Contemporary · Musings

Cover Girl

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Nine years ago, I danced my newborn daughter around my North
Carolina living room to the music of Free to Be…You and Me, the ’70s
children’s classic whose every lyric about tolerance and gender equality I
had memorized as a girl growing up in California. My Libyan-born
husband, Ismail, sat with her for hours on our screened porch, swaying
back and forth on a creaky metal rocker and singing old Arabic folk
songs, and took her to a Muslim sheikh who chanted a prayer for long
life into her tiny, velvety ear. She had espresso eyes and lush black
lashes like her father’s, and her milky-brown skin darkened quickly in
the summer sun. We named her Aliya, which means “exalted” in Arabic,
and agreed we would raise her to choose what she identified with most
from our dramatically different backgrounds.
I secretly felt smug about this agreement—confident that she would favor
my comfortable American lifestyle over his modest Muslim upbringing.
Ismail’s parents live in a squat stone house down a winding dirt alley
outside Tripoli. Its walls are bare except for passages from the Qur’an
engraved onto wood, its floors empty but for thin cushions that double
as bedding at night. My parents live in a sprawling home in Santa Fe
with a three-car garage, hundreds of channels on the flat-screen TV,
organic food in the refrigerator, and a closetful of toys for the
grandchildren. I imagined Aliya embracing shopping trips to Whole Foods
and the stack of presents under the Christmas tree, while still fully
appreciating the melodic sound of Arabic, the honey-soaked baklava
Ismail makes from scratch, the intricate henna tattoos her aunt drew on
her feet when we visited Libya. Not once did I imagine her falling for the
head covering worn by Muslim girls as an expression of modesty.
Last summer we were celebrating the end of Ramadan with our Muslim
community at a festival in the parking lot behind our local mosque.
Children bounced in inflatable fun houses while their parents sat beneath
a plastic tarp nearby, shooing flies from plates of curried chicken, golden
rice, and baklava.
Aliya and I wandered past rows of vendors selling prayer mats, henna
tattoos, and Muslim clothing. When we reached a table displaying head
coverings, Aliya turned to me and pleaded, “Please, Mom—can I have
one?”
She riffled through neatly folded stacks of headscarves while the vendor,
an African-American woman shrouded in black, beamed at her. I had
recently seen Aliya cast admiring glances at Muslim girls her age. I
quietly pitied them, covered in floor-length skirts and long sleeves on
even the hottest summer days, as my best childhood memories were of
my skin laid bare to the sun: feeling the grass between my toes as I ran
through the sprinkler on my front lawn; wading into an icy river in Idaho,
my shorts hitched up my thighs, to catch my first rainbow trout; surfing
a rolling emerald wave off the coast of Hawaii. But Aliya envied these
girls and had asked me to buy her clothes like theirs. And now a
headscarf.
In the past, my excuse was that they were hard to find at our local mall,
but here she was, offering to spend ten dollars from her own allowance
to buy the forest green rayon one she clutched in her hand. I started to
shake my head emphatically “no,” but caught myself, remembering my
commitment to Ismail. So I gritted my teeth and bought it, assuming it
would soon be forgotten.
That afternoon, as I was leaving for the grocery store, Aliya called out
from her room that she wanted to come.
A moment later she appeared at the top of the stairs—or more
accurately, half of her did. From the waist down, she was my daughter:
sneakers, bright socks, jeans a little threadbare at the knees. But from
the waist up, this girl was a stranger. Her bright, round face was
suspended in a tent of dark cloth like a moon in a starless sky.
“Are you going to wear that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said slowly, in that tone she had recently begun to use with
me when I state the obvious.
On the way to the store, I stole glances at her in my rearview mirror. She
stared out the window in silence, appearing as aloof and unconcerned as
a Muslim dignitary visiting our small Southern town—I, merely her
chauffeur. I bit my lip. I wanted to ask her to remove her head covering
before she got out of the car, but I couldn’t think of a single logical
reason why, except that the sight of it made my blood pressure rise. I’d
always encouraged her to express her individuality and to resist peer
pressure, but now I felt as self-conscious and claustrophobic as if I were
wearing that headscarf myself.
