By Nichole L. Reber (@NicholeLReber)
I’m down to my last rupees when an offer for temporary work comes along. A Muslim man named Asad hired me to answer phones at his small personal cargo company during his annual two-week pilgrimage to Syria and Iran. When we discussed the job over the phone he asked if I wanted to wear a burqa. He didn’t give a reason why.
I declined. He politely encouraged it.
I declined again. The thought of wearing any kind of clothing to conceal my physical female characteristics, to cloak my curves to make myself more acceptable to men, perplexed me. That’s what I thought hijab, or female Muslim attire, does.
Now, reporting to work in Mazagaon, a strict, predominantly Muslim neighborhoodin Mumbai, I’m adorned in my colorful salwar kameez, an Indian tunic and matching pants common among Hindus and Sikhs. Mazagaon differs vastly from Santa Cruz, where I live. In my neighborhood, the religiously diverse denizens seem to have unending, bibulous celebrations. Awash in a sea of hijab in Mazagaon, I might as well have worn a bathing suit to church.
From the dirt road flanked by a cemetery and a long strip of assorted shops, I enter Asad’s office through a large wooden door that’s never seen a coat of lacquer. I follow the Indian custom of removing my shoes to prevent tracking in dirt and climb a narrow, old wooden ladder steep as the Himalayas. The landing is a cold, white-tiled floor of some 50 square feet illuminated by fluorescent lighting. Three computers with stools, a printer, and some files adorn the office. Mice scurry occasionally by our feet while Asad sets me up with a multi-line phone and a computer with Internet access. For the next few hours he trains me.
“Do you want lunch, cigarettes…something to drink?” Asad looks up at me from the floor, where he’s sitting. He starts dialing a number on his cell phone to place an order.
“I’m trying to save cash.”
“Don’t worry, madam.” His Indian accent is tinged with British. His sentiment, though, is pure Indian. No matter what your situation— good, bad, hideous— all Indians say this. He makes the phone order, including something for me, then retrieves cash from his wallet, handing me a small, neat stack.
I look at him inquisitively.
“When you go back to the train station tonight, buy a first-class ticket. Don’t take the train any other way.” He speaks in such a way that I feel I’m suddenly blessed with a protective elder brother.
From no other temporary Indian job could I have expected food and first-class transportation. A monthly first-class train pass costs several times what my budget allows. His brotherly offer protects me, from the dangerously pushy women on the second-class cars whose arguments often require resolution by security guards, from the men on cargo cars who touch my nether regions. The first-class cars are almost empty. That means I can escape the crowds so thick, so close that hyperventilation threatens. I wonder if women and children in the first-class cars will continue to stare at me, to touch my skin so much whiter than theirs. For now, Asad’s kindness touches me. I thank him.
“Don’t worry, madam. This is Sharia law. You are in need; I can help.”
His statement halts my attention. A collage of Western media reports I’d watched about the conflict in the Middle East flashes through my head. Many pundits talk about Sharia law as if it’s some brainwashing method, as if it’ll be the undoing of the great democracy of the US. They spit out the phrase like modern-day McCarthyites. Yet no one ever explained what it was— at least not from an objective place. If Asad’s kindness exemplifies Sharia law, I want to know more about it. Before I can ask him in greater detail about it, though, a storm of customer calls distracts me, absorbing my time and attention until Nature calls.
“Where do I use the toilet?” It’s not a word this American girl would normally use. While living in China and India, it’s proven more effective than “bathroom” and “loo”, one of the many British terms I’ve adopted in life abroad.
“Ah, yes. You go across the street to the graveyard. No other place is nearby. But first….” Asad gestures with his hands for me to cover my head.
Fortunately, I always bring a pashmina, a long, wide scarf, in my backpack. In the US pashminas were armor against overly air-conditioned movie theatres or sudden weather changes. In India, they defend against the dirt coating my eyeballs, the cow and human feces odors attacking my nose. Asad waggles his head in the Indian fashion that intrigues us Westerners, signaling that the pashmina suffices. With the oversized green scarf wrapped to show only my yes, I descend the ladder. At the bottom my foot searches along the blackness for my sandals. I reach out for the door handle, avoiding cobwebs and spider webs. Sunlight pierces my eyes as I open the door to bumper-to-bumper traffic louder than Manhattan at rush hour.
I thread my way across the two lanes to arrive at the gated entrance. A few men and women linger. They’re chatting, drinking chai from a mobile street vendor.
“Toilet?” I ask a woman, tilting my head downward obsequiously like local women do. She jerks her hand in the direction of a one-story, square building just inside the gate.
