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Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World Excerpt from Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World

by Lisa Bloom



How My Moroccan Muslim "Mama" Made Me Rethink My World
By Lisa Bloom,
Author of Think: Straight Talk For Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World

I am a travel junkie. If I don't leave the country at least a couple times a year, I get itchy. I travel when my otherwise frugal, responsible self can't afford it. I travel off the grid even though being unreachable by Blackberry threatens my career. I travel though my mother begs me not to go there. I travel alone when no one wants to go with me. I drag my bewildered boyfriend to the other side of the globe to join me, sleeping on the floor of mud huts and squatting over smelly holes in the floor.

I have to. Because when I leave the country and go to places where they don't speak my language, practice my religion, or eat my food; where their history leads them to an entirely different way of life, I return home like a space invader, looking at everything we do with fresh eyes. Before I traveled extensively, I assumed naively that how we do things is preordained, inexorable. The funny thing is that that's how everyone sees their culture's ways. Thus, a busload of Turkish villagers once pulled over so that the passengers could all get out and snap pictures of me, wildly, improbably, fantastically (to them) dressed in my faraway country's native garb of jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers, and no head scarf. There I was, odd woman out, the locals looking at my uncovered head squeamishly, just as I gazed upon their different female attire, thinking, wondering, processing what it all means -- especially those veils.

I've always been uncomfortable looking at veiled women. When I traveled to the Middle East, especially the rural areas, I saw many women wearing burkas that covered not only every strand of their hair but also every pore of their faces, save a tiny slit for their eyes. Even then, sometimes a screen covers the eyes.

I tried not to stare at these women with my unscreened eyes. Sometimes I'd take a mental snapshot, look away, and then mull it over. What must it be like to be draped in fabric all of one's life whenever outdoors? What did the world look like through the slits, the screens, the pinpoint holes in mesh fabric? Was it like walking around virtually blindfolded? Were they off-kilter from perpetual lack of peripheral vision? What facial expressions -- disgust, resentment, acceptance, contentment -- were hidden from view?

I've read Geraldine Brooks's Nine Parts of Desire, which lays out the fundamentalist Muslim thinking that women carry around all responsibility for human sexuality, that male sexuality is uncontrollable and impulsive, that males might fly into a sexual fury and rape a woman if he chances upon a glimpse of too much skin or tempting female hair. Thus, these men require total cover for postpubescent girls and women in fundamentalist areas. I've read Infidel, in which the brave Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes being taught this heavy responsibility for keeping violent male sexuality in check as a little girl, being compelled to wear the veil and the burka to preserve the family honor. I've read The Trouble with Islam Today, Irshad Manji's flames thrown at the heart of Islam's misogyny, which that veil, of course, symbolizes.50

Some Muslim women, I know, see the veil as liberating because it frees them from being sex objects. Men do not stare lasciviously at them on the streets as Western men do, they argue. They feel it brings them respect. And I have observed in Muslim countries that at least out on the public streets, the men harass only immodestly dressed Western women, not covered locals. But that still puts all the burden of sexual responsibility on women and blames the victims, women in immodest clothing, for sexual harassment or assault. I don't see liberation in draping myself in ten yards of fabric to hide myself from hungry wolves. Liberation is taming the wolves and holding men legally accountable for harassment and sexual assault. Full stop.

So when I traveled to Morocco, a secular Muslim country, in 2009, I knew I was going to struggle to come to terms with covered women. Unlike, say, residents of Iran or Saudi Arabia, Moroccan women are not legally required to cover. Yet most do. And I was there in July, where the temperature sizzles like the surface of Mercury. The men wore western clothing: knee length shorts or light cotton pants, T-shirts. But for women, the de rigueur outfit nearly all wore was a nightgown-like, long-sleeved, loose-fitting jelaba covering cotton pants, topped with a head scarf.

Few Moroccan women wear black burkas, and their faces are not concealed. Still, to my Western eyes, all this covering was a sign of women's oppression. They can tell me that they all want women to have equal rights in this country, that the king is a feminist, and that 10 percent of Morocco's Parliament is set aside for female representation.51 All true and good. But as long as their culture dresses them in all this fabric and those head scarves, I wasn't buying it.

We left the explosive, teeming, wild ride of Marrakech and ascended the High Atlas Mountains to villages so remote that children stopped dead in their tracks to gawk at my uncovered blonde hair. Here we go again. I may as well have been an albino gorilla strolling down their main dirt road. We spent the night with a Berber farming family in a simple mud hut, folks who were generous enough to share their bowl of couscous and vegetables with us -- utensils not an option.

After dinner it was time for entertainment. But as it turned out, I was the entertainment. The mother of the family asked with a twinkle in her eye if I would like to be dressed in their traditional garb.

Sure, I said. I'm up for anything, especially when I'm traveling.

My temporary Moroccan Mama soberly flattened my unruly hair (gone au naturale while traveling without hair appliances) back behind my ears and popped the scarf on me. Her practiced hands swiftly got every lock of hair into place. She tied it at the nape of my neck.

Next, she handed me the jelaba. I put it on.

Mama smiled mischievously. "Kohl?" she said, pulling out a worn little nub of an eye pencil.

