In Iraq, I covered my head but opened my
mind: Monique Ching
By Monique Ching - San Angelo Standard Times
September 9, 2012
SAN ANGELO, Texas, — After spending two and a
half months in a summer internship in the Kurdish
region of northern Iraq, the reverse culture shock
hit me fairly abruptly.
There were minor adjustments, like the awkwardness
of using Western bathrooms again and the excitement
of being able to eat pork again, but the most
difficult adjustment for me was re-evaluating the
female role in society.
I've noticed that when I tell people about the
relatively conservative dress in Iraq, it is usually
followed by looks of sympathy and, "Did you have to
wear a head covering, too?" My general response to
that is, yes, the women wore the hijab head scarf
for part of the time and, no, we didn't have to but
we chose to.
The image that most people seem to have of Iraq is
what is probably a confused mixture of different
media portrayals of various Middle Eastern, Islamic
countries. To clarify a few things, I spent my
summer in Kurdistan, a northern nation-state of
Iraq. Kurdistan is relatively Westernized compared
with the rest of Iraq, which made it a lot more
diverse and more accepting of Western culture.
The Kurds are predominantly Muslim, but there seems
to be a younger generation breaking away from
conservative Islam and advocating more progressive
Western ideologies. The organization I worked for,
Preemptive Love Coalition, is based in Kurdistan and
trains doctors in southern Iraq to perform
lifesaving heart surgeries on children with
congenital heart defects.
If we had chosen to bring Western culture over there
and live as we do over here, we probably would not
have gotten much more than a few stares and a few
comments from the Kurds. When making that choice,
you have to decide whether your personal comfort is
more important than building a relationship with the
community you live in. As a woman, that was a
challenge and often a frustrating one.
In Iraq, women who expose more than about 10 percent
of their skin can be seen as shameful. It also is
shameful for women to speak to men — except buying
fruit at the market, for instance — and to make eye
contact or any physical contact with men. Women who
talk or laugh loudly in public are seen as brazen,
and women generally are not seen out alone or at
While many people — particularly feminists — may be
thinking how terribly oppressive Islamic cultures
are, let me offer a different perspective from my
In a conversation with a Muslim friend, I asked her
why she wore a hijab. Her response was that she wore
it like a crown.
"My beauty is not for everyone," she said.
She did not feel the need to openly display her
body. She felt that the female body was something to
be valued and held onto rather than openly displayed
for men to objectify.
Of course, not all Muslim women feel this way.
Particularly in Kurdistan, women have the freedom to
choose whether they want to cover, a choice that
Western women would never make.
It seems that modesty — a virtue so valued in
Islamic cultures — is somewhat lost on Western
society. The mass media, dominated by men, seem to
determine how women should look and carry
themselves. Perhaps we in the West are in some ways
oppressed by our need to be validated.
When the French government made a law on secularity,
banning head coverings from public schools, many
women felt oppressed by it rather than liberated.
I am not saying every woman should cover her head or
wear an abaya — a long outerwear garment worn by
Arab women — but I hope at least we will not be so
quick to judge other cultures based on our own
I don't know whether Wade Michael Page opened fire
at the Sikh temple in August because he mistook the
Sikhs for Muslims or whether he just targeted a
group that was different from his own. Either way,
the tragedy highlighted a key issue: Cultural
ignorance breeds hatred. It is easy to label a
culture as oppressive, just as it is easy to label
all head coverings as being a part of just one
Perhaps if we sought cultural understanding, we
could find a place of mutual cultural respect.
Monique Ching is a general assignment multimedia
journalist for the Standard-Times.
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