Covering Confusion


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    Sorting through racks of silky, bright clothes in a Somali store in Minneapolis, I was looking for a lightweight manteau (cover) to wear in Iran. Consulting the female staff, I settled on a tan, floor-length trench-coat style with buttons down the front that seemed suitable for a hot summer day. I added a pearl-colored headscarf shaped like a cape and went to the mirrors in the back to study the effect. Properly covered, the male tailors noticed me for the first time. Showing only my face and hands, I stared at my new image, while the tailors told me that I looked nice. One sucked in his breath and said admiringly, "You look beautiful!"

    I tried to feel beautiful later as I scrambled into my hejab (Islamic dress) on the cramped airplane landing in Tehran, but mostly I felt rebellious at this covering imposition. Oddly, I felt exposed, too, aware that despite being covered, I was a foreigner, a white, American woman sure to be noticed by the curious locals. I wanted to feel relaxed, but as I struggled with the extra cloth around my legs and the slippery silk headscarf, I felt encumbered and awkward.

    My next trip to Iran was in winter, so I felt cozy wearing a wool coat and scarf in the chilly meeting rooms. When a professor mentioned that I had started a minor fashion craze among university students imitating the way that I tied my headscarf, I felt suddenly stylish and attractive. This in spite of the fact that I indulged in an imagined rebellion by going out with uncombed hair and mismatched outfits under my manteau. It was a freeing feeling to realize that I could meet the foreign minister wearing a bikini – and he would never know!

    On later trips to Iran, the hejab was only annoying in restaurants, as I struggled to keep my coat sleeves out of the food. When my luggage with my work clothes went missing on my last trip, I managed a week of meetings without incident; my manteau hiding the casual clothes I had worn on the plane.

    But my days of tomboy carelessness under the hejab ended after an embarrassing incident at the home of a liberal-minded Iranian family. Hoping to put me at ease, they insisted that I uncover "as you do at home in America," leading me to reveal my inner slob, to everyone’s dismay.

    But covering is not just an Iranian or Muslim issue. Growing up during Colorado’s hippie years, my family was horrified when I wore fanny-baring cutoffs, bra-less tube tops, and see-through summer skirts. Arriving in China just after the Maoist era, my student gear of snug jeans and bright, tight-fitting tops, bare feet in flip flops and a backpack slung over one shoulder seemed uncomfortably revealing, casual and colorful. In contrast, Chinese women then wore plain padded jackets in winter and loose, white blouses over baggy, dark trousers in summer, their dainty feet always in stockings and shoes. My professor stared at my big, pale toes sticking out of the flip-flops and asked me why I wore my house slippers outside. Did I need money for socks? Despite the August heat, I switched to shoes. But I never covered enough to keep street grannies from pinching my trouser legs, declaring my clothes too tight or, in winter, too thin.

    I suffered similar societal disapproval when I lived briefly in the Delta region of Nigeria. Middle-class and professional women swathed themselves in yards of gorgeous wrappers, leaving bare only their faces, necks and the lower parts of their arms – their outfits topped off with bold, yet elegant head wraps. My simple skirts and blouses with sandals that I thought practical for tropical climate gave me an insubstantial, even impoverished, look compared to the women around me.

    But I have found myself on the other side of the global covering divide, too. Traveling in Brazil for work, I was invited by some colleagues to join them at the beach. This presented me with a new covering dilemma. The lap swimsuit I traveled with would get me laughed off the beach, yet I could not bring myself to wear the fio dental ("dental floss") suits favored by Brazilian women. I declined the beach invitation, disappointed in myself for missing the fun, because I lacked the guts to show a bit more skin, or the guts to just wear my old suit and endure the jokes.

    Waist deep into my 40s and contemplating how life has reshaped my body, I ponder often what makes a woman beautiful and how much the public should see of our beauty. I hold contradictory beliefs, simultaneously valuing personal liberation and individual modesty, appreciating both the beauty of physical perfection and of physical diversity. In short, I am now confused about covering.

    Back in Minnesota, I see young women wearing tummy-baring outfits, showing off shapely arms and manicured toes, their smooth bodies radiating energy and vitality, and I marvel at their beauty, yet sometimes I wish they would cover just a bit more. And then I stare at Somali women and sometimes wish I could see a bit of the beauty I know lies under their hejab. But then I watch these tall, slender women glide elegantly over our muddy sidewalks, their colorful covers billowing around them, and I think to myself "You look beautiful!"

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    Sherry Gray is an independent consultant on international relations education and programs based in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has consulted on a number of projects, most notably Ford Foundation projects to support undergraduate teaching of international relations in Vietnam. Previously, she was a program officer at the Stanley Foundation, responsible for the Emerging From Conflict program, developing activities to facilitate improved dialogue for U.S. government and non-government foreign policy analysts with their counterparts in China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam. Dr. Gray taught international and comparative politics at Providence and Macalester colleges and the universities of Louisville and Port Harcourt (Nigeria). She lived several years in China, teaching and studying at Liaoning University. Contact her at [email protected] Copyright © 2006 Sherry Gray. All rights reserved


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