On the Secret of Your Youth
For more than a third of my life, I kept my hair as a secret.
I started keeping it to myself when I was 17, just as I was about to start my life in the Netherlands for a four year college, away from my parents.
Somehow, my mother thought that by keeping my hair a secret through covering it, I would become more vulnerable. She regretted my decision. She said I was too young to have it covered, and in doing so, I had given up my charm or what limited beauty I was given.
My parents were only mildly religious then. Their religious expression started and ended with praying as often as they can to reach five times a day, but nothing beyond it.
My mother couldn’t understand that for me it wasn’t a sacrifice or a resignation of anything. In fact, I was convinced that it was an act that would make me beautiful for a certain standard. (So much for the claim of humility.)
She didn’t know for a year before that, I had been surrounded by friends who periodically would ask me, “What’s stopping you? Why are you doubting? Why haven’t you thought about covering your hair? You are put on earth to do good, and this is how you do good, be good.”
In my circle of friends, I was the last one to put the veil on, and they were happy, excited, elated, that I had finally ‘seen sense’ in what they had been saying.
Soon after, I developed new body gestures, of swiping my sideburns — unruly, untameable — because it wouldn’t stay under wraps. The flimsy scarf material kept on sliding backwards, even while pinned, so I kept adjusting it forward again to cover my bangs.
People, mostly men, asked me things like, what do you have under there? Do you tie hair up? Is that a bun? Is your hair long?
It was only recently I realised how out of place those questions were.
“The more you keep them under wraps, the more people are curious. By covering it, you are just drawing attention to it,” some of them said. Why do those men felt entitled to ask about parts of a woman’s body that they cannot see?
Other than that, I went through the first year of covering my hair relatively with little problems. The only challenge I had to overcome was people’s perception that I hadn’t realised existed until they said, “You’re pretty cool/smart/modern for a person wearing a veil.”
But then several things happened in succession.
There was 9/11 and the paranoia it ensued, the assassination of a Dutch politician who had an anti-Islam rhetoric (even though the guy who did it was an animal rights activist), and France’s law banning the public use of religious symbols, including the headscarf.
These was enough for my mother to consistently asked during our regular phone calls whether I had encountered specific problems. I didn’t experience open insults, but still, had I been a less serious or a less stubborn person, I should’ve thought of taking it off sooner. But the more I was rejected or doubted — mostly as a possible co-worker and a potential housemate — the more I was insistent on keeping it on, even when faced with the prospect of no job or no house in a foreign country.
And I did keep it on, for the whole four years until I graduated.
It wasn’t faith or the believe to God that sustained me, more because I truly believed that by wearing the veil to cover my hair was part of my identity, that I wouldn’t be who I am without it.
When I went back to Jakarta in 2004, I came home to a mother who went from being disappointed that I’ve covered my hair to a mother who has recently covered hers. I didn’t ask her why, she told me herself; she said it was time. Just like my friends, hers said, “You’ve reached this age and still haven’t covered your hair? What more are you waiting for?” So she succumbed.
(Though maybe ‘succumbed’ was not the right word to describe it. In using the word, just as my mother has doubted my agency over choosing to cover my hair some years ago, I may have questioned hers. Such irony.)
At that time, the experience and stories of women covering their hair in Indonesia has only started to become more and more often heard, but it was not at the stage of being common yet.
It was only less than 12 years ago, but I remembered a time in Indonesia when certain magazines or companies wouldn’t hire me because of the veil. They didn’t say anything openly, but from the way they looked at me or the sneering questions I was asked during job interviews, I feel the familiar kind of rejection that I got in the Netherlands. And in receiving comments of how I was “pretty cool/smart/modern for a woman wearing a veil”, I was facing the same type of stereotypes in Indonesia as I did in there.
In public spaces or later in my work place, I still stood out. Wearing the veil, along with my fatness, was seen as sort of a descriptor of myself for/by strangers.
Some women with veil covered their hair by using a scarf tied in an elaborate way, by layering it or shaping it as a flower, to avoid more stereotyping. By wearing the veil this way, they showed that they are not like the other regular veil-wearing women; they are the urban/modern/financially affluent type.
This has become a selling point for the veil as well for those still doubting over embracing it in the midst of increasing social pressure to wear it: by presenting the veil as a fashion choice. As if it said, “Here’s another way to be pretty while still wearing the veil”. The hair covered was replaced with an artificial one, only this one was made out of colourful cotton and silk.
The ‘modern’ hijab amplified my mother’s initial worry of the veil as a ‘sacrifice of beauty’ and my initial belief that I was adhering to a new beauty standard as it became some form of commodification. It then became yet another form of social pressure to ‘update’ my veil to this look.
But isn’t my line of thinking subjected to a set of assumptions or generalisations, not dissimilar to my experience of being faced with a set of assumptions, albeit a different one? As in I questioned these women’s intent; that by wearing the veil their way, they are not serious enough, humble enough, or pious enough to want to wear it in the ‘correct’ way.
