Confessions of a Hijabi Living in Dubai - All that Glitters is not Gold
Jun 19, 2014
Melanie Elturk
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As some of you know, I live in Dubai. I moved here a little over two years ago and during the first year and a half I traveled back and forth to the States so often that it was hard to consider myself truly “living” in Dubai. Over the course of the past nine months or so I accepted my lot in life. I live in Dubai. I started working as a judicial law clerk at the international Court here and fully immersed myself in “Dubai living.” I
took it all in - the good, the bad and the ugly.
Very early on during my time here I remember a conversation with a friend who shared her experience wearing hijab in Dubai, “You don’t have to worry about it! No one stares at you, no negative comments…” As she was speaking I felt myself completely disagreeing with her. Sure, you don’t have to worry about hijab here in Dubai, but I never worried about it living in the U.S. either. I didn’t have a problem with stares or negative comments and for the most part the people around me were always respectful and if anything, simply curious. What I felt living here was the opposite of comfort – for the first time in my adult life I was actually at a crossroads with hijab. Don’t get me wrong, I never contemplated taking it off hamdulilah but my relationship with hijab changed. Growing up in the States, having a non-Muslim mother who had a very hard time with my hijab and working as an attorney at CAIR where I defended the right for Muslim women to wear hijab, I no longer had that strong conviction in hijab, that “say something, I dare you,” attitude toward hijab that I held so firmly back home.
The crossroads I found myself at was also fueled by a complete paradigm shift of what hijab was in this country. Growing up in the States, if a woman wore abaya full-time, surely she was a religiously devout woman who took hijab very seriously. The first time I saw women in abaya without hijab, I was stunned. The first time I saw a woman in abaya/hijab
take her hijab off in the middle of a store to try on a scarf confused me. The first time I saw women in open abayas proudly touting their skinny jeans, four inch heels and hijab perfectly placed over their teased coif with loads of make-up - I couldn't stop staring. My husband literally told me to "stop staring." I didn't get it. I didn't understand the cultural implications of a black abaya and hijab in this country and in a sense, my friend was absolutely right – you don’t have to worry about it! Hijab becomes ‘easy come, easy go.’ If you want to wear it, sweet. If you don’t want to, no big deal. Hijab became something light, something easily removable. The obvious disclaimer is that this is not the case with all Emirati women, as many of them take hijab very seriously, but the fact that this paradigm existed at all was a novel concept to me. (I'd also like to point out that all four of the local Emirati women I work with at the Court take their dress very seriously and wear abaya and hijab with such elegance and class. Not only that, they're in top leadership positions and I have the utmost respect and admiration for them).
Today at work I left to grab lunch. It was lunch hour so all the restaurants outside the courthouse were packed. I work in a highly corporate area that employs not only lawyers and judges but business people, consultants – basically your standard corporate big-wigs. I was standing in line and as I looked around me I didn’t see a single other hijabi besides the Emirati woman dressed in her traditional garb. No different than any corporate experience in the States right? Sure, but I was in Dubai, a “Muslim” country. Something inside hurt that so many of these women were in fact Muslim, but wearing hijab isn’t even on their radar. I was surrounded in a sea o
f tight pencil skirts, Louboutin heels and Prada purses. This isn’t a unique experience to the place I work either. With the exception of locals who, in many respects, are expected to wear the black hijab/abaya get-up, it’s not very common to see young professional women like myself, wear hijab. They exist, of course, but nowhere near the amount I thought they would and are far outweighed by women who don’t cover.
The other big difference is that fellow Muslim women who don't wear hijab look at me as if I'm the one who needs a reality check. I like to chock it up to displacement and inner guilt by these women who look at me as if I'm backwards, of a lower class or stature or simply uneducated. "And you were born and raised in America? What are you doing with that on your head?" I wish these women born and raised in so-called "Muslim" countries knew what it was like to truly be "American" or Western. Maybe they wouldn't try so hard to emulate a culture that only exists in their heads.
Standing in that line I saw girls desperate for attention from their male counterparts, flipping their hair, playfully clicking their heels and laughing exaggeratedly at super lame jokes (like, really lame). I thought about what it would be like to live here as a single woman. I thought about the desperation of so many women here who I’ve spoken to personally and heard account after account about the lack of real men in this city - would the way I felt about hijab change? If I was born and raised in this country would I have come to wear hijab at all? The more I thought about it the more grateful I felt to be raised in the States and wear hijab at an early age. It informed all my decisions - who I became friends with, what path I took in my legal career, what men I attracted strictly for purposes of marriage (can't stress that enough as I hear stories here about Muslim men who just want to "have fun.") and ultimately this business I started - Haute Hijab. It's the reason I could never raise a family here. When everyone around you is, "Muslim," you start to take that for granted. No tight bonds of community and brotherhood, no sticking together regardless of background, class, ethnicity or some other distinguishing factor.
When I receive those condescending looks from "enlightened" Muslim women who have been "liberated" enough to have the choice to wear tight skirts and low cut blouses I can't help but pray for them; feel grateful for the way I was raised and feel proud that yes, I am American, a very proud one at that, and I choose to wear hijab with confidence and conviction.
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