My 4-year-old sat on my lap as I massaged my broken leg in a cast on the Istanbul Metro train. In front of us sat a woman wearing a black niqab with only slits of her eyes showing. My daughter could not see her expressions. She wasn’t used to the garb.
She stared at her with childlike innocence but there was fear in my daughter’s brown eyes.
“Is she wearing that so she could go to steal, Mom? Is she a thief?” My baby asked in Farsi.
“No, janem. People dress differently here. We have to accept that people are different,” I replied rather amused.
“But why does she wear that?” she asked, sincerely bewildered.
I wish I knew as well. I’m not a fan of the headscarf, niqab, burqa or any other so-called Islamic dress. Covering a woman’s face disturbs me because it advocates for the disappearance of women. I don’t understand women who think respect is earned only when you cover up. We should be respected regardless of what we wear. Others wear it to identify themselves as Muslim, make a political statement or to feel more connected to God. Whatever their reason, it’s their prerogative.
Clothes should not define who we are and how we’re treated. I have told my two daughters my stance on the politics of dress since they were born. Yet I never encouraged them to ridicule or ostracize those who do cover.
I accept that women have their own reasons for what they wear. As long as they’re not enforcing it on me or my kids, I have no right to act intolerant. Who knew if this woman on the train chose to wear niqab or if she was afraid of a husband, an extremist militia or a culture that bound her to it. I wish I could’ve asked but we didn’t know each other’s language. If we could’ve communicated, I may have debated with her. It’s my right to speak out as it is her right to wear what she wants. Many women like her have no qualms preaching to women like me who do not wear hijab about our immodesty.
But that’s not what happened. We uttered a few words in Arabic, the common language of Islam, and I understood that she’s a foreigner in Turkey like me, a Chechen Muslim. She seemed warm and happy to meet us. She wasn’t judging me. That kindness encourages tolerance of differences.
In the U.S., surveys show that Americans become more compassionate toward Muslims when they meet one and come to know their humanity.
The woman noticed my daughter’s fear and reached out to hold my pre-schooler’s hand. My daughter flinched but the broad-shouldered woman let out a warm chuckle. “Tamam (It’s okay),” she said.
My little one looked at me for direction and I smiled and told her to take her hand. So she did, and we all laughed. The Chechen tousled my baby’s curls and giggled with her.
We all exited at the same stop and shook hands as we bid farewell.
I don’t think my little girl will be asking if women who veil in black are thieves anymore. But she might ask why she has to do so, and that’s exactly what I want her to do. Accepting differences doesn’t mean agreeing with them.