If the experience taught me anything, the veil isn’t a monolith, it never means one particular thing for those who wear it.
Author Elif Batuman, in the New Yorker, wrote about her experience with Turkey and the increasing affinity of its people to the veil after being a secular country for so long. After visiting a religious site, Abraham’s cave, in Urfa, she forgot to take her headscarf off.
All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me “sister.” It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned—it was a wonderful gift.
And yet, when I thought about leaving the scarf on for the rest of my stay, something about it felt dishonest, almost shameful, as if I were duping people into being kind to me. Those girls who smiled into my eyes—they thought I was like them. The guy who helped me on the bus—he thought I was his sister.
It was not dissimilar to my experience. As more and more women wore the veil, the more it was seen as a normal, an accepted, and even expected behaviour, the more I realised people treated me kindly with certain reverence as they assumed I have a certain amount of piousness that made me eligible to receive some type of behaviour.
I should revel being in the majority for once, but as the number of women who wore the veil grows bigger to the point of it being ubiquitous, it feels more difficult for me to have a unique and personal connection to that identity. If the veil didn’t mean the same thing for women who wear it, for the society who view women who wore it, we became a monolith. I had become inseparable with the other women wearing it.
Just as I experienced rejection and doubt in my initial experience of wearing it, I had experienced kindness because I was wearing it. Either way, it was not the actual me who they responded to, it was just their assumption of me.
I saw the monolith value of piousness projected through screens, in films and advertisements and an increasing television presence, but even then I realised, I was still not at an in.
The identity discord was the first thing that made me question my association with the veil. Do I still relate to it? In what way? Does it still mean the same thing to me now as it did then, when I was 17?
I thought about taking it off for three years before actually doing it.
Is this what it is like to come out? Or to mull over a divorce before filing it? In feeling restless that I have resigned to do something but in not having enough courage yet to go through with it?
It was during this thinking period that I had the chance to interview Nawal el Saadawi when she came to Jakarta in 2006. There were three other journalists with me, all women. One of them asked her about the ‘obligation’ of moslem women to wear the veil, a relevant question for Indonesia. She answered, there’s no such obligations.
“What Islam said was to dress properly,” she told us, emphasising her point by pulling and straightening out her collar and sitting more upright. “Nothing about wearing the veil.”
Then she looked at me in the eye and said, “I’m telling this so you don’t have to look like this anymore. You don’t have to wear it.”
Having an author you’ve idolised, whose books you carried around during high school while pushing it to people’s faces forcing them to read it, telling you you do not have to wear the veil should have an impact. But my response to this intimidating figure was one of resistance.
As per my usual mode, I only gave out a polite half-smile, though in my head I crafted a perfect response of, “But I wasn’t pressured into it.”
Or was I?
Eventually, in late 2009, when I got a new job, I saw it as a way out. Not just financially or career-wise, but also to resolve my identity issue. I would meet new people in a new place, so I could start over with relatively minimum social consequences. And in this I realised, the only reason I had put off the decision for so long was because I was too cowardly to do it in a place where I have worked for the last 5 years.
At one point of the thinking period, I have stopped associating the veil so closely with an identity I chose and create for myself. Its power over me lessened, that it had become much less of a symbol but merely as what it was, a cloth.
My removal of the veil was quite practical. I did it on a Sunday, the day before I was supposed to start my new job.
On the last day I wore it, I went to my relatives’ place with my parents and sister. Afterwards, I told my family I needed to go and get a haircut and we went our separate ways. I went to a toilet mall to remove the veil. Nobody was there to see me go in and out.
For the first time in 10 years, I walked around in public with my hair — my secret — exposed. I felt lighter yet self-conscious, not knowing what to do with my head or how to position it now that I have one layer less.
In a new haircut, I came home to my parents’ house to their immediate questioning and regret. I was baffled — for an action I have chosen and decided for myself that they objected to, I had thought they would be relieved when I stopped doing it. But such was the attachment of values and expectations of the veil; that by no longer keeping my hair hidden, I was faced with my parents’ objections. As if they have some stake in the choices I make for my body (not) being seen in a certain way.
Post-removal, a former colleague — who I’m not close with — once wrote a happy birthday message on Facebook right under an old photo of me with a veil and added, “I still like this version of you better.”
A close friend commented, “Now who you are on the inside matches the you on the outside.” And another best friend said, “Now that I seen this version of you, I can no longer think about who you were before.”
The odd thing was, I was still one and the same.
In discarding the veil, by no longer keeping my hair a secret, I was just removing a token of my youth. Perhaps remembering that period of my life was not that different to looking at photos of a younger version of you with a bad haircut and in ill-fitting clothes or baggy jeans. You look at it slightly horrified, cringing, but also smiling at your naivety, and exhaling from a mixture of relief and the passing of time, saying, “What was I thinking?”