I want inner peace. I want love. I wanted the experience of being a woman in Abaya; I choose to do it for 21 days. I wore the garment as an artistic experience. I am an artist.
During the first week, I didn’t want my neighbors to see me in abaya, so I looked both ways, up and down the street, before running to my car and going out. I shopped in out-of-the-way stores for a week. I went to a cafe and restaurants in neighboring towns. Inevitably, my next door neighbor saw me. I sent her a text to explain and later engaged her to video an interview with me and a Saudi woman. (She studied filmmaking in college and was happy to participate.) I was afraid my neighbors (some who are also my yoga students) might assume I converted to Islam, or that I would have to have long conversations about what I was doing and didn’t really want to spill the beans and have them think I might be a nut.
I n abaya, I travelled by subway to see my doctor walked to my shrink, my dentist, the bank, and drove to grocery stores I wore the body ‘jail’ garment and black veil whenever I was out of my house. I had a pedicure in abaya. I pumped gas. Went to Home Depot, a vineyard, roadside travel stops, several art galleries, two museums. I rented a car in Elmira.
I went to an Open House. I walked around Harvard Square, Newbury Street in Boston, Troy, New York and the Finger Lakes. I kissed money at an ATM to make people uncomfortable. I went into a pumpkin field and picked the biggest pumpkin I could carry.
There were a few places I didn’t go–at the request of my husband: to MIT campus, where he teaches Aikido, and to Watkins Glens Roadway where he was racing his car. He didn’t want to confuse people who knew him. Two places I wanted to go but didn’t get to: an TSA airport security check-in, and a small town in the south.
During the 21 days, four people spoke to me before I spoke to them. First, two women in an Arab grocery store said “excuse me,” when they slid past me in a crowded aisle. Second, a woman sitting at a table near me in a restaurant, whose family was staring at me, asked what I had ordered. “It looks good,” she said. Lastly, a man at Harvard from the Middle Eastern Studies Department, who I thought was flirting with me, finally asked if my abaya was from Saudi Arabia. Most people avoided looking at me and in the grocery stores and shops and in the subway too, my proprioception let me know they were giving me extra space; a wide berth. The check out man at Whole Foods was very careful not to touch me when he handed me change and the receipt, which was respectful.
Most people didn’t look at me and many people, I think, didn’t notice me.
If looks could kill, my husband would be gone. During the 21 days a handful of women glared at him, probably thinking he was an oppressor; the person who made me wear the abaya. I realized that in the USA Muslim men walking with their wives in abaya must get the same scowls.
Things to think about:
*Most societies live in a patriarchal era where a woman is considered temptation, and perhaps the seed of evil, and consequently men cannot be judge by their impulses toward the alluring woman, who should ‘behave’ and not cause temptation.
*A women in an abaya could be ridiculed for not being able to exercise her rights and wear what she wants. Paradoxically in our society a woman can be mocked for a less than perfect shape. Young girls are oppressed into not eating, wearing skimpy clothing, or getting facial procedures to be ‘attractive.’
* The argument that Muslim men force Muslim women to take up the veil may be true in a small minority of cases. Many women make the choice to express their religious commitment. And even if some women are forced to cover some bit of themselves, why would forcing them not to be preferable?
While the abaya may make a woman invisible in Saudi Arabia, it sure as hell didn’t make me invisible in New England. The abaya became a tiny fence around an idea that allowed me to feel more visible. It let me be in touch with fears ( Yes, at times I was afraid to be out in the abaya); it made me uncomfortable ( but by forcing discomfort you can maintain a positive, steady state outside your comfort zone, that’s when you begin to build resiliency). Sometimes I had negative thoughts about people around me or imagined the negative thoughts of people who were looking at me. My mission, after week one was to release the fear and negative ideas and feel the love that was beneath the thoughts.
The 21 Day Experience of the Abaya reinforced the reason I make art: to explore what it means to be human. We think we are separate because we have bodies, in truth we have bodies because we think we are separate. Our bodies house our spirits: at the core of each of us is an essence, the place where God, the Absolute, Freedom, the Void, Forgiveness–whatever you like to call it–resides. The abaya didn’t’ change my form–I was always the same person. After three weeks in the abaya, I didn’t really see myself as a body as much as a spirit.
The project of what it means to be human continues.
Many thanks to Wafaa, Abeer, Noelle, Matt, Ruby and all the people who took pictures of me and asked me questions about the abaya experience.