As a television talk show host, I'd been under the tight control of a lovely makeup artist, Vincenza Carovillano, who, for years advised me -- okay, ordered me -- to use or not use certain face washes, moisturizers, and serums, and, above all, not to share unclean makeup with others. (I've had two eyelid surgeries to remove lumps from makeup infections -- occupational hazard of wearing thick TV paint every day.)

I imagined Vincenza having heart palpitations at the thought of that kohl pencil rubbing on my eyelids.

But how could I say no to Moroccan Mama, who had welcomed us into her home, made us dinner, and was now grinning and giddy from dolling me up in her treasured garments? I could not.

Mama jabbed me, making a saw-tooth pattern in black above and below my eyes. I think it was supposed to be a straight line, but maybe her eyes weren't very good or her hands weren't, or something.

"Ha ha!" she said, clapping her hands, handing me a mirror.

Staring back at me was a moon-faced girl with zigzag eyeliner, a black-scarved flat head, and a billowy maxi dress.

"No one looks good in those outfits," my boyfriend, Braden, sympathized.

I sat down on the bed. The boyfriend and I hung out. We planned our hike for the next day. I forgot about what I was wearing. I flopped over sideways and propped myself on an elbow as we continued talking. I lazed, and our conversation meandered.

An hour later, it hit me: I was awfully comfortable in the jelaba and head scarf. Because my hair was neatly wrapped, my face was unencumbered by the wild mass my hair morphs into on vacation. It reminded me of the '70s, when I used to wear a red or blue bandana with my faded Levis, my hair wild behind me, pulled smoothly off my face. It felt nice, like when I pull all my hair back into a ponytail so I can run or think.

The world's most comfortable hairdo took her all of about twenty seconds to complete: over the hair, soft cotton tied neatly behind the neck, bam! That's all there was to it. I felt clean. With my hair out of the way, my face could get down to business, in this case, reading the guidebook and maps.

And from the neck down, nothing was poking me, digging into my flesh or girl parts. I had no desire, as I normally do at the end of a day, to climb out of my clothes and into my pajamas. My jelaba was soft and loose and thin, less constricting even than my Western pajamas, which my culture allows me to wear only at night.

Then I thought about morning rituals. To get ready, it appears that Berber women brush their teeth, throw on the Moroccan bandana and nightgown, skip the makeup (maybe a swipe-swipe of the kohl, that's it, and if Mama's skills were typical, they'd do better skipping that step altogether), flat shoes, and presto! They are good to go.

What do we Western women do? The blow-dry, in my case, is a tedious half hour of time I'm never getting back, followed by curling iron or flat iron or both depending on the humidity, and then there are time-consuming skin toners, serums, astringents, moisturizers, SPFs, and makeup (foundation, concealer, blush, eye shadow, liner, mascara, brow pencil, lip pencil, lip gloss) all to achieve that natural look, right?

Stilettos, tight jeans, thong underwear, underwire push-up bras, constricting skirts, Spanx, shaving our legs and armpits, bikini waxes, eyelash curlers -- all Western conceits it appears Berber women cheerfully live without.

Who is oppressed in this picture and who is liberated?

The politics and symbolism of the headscarf blinded me so much that I failed to see the easy breezy comfort of flowing soft cotton, unpainted faces, and no bad hair days. These women may not have the equal rights we do, despite sweeping 2004 reforms,52 but when it comes to the daily drudgery of making our female selves presentable, damn, maybe they are onto something.

Their culture defines beauty differently, in a way that requires next to no wasted time or money, or pain or discomfort for women. And my Muslim Mama's husband looked at her with great love and affection, and judging by their large family, they had an exuberant sex life. He didn't seem to find her less attractive for the normal droops and wrinkles of middle age.

Okay, you're not going to see me sporting a black head wrap and caftan on my next CBS News appearance. As I perform my daily television rounds, I can't escape the TV makeup and hair coiffing. But off camera, I often wistfully invoke my Moroccan sisters in the High Atlas Mountains, draped and relaxed and never having to suck in their stomachs, with their fresh, naked faces turned toward the warm air.

From my Moroccan Mama, I learned that a headscarf is not a burka, that a makeup-free life can be liberating (I'm just going to forget about the kohl pencil), and that I participate in a cultural norm that is -- let me say it here -- ridiculous. We don't have to fall prey to what the fashion industry, cosmetic companies, and plastic surgeons sell us. There are whole countries and cultures where women do not do as we do, and their men, their friends, and their children think they are beautiful and love them just as they are. We could likewise choose not to participate in all the nonsense. Before we ridicule faraway cultures for wearing "oppressive" attire, let's walk a day in their women's soft, flat shoes. Let's consider us from their point of view: all that crap we do to ourselves daily? Entertaining, laughable, even, and, most important, optional.

50. Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1995); Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007); Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003).
51. We have a few more female congresspeople-17·5 percent. Two Muslim countries have more elected female legislators than we do: Iraq (25.5 percent) and Pakistan (22.5 percent).
52. Nearly half the Moroccan population still believes that the practice of husbands beating their wives in some circumstances is acceptable. Furthermore, tradition limits Moroccan women's ability to own or inherit land equally with men. "Gender Equality and Social Institutions in Morocco," Social Institution & Gender Index, http://genderindex.org/country/morocco.

The above is an excerpt from the book Think: Straight Talk For Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.