Last week I had to attend 2 essential appointments. I did so with all of the appropriate precautions, including my latest fashion accessory…
Both appointments were with people who I see regularly but not very often. As I approached, a strange thought occurred to me – would they recognize me like this? What features do you pick up on to “recognize” someone? Do you need to see someone’s face or can you just hear their voice, note their clothes, see their mannerisms and the way they enter the room? And this reminded me of a story…..
I’ve had the opportunity to travel and volunteer twice in the country of Jordan. Before my first trip, I had never visited any country in the Middle East and, like many people, I had no idea what to expect. I think there are a lot of preconceived notions, mostly misconceptions and stereotypes, about the people and culture of this region. I went with an open mind because really – isn’t this one reason why travel is so important? To educate, to share, to experience for yourself and form your own opinions… I was excited to take it all in!
Jordanians are extremely welcoming and I was lucky to have excellent company on this trip. One of the first things I noticed and was curious to learn more about (in addition to the delicious food!) was the style of dress for the women. In this country, about 95% of people are Muslim and 5% are Christian. People are very accommodating of others traditions and I saw people wearing everything from cute tops and skinny jeans to “regular” outfits topped off with hijabs to full burkhas. I’m definitely no expert on the different types of head coverings, but here’s some info if you are interested in learning more.
When our team arrived at our Habitat for Humanity Global Village location, we met with the family of Mr. and Mrs. S who were excited to soon have a home of their own!
We worked side by side, day by day, and not once did Mrs. S hesitate to put on gloves and get dirty with the rest of us. She became one of my two wall-building partners that week. 🙂
Clearly, the fact that women here dress conservatively does not mean that they are limited! In fact, I also had a chance to meet a group of women who have started their own community-based organization (CBO) – by women, for women. To my knowledge, they now work with over 50 women in their community. Their work focuses on seeking solutions to life’s daily challenges, identifying opportunities for all and generally providing a network of support for women. The concept of women’s economic empowerment through CBOs in Jordan is highly promoted by the government – here’s an example of a recent event where organizations like this one were recognized publicly.
During the course of the trip, I also had an opportunity to become friends and have many conversations with Mrs. M, whose husband plays an important role in the CBO we were working with on that build. She lives next door to the guesthouse where we stayed and has a good command of English, enabling us to have many in depth discussions. I learned more about her daily life and quickly realized that despite our differences, she was describing a life which really was not that different from my own. Mrs M normally wears a niqab and at one point when we were in her home, she took it off to show me her face and let me try it out. Um….it’s pretty hot under there, whew!
Once we became comfortable with each other, our conversations became more personal. When I posed question “why do you dress this way”, she immediately smiled and said, in an astonished tone, “why wouldn’t I??”. She shared with me that she has covered her head since she was 15. Because SHE wants to, it is 100% her choice. She is proud of the way she lives her life and by choosing to cover herself, she is able to define how she interacts with others. Her exact words?
“I am golden. I choose who is allowed to see me and who is not. It is my decision. It is my special gift and power.”
Wow, perfect. It led to a conversation about self-expression and the recognition that we were truly seeing each other – despite her external coverings and my own less visible barriers. To her, it was so clear. You don’t need to express yourself through materialistic or ostentatious displays. Just be true yourself. Her second lesson to me? “You know me because I speak with my eyes.”
This conversation took place more than 2 years ago, but it still rings true. For everyone. If you want to honestly know someone, you only need to look into their eyes to see their heart. Tell me you can’t see Mrs. S’s joy!
As tourists, it was totally fine to not cover our heads during our time in Jordan – but eventually, you realize that you “stick out less” if you give it a try. So, on the last day of the trip, inspired by a parting gift given to me by Mrs. M, I did just that at dinner. And the hotel staff, who had seen me in my usual pony-tailed state for days prior to the conclusion of our trip, all stopped and stared when I got out of the elevator. Oh no! I was immediately self conscious – did I offend them all? Is this the worst idea ever?? I started to apologize only to discover quite the opposite. They broke out in huge grins and sheepishly replied “beautiful…”.
Let that sink in for a bit. Hair free, looking my “normal” – no comment or even a sideways glance. Wrap it all up – and every head turned. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am golden. I choose who gets to see me.
We are all going to become experts at speaking with our eyes in the post-COVID new normal. I’m glad I got off to a good start with a great teacher.
To learn more about the work of Habitat for Humanity in Jordan, please click here. Global Village teams have been suspended in 2020 but families are still in need. If you are able, you can make a financial donation in support of this work using this link (scroll down to designate your donation to Jordan). Your kindness and generosity are most appreciated!