To The Iraqi Girl In My Seminar,
I like your hijab. It’s such a simple phrase, only four words. I like your hijab because it—though I have not felt it—seems to be made of silk. It lays perfectly and frames your face; it brings out the dark eyes you try so desperately to hide from the class. I actually like all of your hijabs, though I don’t know how many you have, but you seem to have a few. I imagine an entire closet filled with them hanging on hangers. I imagine you pick the color to match your mood for the day. There is the one that is so deeply red, it borders on crimson. I wonder what that one says about you: that you loved or have been loved? Then there is the floral one, wrapped so the flower — do they have orchids in Iraq? — is placed right over the ear. That one says, Today, I’m really feeling nature. The black one says, I, too, feel pain sometimes. The silk doesn’t miss an inch. The strands of hair near the border of your scalp struggle to crawl out of view. In a world where so many things seem marked by their instability, your hijabs are held together with only the strength of one or two pins—a held constant in the chaos of the grander scheme of things.
But I can never tell you this. Yes, we’ve chatted before. I once said, Yes, it is in fact raining. You once said, Where did you get the tea? I said, Over there, to the left. I think that might be the extent of our dialogue. Of course it seems like I run the risk of offending you by equating your hijab to a mood ring. I don’t really mean it like that. Though I’m not sure how exactly I do mean it, and I’m perfectly willing to admit that maybe I’m searching for some deeper meaning in what should first and foremost be a religious symbol. That would by my own fault, I guess, not yours. I just think they are really beautiful.
Then I wonder why. Do I think they are beautiful in themselves? Are they beautiful because they bring out your face, in which case, the beauty of your face is mediated by the hijab? Does that mean that I actually think your face is beautiful and not the hijab? Or do I actually think the hijab is beautiful for what it represents? Can a mimetic representation be inherently beautiful or do we project beauty onto it?
It is so very hard to think of beauty in this way, let alone speak of it. In a world where a piece of cloth can cause so much political debate, these questions have a bittersweet quality to them.
You and I cannot speak of it though. We are separated by religion and gender. For the first time in my life, such a separation strikes me. Though we are united in the same seminar setting, we are essentially from different worlds. I am gay and could be killed in your country for openly being who I am. And there is a part of me that, as a man, feels like I would be insulting you if I complimented your hijab, let alone made eye contact with you. I know that the hijab is meant to preemptively stop lustful urges in men, from acknowledging the beauty of the female form and the need to embody a sense of purity. Hair represents beauty in so many cultures, and from what I understand, only your future husband will be permitted to look.
We may not be able to speak of it, so I will just write you this letter. It amazes me that four words could potentially be so loaded. I like your hijab. And I hope that’s okay.