In the “Open Space”, participants of the dialogue seminars themselves have the chance to organize workshops on topics that are important to them. Ahlam D. * and Noah A. *, a Palestinian and an Israeli participant, jointly organized a workshop on religious head coverings. In a conversation with Laura Kotzur, they share their experiences and personal perspectives on the subject of head coverings – a topic that is always controversially discussed at the seminars.
L.K .: How did you like the workshop? What were your experiences?
Noah A .: I loved it. I think like the idea of covering your hair comes from the same place in both religions but how we as individuals wear it is different from person to person. For me it’s not about modesty. And also the age is different. For us it’s marriage when you start to cover your hair. For muslims it’s entering “womenhood”, so to say.
Ahlam D .: Actually, I didn’t know anything about how Jewish women cover their heads, so it was also very interesting for me to learn more about them. It’s really a little different than ours. In Islam we start wearing hijab when we grow up, get our period. But the girl doesn’t have to, she is free to choose. As for me, I was really waiting for my period so that I could finally wear hijab. I really wanted to wear hijab. I don’t really know the real reason, but the need came from deep inside. Maybe to make me feel better, who knows, but there was something deep inside me. In the beginning my family was against it. They said no don’t, maybe wait another year. And I said, no, I’m ready for it. I made the decision for myself and I don’t regret it. In the workshop I said that I can do whatever I want with it. My hijab is not something that prevents me from doing anything. It’s just a piece of cloth and I can do what I want with it. We have many fabrics and many colors and can choose any style. (…)
N.A .: For me, too, it used to be a thing for older women because my grandmothers covered their hair and my mother didn’t. So I thought it was an old tradition. But when I got older and finished highschool at 17, I started to deal with it and a long thought process began. When I got married, I decided I wanted to cover my hair, but not out of modesty, because my hair is not immodest. It’s not about men, it’s about me and my connection to God. It is a religious thing. So I decided to cover my hair, but I’m showing my ponytail. Religious men also cover their hair, for example with the kippa. It’s a small piece of fabric on your head. Ultra-Orthodox wear velvet kippas or hats. So there are very different types of head coverings. But in general, the idea of covering your head or putting something on your head is that you have something above you. You are not the greatest thing in the whole world as we would sometimes think. It is the same for me. And because I live in a secular environment, even my husband is not religious, it also acts as a reminder for me. I am religious and I chose it. It gives me comfort, but it is also a responsibility.
A.D .: So I think I share the same idea. It is a religious sign. For example, I don’t shake hands with men, so they know it from afar. It is a clear sign that I am a religious person and I feel so much more comfortable.
N.A.: Yes, there are boundaries. I do shake hands with other people and even started to hug others this year, but only with close friends. But first of all, they know that it’s a very special thing for me. Even if I hug them, they don’t sit too close to me and yes, it just makes it very clear that I am setting the boundaries where I want them.
A.D.: It’s a very polite way to say no to guys. (…)
N.A.: But I have to say I have my struggles sometimes. Because my relationship with god is like every other relationship. It has its ups and downs and sometimes I feel like I haven’t made the right decision; and then again I’m super confident. But this is something that I will always keep within myself. I don’t know what will be in five years, but in the past four years since I have been married, it is something that I am very proud of.
A.D.: I also have my fights. Because we live under the occupation, I often have problems. So I can’t go to many of their [Israelis] areas with hijab and then I prefer never to go there. For example, we theoretically share the same train in Jerusalem, but I would never take that train. I can’t feel comfortable or safe on the train when I wear hijab and they would immediately recognize that I am an Arab. And also here in Europe you can recognize me immediately. It is a big symbol and it makes them think that they know my identity even before they have ever spoken to me.
N.A .: I don’t share this experience and I’m sorry you have to go through it. But I know what you’re talking about. Head coverings reveal prejudices in others. For me, many people think that I am politically extremely right-wing or hate Arabs because I cover my hair. But it is also my decision to wear pants, which in turn is not very acceptable in religious society. You usually wear either a dress or a skirt.
L.K .: So do you also have to fight prejudice?
N.A .: Well, I’m a musician and I came to this new band. One of the band members is gay and he was actually very afraid of a religious woman joining the group. He thought I hated him and found his presence in the group unacceptable. It took three band rehearsals to make clear that this is not the case and, above all, is not necessarily connected with religiousness. I don’t hate gay people or people at all!
A.D .: When other people see you in a hijab, they immediately decide what your thoughts, ideas and beliefs are. Such prejudices like ‘she doesn’t like gays’ and so on. I know that as well. Just because you wear hijab, they can “confirm” the image that fits their idea of you.
N.A .: It is patronizing! You don’t know the culture; you don’t know the people. But that’s exactly what many western white people do: We think, „We have the best ideas and we will force them on you.“ And I’m not saying that the head covering cannot be worn involuntarily. Of course that is possible. It can happen through oppression and violence, but that cannot be solved from the outside, but only from inside the community.
L.K .: How did the participants react to what you shared with them?
N.A .: It was very interesting. I had the feeling that they came to us with the very western idea that covering the hair is an expression of oppression, and then they developed more acceptance during the workshop and didn’t just reject it for no reason. In my religion, it is both women and men who cover their heads in different ways. So for me it comes from the same reason, but I only speak for myself.
L.K.: Of course.
N.A .: No, sadly that’s not self-evident for many people. That’s exactly what people do. They listen to one person and then think: ‘Oh, all Jewish women are like that!’ But there are so many types of head coverings. Some women wear a wig, others cover their entire hair with a turban and still others cover only a part and many do not wear a hair cover at all and are still religious.
A.D .: Yes, it is the same here. Many women are religious, but they don’t wear hijab. It’s just about the relationship between God and the person.
N.A .: The seminar is, in a way, life changing. I feel like the way I think and talk has changed a lot in the past two weeks. I don’t think I’m the same person. My vision is now broader and the spectrum of what is possible has expanded significantly for me. I think seeing the pain in another person and feeling it together is not like reading about it in the newspaper. I think personal experience is the most important. Sadly, we don’t have these opportunities at home. We might meet on the train, but then it’s like always: ‘Oh, she’s wearing a hijab and oh, she’s covering her hair.’ And we don’t talk to each other. So that’s nothing.