Removing The Veil

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I had a déjà vu this past week. I was at the gym in Amman at a Bodypump class and I distinctly remember having a premonition or a sense or déjà vu of being there. I remembered being confused at why my two worlds were colliding, my “American” Bodypump class with Arab women and Arabic. Basically, that would qualify as my third ring of hell. I hate lifting weights (even though I know it’s good for me) and to do so in Arabic…Allah esaednee (God help me), that would be sheer torture. 

Except this was no dream, this is my current reality. In that déjà vu moment, I had to smile and think wow, I am prophetic and then get back to the bicep track…my least favorite. Here’s the thing, I currently am so fascinated with this gym. Mind you, I had memberships at gyms in Beirut for years. But the members were upper class Christian Lebanese and other foreigners. Which was interesting as the women were fully decked out in the finest designer workout wear with full on makeup and perfume. They would barely workout, as they didn’t want to sweat. I had several of them ask me why I was sweating so much with a look of disapproval and many tsk-tsk-tsks. 

This is different. I am currently at a women-only gym with mostly middle-class women, 95 percent of whom are all Muslim. Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian Muslim women; add to that, the cleaning staff are African and Indonesian Muslim ladies. I have never had access to such broad range of Muslim women - behind closed doors. That’s the key - behind closed doors without men. It has blown my mind and even some of my stereotypes. 

I wrote last year about blowing Americans’ stereotypes of Muslim women with “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves,” this is an addendum. Whenever I teach or speak on Muslims or Palestinians, the topic that gets the most questions or that people have the most opinions about is on Muslim women. How oppressed they are and how horrible it must be to be forced to wear a veil. They can’t even drive, have to be locked away, and are abused…all of them! And they need US to free THEM! What’s funny to me is most have never met a Muslim woman or had any sort of relationship with one. And yet, they have all these very strong opinions…which turn out to be misconceptions and stereotypes based on their own prejudices and ignorance. We presume they want what we have. Letting your hair down is freedom, right? Or is it? I want to give you a peek into this world and something that I witness every single day in someplace as innocuous as a gym. 

Yes, Muslim women work out. They call it “making sport” in Arabic. The gym is like any other gym in America, except the Arabic part. Classes range from Pilates, Yoga, Bodypump (yes Bodypump), Zumba (which is more like an amped up Belly dancing class), Oriental dance, spinning, step, BodyCombat to a host of mixed classes that I think they just made up. One is called—wait for it—Mix. Seriously, they just throw everything together and go to town. The classes are packed and the instructors are professional. One Pilates instructor makes me whimper (every single time) because her class is so hardcore. The instructors push me and as a result I am in better shape, more flexible, and stronger than I ever have been.  They have personal trainers and a room of the hard-core Pilates equipment for PT work. Normal machines, ellipticals, bikes, treadmills, and the entire Curves circuit. All with Top 40 pop and hip-hop music from MY COUNTRY blaring though the speakers. On the TVs are Arabic Music videos, Fatafeat (the Arabic Food Network) with Ina, Bobby, Giada, Haylie Duff (what the?) and Jamie Oliver along with a host of Arabic food shows. They are also watching American Soap Operas and the View. I wish we could export better quality programing. 

I enter with sweet little hajjis (older covered women) and Muhajibis (covered women) in every age and shape. I watch them peel off their abayas, layers of clothes, and remove their veils to reveal spandex Nike and Adidas workout clothes. These women who most Americans would see as completely conservative and unapproachable are actually dressed just like you underneath it all. Hairstyles range from short to long, blonde to raven black. Some of the younger girls have blue and pink hair…just like the women in their 20s in America. Whhhaaaatttt? Some have tattoos and some have commented on my tattoos. Some show a lot of skin, some don’t. One 50-something woman walked past me yesterday with her spandex leggings and Che Guevara t-shirt. #gohajjigo  Some women are serious about “making sport” and are buff and I mean buff. But like most of us, they struggle to keep in shape. 

Since I have been taking classes for a few months, I have been able to build some relationships with women there. Many will come up to me first thing in the morning and say, “Good Morrrrrning, Sooozahn” with such delight to speak a bit of English. If a class is starting, one or two women will come get me and tell me, “yellah ya Suzann!” (Hurry up Suzann!)  I have had conversations on so many topics. When they find out that I am American, many tell me of their visits to America or their family members in America. They are so curious about why I am here and what I do. When I tell them, they give me the thumbs up and tell me how amazing I am. If only Americans thought that. There is an older Palestinian women who every single time she sees me says, “I am very happy now that I see you” (rough translation). And when I was out sick for a few days was sincerely worried about where I was. 

Some women get there early to meet others and drink tea together before classes. Many will hang out and chat after class for hours. Many will come with friends to “make sports” together. Before classes they greet each other and kiss cheeks. They go out afterwards, to smoke argyle (hookah) and eat breakfast. It’s a community. More so than any gym I have been to in America. What I love, love, love about this culture, is that I as a foreigner am welcomed in. 

Muslim women work out. They talk about the very same things American women talk about. Name it. Work, their families, food, they swap recipes, sex, fashion, religion, politics, dieting. They know much more about America and American women, albeit they too have their misconceptions, than most American women know about them.  They struggle with the same things we all struggle with; body image, identity, relationships, the meaning of life, femininity. They primp and do their hair and fuss with their headscarves and put on make up and dress fashionably and cover it up and head back out. This is their world and it is their norm. I have learned with living in another culture for as long as I have, it’s not good or bad, it’s just culture. It’s how it is. There can be good and bad within that culture. But, that goes for my American culture too. My culture is not the best, it’s just my culture, it’s what I know. In that respect, I am so incredibly grateful to have relationships with women from such a different culture. My heart has been expanded as a result. 

This is only the gym. I have yet to share how many Muslim women I know that are intelligent, independent, educated, beautiful, making a difference, loving God, and are serving others. I learn from all of them. I respect them. I desperately wish to connect my two worlds, to connect all of you. So, you could see each other as I have the privilege of seeing you all. And walk out life together in love with all our differences...in all the pain and beauty this world brings us. Not as them or us. But as women. With the veils of our hearts lifted. 

"Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only life and reality: the female human being."  ~Rainer Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet)

Suzann Mollner1 Comment