We are breaking from our regular broadcast about Indonesia to bring you a link to an article about head coverings. This is relevant to Indonesia as there are more Muslims in Indonesia than the Middle East.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/personal/06/09/o.daughter.muslim.scarf/index.html

This is a story of a typical American mom whose nine year old decides that she wants to wear a hijab, Islamic head covering. It’s well written. It’s an interesting introspection from the mother’s point of view. I still feel it misses aspects of head covering rituals I saw while living in the Middle East. In a community where many girls do not cover, I can see this act as a means of self-expression, a way of loftily ignoring popular mores. Some of us achieved the same effect by wearing hand me downs that weren’t really meant for young girls or by burying our noses in books. But Americans in general seem to have missed the boat on hijabs. Even this mother doesn’t seem to understand that it can be just as much a fashion statement as a bikini–for all the same reasons.

If I’m ever in the position of having a daughter who wants to wear a hijab, I think my answer would be the same as my mother’s when my sister begged for pierced ears, “When you’re thirteen.” Wearing a hijab signals a coming of age, that you are now a young woman. Many young women in the States signal this with an impractical string bikini. At least the hijab will ensure that your neck doesn’t get sunburned.

If you think that wearing a hijab is a purely religious act, then you should walk into a girls’ bathroom at a school with Muslim teens who cover. At Mar Elias, half the girls would be brushing their hair while those with hijabs were busy adjusting theirs to look as nice as possible. Many of the girls used pearl or sequined pins for added flair. In the markets, young girls rifled through the mountains of fabric searching for what would most accurately express their sense of fashion in the same way American teens hunt for a kick-ass pair of jeans. If you think that girls who cover aren’t concerned with their looks, then you need a course on human nature. Just look at the picture of mother and daughter from the article. Her hijab is bright and colorful; it’s an expression of herself.

Of course the other side of all of this is that both these ideas of beauty have been fed to women by a paternalistic society. How is being leered at for showing skin any different from being told that nice girls cover up? I had days in the Middle East where I wanted to put on a hijab because I hoped it would give me more protection from the visual sexual harassment that is simply a part of life in so many places, not least of which is the American high school. This of course goes back to my comment on human nature. Girls are conditioned to care about how we look. Our image is very important. Guys, and my brother might not be the best litmus test, just don’t care. That’s not what they’re told is significant. However, most teenage girls do. Now the girl in the article may be the exception (she’s also only nine) like I was. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that most girls are very conscious about how they look and what that says about them. They will compare who is stylish and who isn’t whether its about sparkling hijabs or Tiffany bracelets. There’s a lot of work to be done on the actual problems not the question of whether your daughter is covering or not.

After all, what’s more embarrassing: cute photos of you wearing colorful scarves or those shots during your Goth phase?

I rest my case. Back to our regularly scheduled program.

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Every year this story comes up for the gospel reading and seems like it was just read last week. It is achingly familiar.

I am the oldest: I followed the rules. On some level, I sympathize with the elder, goody-two-shoes son. I think it’s also likely the elder son is a capitalist, who thinks that he should be measured by the work he does. The question is, is God a capitalist? This story suggests not. But that’s a line of thought of another time.

I was blown away when Luis spoke of how the elder brother defined himself by his virtue while his father defined himself by love. It seems painfully clear now, but I’d never thought of that before. So in a way, the brother is equally at fault because he hasn’t stayed by his father’s side from his love for his father but from his desire to do what he thinks is right. Maybe he acts so perfectly, so that everyone will think of him as the good son. This is a society where communal opinion matters.

By not pushing boundaries he has never tested his father’s love. (I feel like this is the logic behind teenage rebellion: If I do my own thing that you don’t like, will you still love me? Or do you only love me for who you want me to be?) I’m not advocating that the elder son also go squander all his earthly possessions. But did he ever ask his dad if he could slaughter that calf to share with his friends that he complains about never getting? Did he engage in an active relationship with his father or did he just follow the rules thinking that was enough?

Luis also pointed out that we don’t know what happens with this family at the end of the story. The parable doesn’t give us a Disney ending because this story is really about us. Are we ready to become active in relationships or are we happier to stand off in the distance making judgments about who is and isn’t worthy? (Last time I checked, that position didn’t have an opening.) It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure. The ending is up to us.

I was at work today thinking about Lent as I passed out chocolate candy to the adults taking our training course. Someone had thrown in  three of my favorite types. Part of me really wanted to reach in and take a nice Reese’s mini. More than usual, this year I’ve been thinking about why people give up “silly things” like sweets or coffee or Diet Coke for Lent. Skeptics  say that it isn’t spiritual; it’s a diet. I disagree. Sure, it may be a diet to some, but it can also be meaningful.

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron warns readers to beware of “babysitters,” those things we use as crutches to avoid facing tough reality. Maybe after a stressful day, it’s easier to delve into a box of chocolates while watching TV than analyzing and accepting what’s really going on. Lent gives us an opportunity to name our babysitters and break away from them. A chance to free ourselves from routines.  It’s a path uncomfortable, even foreign, to many Westerners: freedom through discipline.

When I was in Israel, for the first time I heard someone describe the rules of the Torah (beginning of the Hebrew and Christian bibles) as liberating. The concept that anyone could find peace and freedom through a set of restrictive rules baffled and intrigued me. I paid more attention to the rules governing orthodox Jews and conservatively religious Muslims during the rest of my stay. I found new meaning in their religious restrictions.

Last year changed my life in innumerable ways that I’m only beginning to understand. This is the first year where I’ve given up something for Lent and felt free instead of bound. It’s an amazing experience.