but in a tightly structured conservative society, the behavior of men is regulated with complex social obligations. Basically, in a traditional society, the man has to marry the woman first and commit to take care of her before he gets what he wants. But in the West today (and spreading rapidly around the world) the social contract was disrupted by well-meaning, but misguided feminists who wanted to “liberate” women with a “Sexual Revolution”. In their view, a woman's body is reduced to being merely "her property" that can be used and misused at will. Well, it sounds nice on paper, but 16 year old girls are not exactly known for making the best life choices, especially under the pressure of a panting boyfriend.
Okay, thirty years later, men don’t have to meet a girl’s father or be on his best, most gentlemanly behavior. Now he can call a girl a (female dog) or a (woman of ill repute) and pressure her for what he wants with no strings attached socially or personally. And oh, the girls will work harder than ever before to beautify themselves (hoping to attract “the one for me”,) but moving from one partner to another endlessly. The low self esteem felt by so many women and girls today is a testament to all I write here. In the old days, love meant an affectionate feeling deep within the heart. Today it is a synonym for the physical act of sex. The feminists really screwed this one up. Now women are more vulnerable than ever before, afraid they won’t get a mate because the males no longer need to commit to pass on their gene pool, while the females are left, quite often, holding the bag (baby) with few resources to support them. "Ah," the feminists say, "we can't have the girl's happiness or future job prospects being dampened. Abortion is the answer! Kill the baby so the girls never have to face their 'mistakes'". Oh, what a vicious circle all of this has become!
And so, back to the hijab. When a Muslim woman walks by wearing hijab, it is a challenge to the non-Muslim in so many ways. Here is a woman choosing not to be part of “the game”. She doesn’t date. She was most probably a virgin when she married, and if she is unmarried she wouldn’t even think of running with the wolf pack, ur, I mean boys. She doesn’t spend hours primping herself with hundreds of dollars worth of hair, nail and make up products. She’s not concerned with the latest fashion trend. She doesn’t even want the boys to look at her. She has contempt for the whole process. She knows she will probably find a husband (not a one night stand or boyfriend-of-the-moment) and doesn’t waste every one of her brain cells worrying how she can cheapen herself further to get a boy to notice her.
Though her future husband might not be perfect, there certainly won’t be any lecherous, sleazy or broken boys for her. No drunks, drug users, tortured artists, disease-ridden tattooed gang members or useless user with no job or ambitions. The non-Muslim woman knows all these things when she sees a woman in hijab, even if she doesn’t quite articulate that to herself so eloquently. Here, in the hijab-wearer, is not a rival for the boy’s attention, but even worse than that, the non-Muslim woman sees an indictment of herself. Her inadequacy, her uncleanliness, her immorality, her weakness to the whims of every foolish fad and fashion “statement”, her dependence on unprincipled men for her tiny shred of self-esteem and her utter hopelessness at the future, for she doubts she will ever really find a nice, wholesome boy to be with, let along marry, especially if her current lifestyle is factored in. The non-Muslim woman realizes, in the unconscious centers of her brain, that she is unclean and impure and that this woman before her, who covers her looks and uses her clothes as a shield from the wolf stares of boys, is better than her. That is it and that is all that can be said.
Muslim women who don’t wear hijab are caught between these two poles and are forever in danger of slipping away into the nihilistic and self-destructive path that is the lot of the “modern” woman. They had best be careful, for even if they have enough good upbringing from their youth to shield them from most of the ill-effects, if they don’t make a stand and set an example for their daughters to follow, then they are dooming their daughters to be sad for the rest of their lives, even as they present a false smile to the world around them.
Now, turning to boys’ clothes. Muslim boys have always had it easier than girls. There’s no hijab to struggle with and most families allow their boys to wear virtually whatever they want. I rue the day when I see my first “Muslim” boy wearing his pants below his underwear. (I’ve already seen some doing the one pant leg up, one pant leg down thing). Boys, whether Muslim or non-Muslims, used to dress in a much classier way decades ago, but now it seems that, for the under twenty-five crowd, the hip hop/sports look is in. But whereas girls dress to attract the interest of the boys, boys, themselves, try to dress in a macho or tough way. All the sports clothing is nothing more than a cheap way to make people think that by wearing a 'Shaq' shirt, you are, by extension, as able and vibrant as Shaquille O’Neill. The Hip Hop style promotes another type of toughness, that of the merciless and hard hearted gang member.
