Her petite figure was conveniently packaged in a fashionable blue overcoat and her restless head wrapped in a matching sky blue veil. She had just stepped into the heavy gulf air surrounding the airport, her lungs filled with anxieties about what lays ahead. It was her first time in a foreign land. She had heard a great deal about the cosmopolitan Arab city and was only too eager to experience its magic and splendor.
As I led her through the parking lot carrying her small backpack, she secretly glanced at the beautifully lit airport mosque reminding her to behave like a virtuous girl. While holding her bag with one hand she checked for mischievous strands of hair dancing outside her protective veil and firmly set them back in their place.
She tried to control her excitement while driven home on flawless asphalt, cruising by ultra modern buildings sparkling like diamonds against the evening sky. Driving cars in a straight line was a revolutionary concept to her.
While exchanging information about the rules and regulations of her new place of residence I said teasingly, “You will be fined if you don’t remove your scarf.” At first she was shocked then she realized the humor and laughed while adjusting her scarf and tightening the knot for the tenth time since her arrival.
We arrived home just before midnight and began unpacking her belongings. In a few minutes we were discussing the details of her responsibility which was mainly selling books of various languages at a kiosk in a shopping mall.
Sitting casually on the sofa with a cup of tea in my hand I told her in an imperative tone that she must use this opportunity to network with potential employers or business partners and establish herself in the city.
She sat listening intently while her beautiful long hair that she had religiously hidden from strange men’s eyes most of her life, flowed like a waterfall down her back. Realizing this occasion as a chance of a lifetime, she was grabbing every syllable and storing it securely in her mind. Her excitement climbed as I sipped my tea and unremittingly explained the details of life and future possibilities in her new environment, until the moment of truth arrived.
I said, “However, dear Mojgan, you have to understand that in order to succeed in this city you will eventually have to remove your hejab in public.” Her face froze and her excitement took a nose dive. She was speechless for a few seconds as she witnessed the beautiful images of a magnificent and independent life shatter into nothingness.
That night her silent soliloquy did not allow her to sleep. The next morning, exhausted from thinking, she prepared herself for her first visit of the city. With a lot of persuasion she finally agreed to wear only a pair of grey pants, a borrowed black blouse and, of course, her sky blue scarf, and nothing more. The fact that the sleeves of the blouse that I had lent her only reached her elbows and therefore her forearm would be exposed was creating major anxieties for her.
Finally, with much fuss and apprehension she left the apartment and swiftly moved into the elevator. As she hastily walked towards the car she looked around for any intrusive male eyes that may glance at her veil less body and thus be aroused. She climbed into the car and quickly shut the door, taking care not to raise her forearms above the window.
While driving about the desert-turned-oasis town, it was difficult not to notice her bewilderment about her new surroundings. Against the deep blue skies, the perfectly trimmed green grass and the stunning deep purple and pink flowers splashed all over the sidewalks and the city squares, did nothing but remind her of the beauty of life. Throughout her twenty seven years of existence she had never experienced so much color, such glamour, organization and modernity in a city. She had never seen women in dresses with their hair shimmering in the sun. She had never met anyone who didn’t speak her native language. She had never exposed her forearms in public.
Walking on the street was an even more exhilarating experience. She felt like a nude nymphet. Over the years her chador, veil and her overcoat had become part of her skin and their removal had disoriented her. She couldn’t help but enjoy the breeze however the indoctrinated religious guilt was too overwhelming. Quietly she endured the anxieties created by her thoughts, as our day in the outdoors came to a closing. She was relieved to find herself back in the apartment and protected from the probing eyes of the male specie.
The next day we decided to have a practice run to reveal some of her hair. I suggested that she try to walk in the empty hallway without a scarf. She nervously put on her loose kangaroo jacket and pulled up the hood. The fact that the jacket was only long enough to cover her bottoms was plenty provocative enough. I assured her that the hallway was empty. She carefully examined it and timidly stepped out like a prisoner out of a prison.
She was startled from tip to toe when a cleaning man entered the hallway from an apartment a few doors down. She clenched to her hood making sure all strands of hair were tucked in. She stood by the doorway with her back to the man while justifying to God her new attire, a pair of pants and a loose jacket with the hood tightly pulled over head. Nevertheless, we had made some progress.
Next step was to persuade her to pull out a few strands of her hair. As I reached for her hood she started fidgeting and suddenly the rate of synapses within her neural network increased ten fold. The terrorized look on her face was a testimony of the crimes committed by humanity onto itself. In a calm and assuring voice I said, “It’s only a couple of strands. They won’t entice anyone.” She wasn’t looking at me anymore. She was watching herself burn in hell. She was being hung from her hair. Her wide eyes were filled with utter fear while begging for mercy from her omnipotent Master monitoring her every move from the heavens.
Realizing how deep the religious propaganda had penetrated her every neuron I decided to call it off for the day. I said: “Mojgan, I think that’s plenty of progress for today.” With a sigh of relief she returned to the apartment and shut the door. She later explained that actually there’s a third option for the descendants of the Prophet. The naughty ones would be dumped in an extremely cold place.
On the third day I arranged for her to meet with various infidels ranging from Muslims, ex-Muslims to non-Muslims.
Her first and close encounter with infidels was thought provoking. She tried to maintain her sense of rationality and continued looking for a justifiable way to remove her hejab without risking being dumped in that cold hell on Judgement Day.
Again while her body slept that night the conversations kept her mind awake. Up until this trip she had not realized how deep her religious beliefs had dug their way into the core of her being. She recalled our conversation at the local pub as she sat conspicuously wrapped in a black overcoat and veil. As my friends and I raised our glasses of beer to drink a toast to her arrival she was reluctant to touch our glasses with hers as they contained alcohol. Nonetheless, I admired her religious flexibility for having stretched thus far and risked so much by sitting with us in such a self-indulgent environment as an alcohol serving pub with a bare back female singer on the stage.
As the days went by she was completely engulfed by an internal struggle. Sleeping at night and sitting up on the couch all day, staring at the walls. Her appetite for food had diminished.
By day five she said in a timid tone, “You know, I have come to realize that you are absolutely right with regards to the importance of physical appearance in this city. The better opportunities are reserved for those without hejab and I will definitely miss them if I continue wearing my hejab.” However, her religious obedience pulled her back into the ring and the fight continued.
She was being torn between piety and success, both equally important to her and not an epsilon of difference. She thought, if only a trusted cleric would assure her safety on Judgement day. After all she had spent all her life by this rule and because of it had lost many other opportunities for a better life. She couldn’t just drop the veil without a guarantee.
She decided to call her home and ask for her advice. After she hung up she couldn’t decide whether she should laugh or cry as she reflected on absurdities in life. Her sister had suggested that she wear a wig.
On the seventh night I was woken up by a big thump at 3 in the morning. Mojgan had fainted at the entrance of the bathroom. Because of her mental stress she hadn’t eaten properly for days. I made sure that she ate a healthy breakfast the next day, with or without appetite.
At 10 am the next morning we were checking in her luggage at the departure counter. In the same blue sky overcoat and matching veil she handed her ticket and passport to the airline personnel. She turned around with a million looks on her face, all rushing in to establish themselves at the same time while pulling her features in every direction. The final agreement resulted in a confused look. She glanced about wondering if she would ever be back again, this time with a guarantee.
Upon receiving her gate pass we picked up her bag and walked quickly to the point of departure. After kissing each other on the cheek she casually walked towards the passport check point. Two playful strands of hair were sneaking out from under her veil. She wasn’t bothered.
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