Now I think I understand more than ever why some people view head-covering as a symbol of oppression. Just today, I finished the book The Green Bicycle, by Haifaa Al Mansour.
I found it intriguing and thoughtful. My oldest two (ages twelve and ten) have also read it. The book has sparked some interesting discussions already, regarding modesty, multiple wives, the Koran, gender-segregated schools, and girls riding bikes! Aside from mature themes and some bad words, the book was worth reading and I feel I can recommend it to others, if you’re not especially sensitive in those areas.
The Saudi Arabian heroine of the story, Wadjda, loves to practice her aim throwing rocks and takes delight in exploring the neighborhood’s abandoned lots and buildings. As an only child, she has no one to play with except her friend Abdullah, a boy. After a shiny, new green bicycle suddenly appears in the local toy shop, Wadjda is convinced she needs to buy it. But how? Her profits from bracelet-making and candy-selling won’t be nearly enough. When her mother refuses to help (she doesn’t dare ask her father), Wadjda decides to get creative.
As I read about her attempts, and close-to-crushing failures, to scrounge enough money for her dream bike, some themes surfaced. This isn’t just a story about overcoming odds (though that certainly is a major theme); it’s a story about having the courage to challenge society’s expectations.
Will her friend Abdullah manage to defy the “boys don’t play with girls or even care a speck about them” expectation of his school fellows? Will Wadjda’s father defy his mother’s (and his culture’s) expectation that he will marry another wife because his first wife (Wadjda’s mother) hasn’t “given” him a boy? Etc., etc. I found myself questioning whether I might not still be afraid to challenge silly cultural traditions in my own life. What makes a tradition silly or unfair? Are all traditions unreasonable? If not, how can we differentiate between those that are, and those that aren’t? What traditions are worth holding on to?
I was impressed by the graphic visuals the author utilized to tell her story, instead of depending overly much on lengthy explanations. The book was plotted and paced rather like a movie, which would make sense, because strangely enough this book came after the movie it is based on, and not before. Yes, it’s a kid’s book, but I enjoyed it immensely, even as I disagreed with some elements.
One theme I want to grapple with today, is that of female oppression; more specifically, the full-body covering many Muslim women are expected to wear. This wasn’t my first exposure to middle-eastern values. I’ve perused several books at the bookstore and watched at least two movies (maybe more) that touch on this theme. I also receive the Voice of the Martyrs magazine every month, which describes the sometimes harrowing experiences of believers in “restricted” and “hostile” nations. So, while I am no expert, neither am I completely ignorant, and I think I know at least enough to have an opinion, albeit tentative.
I wonder what it must be like to have to cover one’s body completely in public? Think about it: every time you go to the store, to work (not that I condone women working outside of the home if they’re married), travel in a hot and stuffy car, you would have to be covered with a head-to-foot black “drape.” Wouldn’t that be unbearably, stiflingly hot at times? Does it really “protect” women from men’s wandering eyes, or does it increase their appetite to view even a little bit of what’s underneath? Might a woman feel she was being treated as if she and her femaleness were something to be feared? I don’t know for sure how I feel about those things, but they are points of concern for me. Now, if that was something the women had chosen for themselves, my outlook would be different; but, it seems to be something most of them (though maybe not all) are compelled to do against their wishes, which to me, honestly, does seem oppressive.
And I wonder: is that what some people think we’re trying to do here?–do they think that those of us who insist that head-covering is for today are trying to force women into a state of oppression? Certainly not!
What we’re trying to do is get us back on track with God’s word, pure and simple. We are rebelling against society’s low standards and raising the bar. We’re doing it for our good, because we have a vision for what’s best for us, for our families, and for the church.
And let me tell you something: head-covering–in the Christian way— and wearing modest skirts and dresses, is NOT oppressive! Not even close! The Bible teaches something radically different from the scene we see playing itself out in the Middle East.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Whew! Jesus’ burden is light–what a relief! Compare that to what He says of the religious leaders of His day:
For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men…
What a difference! Jesus’ yoke is easy, and His burden light, but religious leaders bind the people down with heavy loads, which God never intended for them to bear.
Think about this:
- God tells us to be modest, and even though we can make certain inferences from the Scriptures regarding what it means to be “modest,” He also gives us some slack regarding how we are each going to live that out in our particular circumstances. For instance, some people think that dressing modestly means wearing skirts down to the ankles; others think that as long as the skirt goes past the knees, it’s okay; still others feel that loose pants do the job. I have my opinion, certainly, on what’s the best option, but my point is that God gives us the freedom to make some of our own choices, within healthy and safe limits.
- God tells us women to use a head-covering, but He makes it a requirement only for certain times (not ALL the time, unless we want to) and He gives leeway regarding the style. Isn’t that great? I don’t have to wear a Mennonite-style cap if I don’t want to. Neither do I have to wear a hijab. I can be an individual and pick out what fits my own taste. Besides, I think head-covering is beautiful and feminine. I like that I have the go-ahead from God to be soft and delicate! I can drape a lacy, flowing scarf around my head and rejoice in my ladylikeness. I love it! Also, God doesn’t tell us to cover our faces, just our heads. He doesn’t tell us to drape a sheet over ourselves that doesn’t show any form underneath. He gives us the freedom to look like women in front of other people, as long as we’re modest.
- God tells us that it’s a shame for women to cut their hair short, and that long hair is a woman’s glory, but He doesn’t specify how long is “long.” I know some think that for a woman to cut her hair EVER goes against the Bible, but I just don’t know about that…It seems to me, that again, we’ve been given guidelines loose enough for us to make different elections based upon our preferences. If you like super long hair down past your waist–great! If you like your hair only a little past your shoulders, well, that’s probably okay, too, as long as it’s feminine and can be considered “long” when compared to men’s styles.
If I attended a church where people were extra picky about rules, I wouldn’t like it, either. I guess the reason I don’t feel oppressed–not at all!–is because I made my choices freely and without compulsion, straight from my heart, out of a longing to live for God FULL-OUT. So, even though you could look at me and feel sorry for me because I am supposedly living an oppressed lifestyle…DON’T. My life is not at all similar to the burdened existence talked about in The Green Bicycle, which resembles the nit-picking, tight-spirited traditions of the Pharisees a WHOLE LOT MORE than it does the life I’m living based on the freedom I’ve been given in Christ to obey Him out of a heart overflowing with love.
It’s like God has given us a frame, and He’s said, “Make sure you stay within the limits, but as long as you do that, you can create whatever you want.” Yes, there are restrictions; yet, we have the liberty to use a great variety of mediums: charcoal, pastel, watercolor, oil. As long as it is within the boundaries of the frame, our options are limitless! We can compose a picture that is serious and thoughtful, or we can splash color over the canvas in broad, carefree strokes.
You see how our lives are like that? God has told us what to do, and what not do, true; but He’s also given us so many choices within that grid. Adam and Eve were given only one restriction: don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But they could eat of all the other trees! They had so much variety! So why did they (or at least, Eve) get all fussy over one, little fruit? Maybe it’s because the Devil convinced her that even though God had given her so much abundance, she was really oppressed, just like it seems he’s doing to those of us here. If you want to see oppression, just look east several degrees. But as for us (in North America), this is nothing even close! And, I’m not worried that by wearing a head-covering I’m opening the way for oppression to cross the ocean, any more than I’m worried that by believing in and following Jesus I’m condoning Islam and all it stands for.