In the Food Lion parking lot, the heavy summer air smothered my skin. I
gathered the damp hair on my neck into a ponytail, but Aliya seemed
unfazed by the heat. We must have looked like an odd pair: a tall blonde
woman in a tank top and jeans cupping the hand of a four-foot-tall
Muslim. I drew my daughter closer and the skin on my bare arms
prickled—as much from protective instinct as from the blast of
refrigerated air that hit me as I entered the store.
As we maneuvered our cart down the aisles, shoppers glanced at us like
we were a riddle they couldn’t quite solve, quickly dropping their gaze
when I caught their eye. In the produce aisle, a woman reaching for an
apple fixed me with an overly bright, solicitous smile that said “I
embrace diversity and I am perfectly fine with your child.” She looked so
earnest, so painfully eager to put me at ease, that I suddenly understood
how it must feel to have a child with an obvious disability, and all the
curiosity or unwelcome sympathies from strangers it evokes. At the
checkout line, an elderly Southern woman clasped her bony hands
together and bent slowly down toward Aliya. “My, my,” she drawled,
wobbling her head in disbelief. “Don’t you look absolutely precious!” My
daughter smiled politely, then turned to ask me for a pack of gum.
In the following days, Aliya wore her headscarf to the breakfast table
over her pajamas, to a Muslim gathering where she was showered with
compliments, and to the park, where the moms with whom I chatted on
the bench studiously avoided mentioning it altogether.
Later that week, at our local pool, I watched a girl only a few years older
than Aliya play Ping-Pong with a boy her age. She was caught in that
awkward territory between childhood and adolescence—narrow hips,
skinny legs, the slightest swelling of new breasts—and she wore a string
bikini. Her opponent wore an oversize T-shirt and baggy trunks that fell
below his knees, and when he slammed the ball at her, she lunged for it
while trying with one hand to keep the slippery strips of spandex in
place. I wanted to offer her a towel to wrap around her hips, so she
could lose herself in the contest and feel the exhilaration of making a
perfect shot. It was easy to see why she was getting demolished at this
game: Her near-naked body was consuming her focus. And in her pained
expression I recognized the familiar mix of shame and excitement I felt
when I first wore a bikini.
At 14, I skittered down the halls of high school like a squirrel in traffic:
hugging the walls, changing direction in midstream, darting for cover.
Then I went to Los Angeles to visit my aunt Mary during winter break.
Mary collected mermaids, kept a black-and-white photo of her long-
haired Indian guru on her dresser, and shopped at a tiny health food
store that smelled of patchouli and peanut butter. She took me to Venice
Beach, where I bought a cheap bikini from a street vendor.
Dizzy with the promise of an impossibly bright afternoon, I thought I
could be someone else—glistening and proud like the greased-up
bodybuilders on the lawn, relaxed and unself-conscious as the hippies
who lounged on the pavement with lit incense tucked behind their ears.
In a beachside bathroom with gritty cement floors, I changed into my
new two-piece suit.
Goose bumps spread across my chubby white tummy and the downy
white hairs on my thighs stood on end—I felt as raw and exposed as a
turtle stripped of its shell. And when I left the bathroom, the stares of
men seemed to pin me in one spot even as I walked by.
In spite of a strange and mounting sense of shame, I was riveted by their
smirking faces; in their suggestive expressions I thought I glimpsed
some vital clue to the mystery of myself. What did these men see in me
—what was this strange power surging between us, this rapidly shifting
current that one moment made me feel powerful and the next
unspeakably vulnerable?
I imagined Aliya in a string bikini in a few years. Then I imagined her
draped in Muslim attire. It was hard to say which image was more
unsettling. I thought then of something a Sufi Muslim friend had told me:
that Sufis believe our essence radiates beyond our physical bodies—that
we have a sort of energetic second skin, which is extremely sensitive and
permeable to everyone we encounter. Muslim men and women wear
modest clothing, she said, to protect this charged space between them
and the world.
Growing up in the ’70s in Southern California, I had learned that freedom
for women meant, among other things, fewer clothes, and that women
could be anything—and still look good in a bikini. Exploring my physical
freedom had been an important part of my process of self-discovery, but
the exposure had come at a price.
