The Re-Culturalization of the Veil in Kuwait (from a Non-Veiled Persepective)
Look, I am not a veiled woman. I can’t tell you what it feels like to walk under 100 degree heat with nearly every inch of my skin covered. I can’t say that I know how it feels like to navigate a clothing store with the length and width specifications that veiled women need to be culturally or religiously mindful of. I’m not even going to pretend to understand what it feels like for a woman to both try and express her identity through her appearance while simultaneously trying to project an exterior image of Islamic piety.
These are all experiences which I have never really grappled with all that much because I am not a veiled woman. So I’m not going to be talking about the veiled woman’s experience with the physical act of wearing a veil in any way. That said, I am totally fascinated with this new veiling phenomena which seems to be sweeping up Kuwait and dividing women up into sub-cultures of a sub-culture.
This divisive phenomena being, of course, the turban.
Now, if you live in Kuwait, you know how it is. Kuwait is the melting pot of virtually every trend ever created in the history of time and space. It’s Habba Land; Habba Nation; freaking Habba-palooza. One popular person starts doing something a little different and, before you know it, every other starry-eyed onlooker is doing it too. This is the natural progression of pretty much every trend to come about in Kuwait and probably everywhere else too.
And, hey, people will always have opinions on trends (I certainly do). Man or woman, veiled or not: you have a right to express your opinion on every single thing that you see, hear, or think. As long as you’re respectful about it, you can lovingly praise or endlessly rail on any trend you want. But, there’s something a little different about this turban thing.
You see, the turban trend does something more than divide people up in the ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ camps: it divides them up in ‘feminine” and ‘unfeminine’ camps too. Or the ‘Islamic’ and ‘non-Islamic.’ Or the ‘Arab’ and ‘Non-Arab.’ And suddenly, whether we’ve realized it or not, by having a vocal (and sometimes very mean) opinion on the turban trend, people in Kuwait are actively reshaping what it means for a Muslim, Arab woman to embody all of these terms.
So, the big question is why is this happening? I mean, in Kuwait, trends have come and trends have gone. Trends are transient things that weave in and out of Kuwaiti, daily life–usually without carrying more weight than the trends that came before them or after them. People either hop on the wagon or they don’t. And freaking fashion trends? Those suckers come a dime a dozen in Kuwait. Big-freakin’-deal.
But the turban isn’t just a fashion trend. In many cases, it can be considered a specifically ‘Islamic’ trend (because of its affiliation with the hijab). Even better: the turban is an Islamic trend with a twist. Its unconventionally Islamic. So unconventional in its Islamic-ness (I would say ‘Islamism’ but no) that even the most moderate, liberal Muslims are giving it a double-take. And, naturally, this can be a little troubling. Because the turban doesn’t fit the conservative mold of what a veiled woman is supposed to conventionally represent in the Arab world.
In the deeply conservative Arab dynamic, a part of a woman’s duty–and the thing which deems her ‘feminine’ and ‘right’– is to project a mixed aura of demure and modest prettiness. Sure, you’ve gotta look pretty but you can’t look kinda out there while you’re doing it. In this conservative sort of dynamic all the woman really has to do is to make herself look both modest and desirable (which, yes, can be a feat) and then just sit back and wait to be chosen.
The most glaringly obvious symbol of this kind of deep Arab conservatism is, unsurprisingly, the traditional hijab. I’m not saying that this is how all, or even most, traditionally veiled women operate, I’m just giving a quick overview of what a very deeply conservative idea of womanhood is to Arabs and what it means for an Arab woman to physically embody that.
You can agree or disagree with this dynamic, but you really can’t deny its validity all that much.
And on the flip-side, you’ve got the turban (popularized and oh so graciously modeled by tres-fableux, fashion-maven Ascia up there). I’ve heard religious zealots rail on about it; Holly Housewives; fashionably progressive women; full-grown men; children; even my 72 year old, housebound grandmother WHO ROCKED THE JACKIE-O LOOK IN HER DAY. Everyone has such a strong, and in many cases negative, reaction to the turban its crazy.
And yet all kinds of women are sporting it all over Kuwait. Only difference that I’ve been able to notice between these women and the other traditionally veiled but still totally awesome women is that the turban-wearers couldn’t give a flying dingbat about subscribing to any age-old ideas of Arab conservatism. I’m not saying that any woman who doesn’t wear a turban is a complete slave to patriarchal standards (well, I think all women are but whatevs). I’m just saying that the turban-wearers at least seem a lot more willing to step out of that comfort-zone and maybe try to create a fashion culture for Muslim women outside of the traditionally acceptable, ‘modestly pretty’ concept–even if they really are just following a trend.
And if you ask me, whether you like the turban or not, it sure sounds like a much more socially enhancing and culturally promising trend than this class-act right here.
All my love!