I remove my footwear at the entrance of the empty women-only prayer room. Not a stir of another person arises from the rear kitchen, from the bathroom, from the back rooms, all visible from the doorway. I am the only one here. This is a moment to savor. A moment of solitude.
I walk, languid, to the other side of the prayer room. It’s about the size of the yoga studio rooms where I took meditation classes in the States. In an enclosed room with three individual stalls, flimsy white metal doors offer privacy for squatting over each stall’s porcelain-surrounded hole in the ground. I finish my task and am rewrapping the pashmina when I hear a group of women bursting into the prayer room.
Their chattering and giggles crack the silence. My revelry shatters.
I remember when people accidentally barged into my meditation classes. There’s an electric jolt when meditation or prayer or privacy is disrupted. Far be it from this gori, or white girl, to exact that jolt upon these women. Let me not burst the bubble of spirituality that envelops them in this room.
I take a deep breath and exit the restroom. There, all eyes dart to mine. Theirs are not the open, curious looks the Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Zoroastrians give me elsewhere in Mumbai. Their eyes, their frowns proclaim: “You do not belong here.” Just as taut as their visceral reactions is the silence crushing their chatter. The air feels like a blanket of knives.
Oh God, how do I get through that crowd of women surrounding my Birkenstocks? Okay, just keep your eyes down. Be polite. There are my shoes— just by the entrance. My German sandals clash against the women’s two-dollar rubber or vinyl footwear, anomalous as road construction cones strewn on a deserted street. They alone announced an outsider’s presence before a glimpse of my white skin even could. I see myself differently now: I’m no longer just a traveler, I’m far from home. I’m an altophobe scaling a glacier with cheap crampons.
Graceful discretion fails me as I try to slip my feet into my shoes like I’ve done a thousand times before. I twist the knob to the entrance and race through, inadvertently slamming the door behind me. My blood pumps through my chest as I sprint through the now-light traffic. I try the door to Asad’s office thrice before it acquiesces. Finally, at the tiny, dark base of the ladder, I remove my pashmina, safe within the confines of the office.
“That was…scary.” My breath comes out like I’d survived a gauntlet. I try a smile to cloak my discomfort.
Asad’s expression reveals little. He notices my rapid breathing, my shaky hands. He waits for my calm.
“You’re an American woman, madam.”
Lunch and chai arrive moments later. The scent of my roasted veg sandwich and the steaming, spicy tea soothe me as Asad tells me about his years in England, his previous travels, his forthcoming pilgrimage. Customer calls periodically halt our conversation. Meanwhile, he texts on one cell phone, takes calls on another. It piques my curiosity, as I’d spent weeks procuring a cell phone after mine was stolen 10 days into my India trip.
“Is it difficult for everyone in India to get a cell phone?”
“No, madam.” He takes a hit from his cigarette and stops texting to look at me. “The government makes it difficult for foreigners to get SIM cards because of David Headley.”
Asad tells me about the American man. The fellow, working with the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, committed terrorist acts here in Mumbai in 2008. His scouting led to the bombing of two hotels, a train station, and a Jewish center.
“One hundred and sixty people died. Six Americans, too.” Asad notices my furrowed brow as I try to connect cell phones with terrorism. “David Headley took photos and communicated with Lashkar-e-Taiba with a cell phone. It was powered by an Indian SIM card. Indian government thinks it can prevent similar actions by making it illegal to sell these cards to foreigners.”
Thoughts beat around my head like a racquetball against four walls. I thought about how many Westerners feared all Muslims because of the acts of some rogues. I thought about the millions of airline passengers forced to remove their shoes at security check-points because of the would-be shoe bomber. Then something clicks.
I jerk my head up at Asad, who tosses his paper dinner plate into the rubbish bin and wipes his hands on his jeans. “Do the women in the prayer room think of David Headley when they see me?”
He pauses. He looks straight into my eyes. “Another reason for the burqa, madam.”
Riding in the first-class women-only train car the next day, the different styles of local hijab pop to my attention. The two most prominent types of burqas are the Gulf and the Afghan styles. The former has an opening around the eyes or the whole face; the latter has a mesh swatch of fabric in front of the eyes. Both cover the entire body from head to toe. But the array of color appeals to my feminine side, as do the scalloped edging, lace, stitched flowers, and other adornments. The ladies put real zeal into their attire. I imagine them chatting about their shopping ventures, reading hijab versions of Vogue.
After departing the train at the Reay Road station, I’m walking toward Asad’s office when it occurs to me to search for a different loo, one more secular than the women’s prayer room. At a street vendor where I buy cigarettes and ask about a women’s toilet, the owner’s deep brown eyes reproach me. He’s already heard of me. Further down the block, two men dismount their bikes to stare at me. A burqa-clad group of girls outside the hospital cease giggling as if my presence were a conductor’s cue for the orchestra to cease for the soloist’s moment.
