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 In Iraq, I covered my head but opened my mind: Monique Ching

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In Iraq, I covered my head but opened my mind: Monique Ching  9.9.2012 
By Monique Ching - San Angelo Standard Times

Photo: RFE/RL
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, however, 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 night.

While many people particularly feminists may be thinking how terribly oppressive Islamic cultures are, let me offer a different perspective from my experience.

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 assumptions.

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 culture.

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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