The idea, as it is with walruses, lions and a zillion other species, is that the most virulent and aggressive male gets to mate with the females. One man explained to me why so many boys, especially in urban areas, wear so many gold necklaces. He said that it wasn’t the necklaces that were important to the wearers, but the message that wearing valuable gold sent: “I can defend this treasure from you. I am a formidable opponent.” In other words, “Don’t mess with me.”
But this whole jewelry thing for boys is really quite amazing. When I was a kid a boy might wear a single thin necklace or a man would wear a wedding ring, but, O Lord, what has happened today? It seems boys everywhere are loading up on necklaces, ear rings, tongue rings and other exotic things. They look so wimpy and effeminate, I just want to hurl insults I remember from my youth that were used upon “girly men” to use a Shwartzenagerism.
Now I learned that in Islam a man can wear nothing more, in the way of jewelry, than a silver ring, and that girls can wear whatever they like. But it’s really quite amazing to me the number of “Muslim” men and boys who wear necklaces, gold watches, jeweled rings and such. But I’m getting off topic here.
I’m more interested in how Muslim parents are perceiving the dressing habits of their boys. Other than wearing T-shirts with bad messages on them, I haven’t seen too much badness in the way Muslim boys dress. In fact, when I see Muslim boys going to Jumu’ah dressed in a quasi-Hip Hop way, with baggy jeans, baggy shirts and baseball caps, I get kind’a happy. They are fulfilling the requirements of the Auwrah. They might as well be wearing a baggy Shalwar/Khamis and kufi! When I hear the older men complaining sometimes and telling the boys to take off their caps, I want to tell them, “No, the cap is just a kufi with a brim. Tell them to turn the brim to the back and be happy they are covering their head with something.” Indeed, our teens today are not the topi wearing types.
Turning to Jews and Muslims, I have an interesting observation. Where I grew up there weren't many Jews. The few that were around lived in a very wealthy community called West Bloomfield and they were secular and blended in completely. Well, since I've moved to New York, I've noticed that there are many kinds of Jews from secular to ultra-religious. Can you believe it, a huge chunk of the Jewish girls and women in New York dress almost identically to Muslims, just minus the headscarf style. Look, they wear long skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and they cover their hair with a beret, hat, or handkerchief. Sometimes, I have to do a double-take when I see someone from behind who looks Muslim, and then they turn and I see they're Jewish. All those feminists are out there railing against the Muslim dress code for women, but they would never dare, not in a million years, tell religious Jewish women to wear mini-skirts, uncover their hair or wear short sleeve shirts! I mean it is absolutely astounding to me!
In Jewish neighborhoods the females dress almost exactly like Muslim females. The same amount of the body is covered, just with different fashion expressions. I remember that just after 9-11, Oprah Winfrey had a show with some Muslim women and she was asking them about some of the discrimination they were going through based upon their obvious dress. She asked one Muslim lady why she didn't just avoid the discrimination by simply not wearing her head scarf. I couldn't believe that Oprah would ask such a question, and her being a woman of color. She might have just asked a black person why they didn't avoid discrimination by just staying out of white areas. It was such an unfair question. Well, the Muslim woman gave an okay answer, but it wasn't memorable. Instead, she should have looked Oprah in the eye and said, "Would you ever ask a Jew to remove his yarmulke to avoid discrimination?"
Sometimes I feel so bad that Muslims and Jews don't get along because we have so much in common. If it wasn't for all the discrimination they suffered from Christians over the centuries, they might not have ever started the militant Zionist movement whose sole aim was to reconquer a strip of land their ancestors lost over two thousand years ago. Well, you know what that has sparked off!
I really think Muslim women, in defending their use of the hijab, need to play this card more, the promotion of the idea that Muslim women are not the only ones who dress this way. We need to bring up, loudly and clearly, that Jewish women are asked to cover in the same way- and many do, and that the Bible also tells Christian women to cover. (See this fascinating resource: http://www.muhajabah.com/christianveil.htm) We need to remind Christian women that it was not so long ago that their own great grandmothers always covered their hair in public with a hat, a bonnet or something similar.
Well, I’ve rattled on about clothes for long enough, and as I am looking at the clock I am becoming increasingly alarmed that it is almost 2 am in the morning. I hate it when that happens, but writing (or reading) tends to make time somehow move faster. In a future article I will bring up some other issues for discussion. There is always something brewing on my mind. I hope that after reading the few points I mentioned here that you, too, take a second look at things as they are and what the real meaning of things is.