White people stand out like a fly in mayonnaise in Asian countries. American expatriates recall every instance when, growing up, our parents taught us of the rudeness of staring. It isn’t until travel opens us to new ways of life that we realize something: we were never taught how to react to staring. In the East, you exit your house to be stared at by children playing on the street. You walk down the street to be stared at by the line of rickshaw wallahs, or drivers. You go shopping to be stared at by other customers. You enter a restaurant to be stared at by all the other diners. Thousands of people stare at you every single day, all day long. Every single day. All day long. The burden weighs upon you. You recoil, feeling like a celebrity wishing for anonymity. Only when your eyes close for sleep at night are you able to unclench.
Assimilation becomes key to minimizing the staring. A short walk through most any Indian neighborhood tempers any Western woman’s liberal walking style. Even if she’s from a matriarchy or a neo-Feminist, she walks with modesty. In Mazagaon, she acquiesces when others crowd her. She reigns in her hips from moving like a pendulum. The expectation of these practices, which would incite gender wars in the West, don’t stifle us here. They calm. After all, in India, gender rights aren’t as constraining as in other countries where Islamism is more predominant. Women drive here. They have managerial positions. They get divorced. But no, you won’t soon see Indian women wearing Juicy on their derrieres— especially not in orthodox Mazagaon.
“Madam, people have started talking,” Asad says when I arrive at work the next day.
“It appears so.” I fumble through my purse for a cigarette.
Asad is faster. He procures one of his own for me, a stronger one.
I tell him how people stare at me. To attempt to hide the fear in my voice is futile. “How can I do this job if everyone hates me? I’m not sure who’s more scared: them or me. And what will I do about the loo?”
He sits, waits, listens with the stillness of a monk. He hands me tissues when tears fall down my cheeks.
“Don’t worry. You can use this— if you wish.” He hands me a white plastic bag taped together to make a package. His expression reads somewhere between apprehension and hope.
I accept the package with mixed feelings. Thankful for the sweet gesture, gifts won’t solve the problem. I unwrap the gift, which bears the weight and malleability of a textile. Inside is thin, lightweight fabric that unfolds into a large, long, cape-like form of hijab unfurls.
“This is what Iranian women wear, but some women here wear them too. It’s called a chador.” Asad’s voice reveals pride at the mere mention of his roots. “A woman friend of my family bought this; I couldn’t buy one myself, you know. I am a man.”
Relief washes through me like lavender water. Here is the solution. It’s time to assimilate beyond pretty bangles and bindis. It’s time to become one of the locals instead of standing out as a half-breed. I clamor to my feet and hold the midnight-blue material bedecked with small pink and white wispy flowers against myself. Finagling the fabric for a moment, I determine its application. I wrap it around myself from within, like a hoodless cape without buttons or strings, zips, or other aids. I hide my hairline with a small black piece of nylon fabric. The chador doesn’t cover my Birkenstocks but it does cover me, from my brown hair to my white ankles.
“What a relief!” I want to hug Asad but hold back in respect for his culture. Eye contact and smiles suffice to express gratitude.
This hijab offers something I’ve never needed: the protection of invisibility. Its very nature permits me to reveal my face or hide it. If I hide it, I can see well in the light but not in the dark. It will disguise me during the day; I can use the darkness of nightfall to cover my face otherwise. In the office, I move about in it, clutching it around myself, determining how to keep it sealed with my hands. It isn’t easy compared to my Western clothes, but it grows on me.
Working up my nerve, I test the chador by walking to the women’s prayer room. The thinness and shape of the material allow for fluid movement. It gathers a slight breeze along the way, cooling against Mumbai’s tropical heat and humidity. With discretion I observe the reactions of those around me. There isn’t a glance, not a pause in activity. There are no poisonous stares or whispers. No one sees an American woman. They don’t see a potential terrorist. They don’t know a white girl walks among them, cloaked in their own disguise.
Wearing hijab doesn’t fill me with glee. It doesn’t help me take a stance on Muslim women wearing burqas in Western countries or a government’s efforts to outlaw that. It’s an unexpected experience that international travel affords. But for now it helps me see a culture in a way that stubborn adherence to my own would have obstructed.
If it takes as long to write all of her forthcoming essays, Nichole L. Reber could never be considered prolific. Nonetheless, she continues to write about bugs, buildings, psych wards, and the value of a good walk. Read more of her at architecturetravelwriter.com.