A few weeks ago the daughter and I took a day trip north about two hours to LaConner. The drive from our comfortable suburban surrounds, through high-tech and extremely overcrowded city, into the world of rural farmland is always an eye-opening one, as well as an attitude changing one. A world of contrasts if you will. Nonchalant boredom with the everyday landscape is overwrought by wild panic in the midst of tall steel and hurtling big rigs flying past nudging your car out of already too small traffic lanes as you negotiate the city. Yet the massive and crowded skyscrapers move away, the land opens once more and suddenly the freeway is a gray ribbon tied around a green and vibrant package of earth, dotted by animals of black and white and brown, flowers of every hue, and for us that day, a sky blue and open. Calm descending as they say.
These types of drives, with such obvious contrast in living arrangements and lifestyles only reinforce my desire to never live in a city. I cannot live without lots of trees and green and birds. I cannot live, or drive, in spaces designed for small people and mini transport which try in vain to claim normal proportions. I cannot live barely being able to see the sky. I will not live where it takes hours to move only a few miles.
LaConner proper was a joy. Old-timey, artsy, tucked into a small inlet. Friendly people, happy dogs, nice beer…and a quilt museum housed in – a stately old Victorian mansion!
I think that I’ll address the museum in another post. One artist in particular caught my attention, but just look at that house. I am deeply sure that I must have been a proper Victorian lady in a past life. I mean, this is grand and amazing and can’t you just see me, there-in the turret window- gazing out toward the tranquil inlet.
That last bit was a rather oblique segue of sorts to the real point of this post. I always find the notion that I am so taken by the architecture and dress of the later 1800’s, yet so mystified and often enraged that this era was also the epicenter of an entire movement to marginalize and control women as another of those contrasts. I believe, if I did live during this time, that it was ultimately a given that I come back in 1959 to grow up with feminist convictions because I surely had to have been a closet feminist who bit her tongue and only played at the role of ‘true woman’ carrying herself in silence with deeply sardonic respect for the male head of house.
Whatever, or whomever I may have been 200 years ago, I now try to remember that my feminist views are still being learned and developed. While I find it rather easy to attack American social positions regarding females and place and equity and purpose, I find it difficult at best to speak to the female place in cultures headed by patriarchal viewpoints even more stringent than those grounded in the United States male dominated hierarchy.
LaConner’s town center has nicely provided a clean, well-stocked public restroom for the many tourists who visit. It sits near a quiet little reflection park and is indeed useful and necessary. As the daughter and I strolled we encountered a growing number of tourists as the afternoon approached. On one of my stops at that rest area, after the large glass of refreshing beer that accompanied our lunch, I ran into a line waiting for the restroom. In full honesty, this rural county is not known, in general, for its diversity. European stock and ancestry make up the majority of the population who have farmed this area for decades. The tourists in general were also a non-eclectic mix, save for a few international students. It was a bit surprising to enter the restroom and encounter three young women in various stages of traditional Muslim covering.
Seeing a Muslim woman in hijab is fairly commonplace where I live. Seeing three women in full abayas, (or is it simply abaya?) with one also completely covered not just by hijab but also with niqab was curious, maybe even startling if I’m being completely honest. A fourth, ironically to me, was dressed in simple casual western dress and wearing a bright, print hijab. Because of her more casual dress and her manner, which seemed to be almost protective of the other women, I assumed she might be an escort or chaperone.
I have witnessed very few traditionally covered women in person. Perhaps a few in the Iranian version known as the chador. I don’t remember any in the Saudi deep black abaya and hijab such as these visitors, and definitely no one in full burqa with its grid like veil over the eyes. In my haste not to stare, because yes I wanted to, I let my mind wander to the question of using a public facility with so many robes and coverings. I think any woman who has used a public bathroom, no matter how clean and tidy, can relate to those tiny stalls, the industrial toilets, the often empty seat cover and TP holders, and worst of all for me – the thought of what might be on the floors surrounding the toilets. Imagining what that women had to do to artfully maneuver her heavy coverings, which by the way did drag on the floor to completely cover her feet, had me wanting to pull her aside and ask, but of course I didn’t.
As she went to wash her hands, while the other women waited, I did notice their faces. The two who had just their hijab perfectly covering their hair were heavily made up. Flawless skin, eyeliner and shadow, long lashes and red lips. As the woman at the sink turned to step behind me toward the hand drier I glanced at her eyes, the only aspect of her face visible. It was very easy to see that she too had taken the time to make her eyes stand out. The eyeliner was thick and dark, the mascara evident in long thick lashes, and the shadow muted, but perfectly accentuating her dark eyes. I had the impression that this women, just like her companions, was gorgeous under her covering.
It was finally my turn for a stall. As I took care of my own needs I couldn’t help but think about the intense contrast that the appearances of these three women seemed to illustrate. Their faith and the men who rule their worlds demand that their bodies be covered, that no other male have the ability to see those bodies when they are in a public place. Yet, for those who wear the hijab, or comply with/choose to wear the niqab, many in the West would have said that they were accentuating their beauty, even calling attention to themselves by their use of makeup. I certainly was struck by their beauty, specifically the sexuality associated with the eyes. I also wondered how their male family members react, how the allowance of makeup is justified while any ability to see form and curve is outlawed.
Perhaps these women were simply rebelling in the only way that they could, but I sensed that they were very comfortable with their appearance, as if this ritual was as common to them as our own Western makeup routines. It did not seem like a hasty act, a way to voice their displeasure with tradition. It played out easily as a way that they might exert their individuality while still living their beliefs.
The feminist in me wanted to sit with them, ask them question after question about their lives, their viewpoints, their world, but of course I couldn’t. The feminist in me wanted to rant about patriarchy and oppression and control, but of course I couldn’t do that either. The feminist in me wanted someone to explain this contrast, this seemingly contradictory statement being made by these women. The gendered woman who I am wanted to know how long it takes them to perfect their flawless faces each morning.