Since that day in Venice Beach, I’d spent years learning to swim in the
turbulent currents of attraction—wanting to be desired, resisting others’
unwelcome advances, plumbing the mysterious depths of my own
longing. I’d spent countless hours studying my reflection in the mirror—
admiring it, hating it, wondering what others thought of it—and it
sometimes seemed to me that if I had applied the same relentless
scrutiny to another subject I could have become enlightened, written a
novel, or at least figured out how to grow an organic vegetable garden.
On a recent Saturday morning, in the crowded dressing room of a large
department store, I tried on designer jeans alongside college girls in
stiletto heels, young mothers with babies fussing in their strollers, and
middle-aged women with glossed lips pursed into frowns. One by one we
filed into changing rooms, then lined up to take our turn on a brightly lit
pedestal surrounded by mirrors, cocking our hips and sucking in our
tummies and craning our necks to stare at our rear ends.
When it was my turn, my heart felt as tight in my chest as my legs did in
the jeans. My face looked drawn under the fluorescent lights, and
suddenly I was exhausted by all the years I’d spent doggedly chasing the
carrot of self-improvement, while dragging behind me a heavy cart of
self-criticism.
At this stage in her life, Aliya is captivated by the world around her—not
by what she sees in the mirror. Last summer she stood at the edge of
the Blue Ridge Parkway, stared at the blue-black outline of the
mountains in the distance, their tips swaddled by cottony clouds, and
gasped. “This is the most beautiful thing I ever saw,” she whispered. Her
wide-open eyes were a mirror of all that beauty, and she stood so still
that she blended into the lush landscape, until finally we broke her
reverie by tugging at her arm and pulling her back to the car.
At school it’s different. In her fourth-grade class, girls already draw a
connection between clothing and popularity. A few weeks ago, her voice
rose in anger as she told me about a classmate who had ranked all the
girls in class according to how stylish they were.
I understood then that while physical exposure had liberated me in some
ways, Aliya could discover an entirely different type of freedom by
choosing to cover herself.
I have no idea how long Aliya’s interest in Muslim clothing will last. If
she chooses to embrace Islam, I trust the faith will bring her tolerance,
humility, and a sense of justice—the way it has done for her father. And
because I have a strong desire to protect her, I will also worry that her
choice could make life in her own country difficult. She has recently
memorized the fatiha, the opening verse of the Qur’an, and she is
pressing her father to teach her Arabic. She’s also becoming an agile
mountain biker who rides with me on wooded trails, mud spraying her
calves as she navigates the swollen creek.
The other day, when I dropped her off at school, instead of driving away
from the curb in a rush as I usually do, I watched her walk into a crowd
of kids, bent forward under the weight of her backpack as if she were
bracing against a storm. She moved purposefully, in such a solitary way
—so different from the way I was at her age, and I realized once again
how mysterious she is to me. It’s not just her head covering that makes
her so: It’s her lack of concern for what others think about her. It’s
finding her stash of Halloween candy untouched in her drawer, while I
was a child obsessed with sweets. It’s the fact that she would rather dive
into a book than into the ocean—that she gets so consumed with her
reading that she can’t hear me calling her from the next room.
I watched her kneel at the entryway to her school and pull a neatly
folded cloth from the front of her pack, where other kids stash bubble
gum or lip gloss. Then she slipped it over her head, and her shoulders
disappeared beneath it like the cape her younger brother wears when he
pretends to be a superhero.
As I pulled away from the curb, I imagined that headscarf having magical
powers to protect her boundless imagination, her keen perception, and
her unself-conscious goodness. I imagined it shielding her as she
journeys through that house of mirrors where so many young women get
trapped in adolescence, buffering her from the dissatisfaction that clings
in spite of the growing number of choices at our fingertips, providing
safe cover as she takes flight into a future I can only imagine.

Krista Bremer is the winner of a 2008 Pushcart Prize and a 2009 Rona
Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She is associate publisher of the
literary magazine The Sun, and she is writing a memoir about her
bicultural marriage -June 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Maasalam
HSM x

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