Category: Life & Society, Nature & Science Views: 832

I AM a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf. I do this as a sign of respect for God and to identify myself as a modest, reverent person in a land where all religions exist and where appearances are often confusing. I do not want to deceive others about who I am.

Ever since I first put it on a few years ago, I wear the scarf whenever I leave the house and meet non-family members. If I would wear it sometimes and not others, it would become a fashion statement, a whim, rather than the identifying statement I wish it to be. Rarely is that a problem, but recently, it became a bone of contention.

I was lucky to be placed in an excellent Catholic hospital north of Nazareth for my ear, nose and throat rotation as a medical student. I was told, however, that the rotation was contingent upon removal of my headscarf.

The day before I made my trip to Nazareth, my father came home and said, "Where is Samah?" I am familiar with this question. It almost always signals trouble.

He went on, "An administrator from your school called me today and told me that you have been asked to shed your headscarf in Nazareth. The school official said that they had made a great effort to get this Catholic hospital to take students without charge to the university. They are afraid your refusal to remove your headscarf will make a problem and possibly end the program not only for you, but also for the other students. What of it, Samah? I'm tired of your problems with the administrators."

I responded as I usually do to this kind of speech from my father. "Tell the administrators that if they have any problem with me to talk to me in person. I'm a responsible adult."

Everyone else in my family began to add his or her words of "wisdom" to my father's comments. "Come on, Samah, go with the flow." Although they thought it was appalling to ask me to take off my scarf, they still thought it wasn't worth the hassle.

To get away and think things out for myself, I left the house. The next day, I went to the hospital in Nazareth, headscarf in place. Of course, the issue came up immediately and I was told that the head of the hospital insisted that all students conform to requirements. If some head covering were essential, then a shower cap covering would be issued to us in place of the scarf.

This, of course, would deny my ability to set myself apart as a Muslim woman eager to work on patients of any faith, in addition to looking pretty goofy.

The man speaking to the three Islamic dressed women in the group seemed considerate. He said that he had spent four hours with the head of the hospital trying to get her to change her mind.

"Why would a nun, waste so much time on this issue?" I wondered.

When his appeal and rationales did not seem to change our minds, the physician spoke harshly. "Put these caps on right now," he said. "Do it." One of the women put the cap on over her scarf and, of course, looked ridiculous. There was nothing professional about the silly cap and scarf. The other woman removed her scarf completely, but still I resisted.

"I will not wear that, even if it costs me this opportunity," I said. "I wear my scarf for a reason and it is not a reason that makes wearing it optional according to the occasion. I wear spotlessly clean work clothes and do everything in my power to look professional. But I want to show that I, a Muslim woman, can be just as professional as any student, male or female, Christian, Muslim or Jew and just as caring of Catholic patients as I would be with my own people. My head scarf is my identity."

Finally, the doctor backed down, but not without warning me to stay out of view. He also asked that I wear a white headscarf rather than a colored one, which I didn't mind doing.

Otherwise, the rotation passed without mishap. We had up-to-date lectures, intensive clinical training and enjoyable, beneficial seminars. After our exam, we were to meet with the administrators of the hospital to convey our thanks and gratitude. Two people from the higher administration came and greeted us, but not the head I was supposed to avoid and who by now seemed only a myth.

After all the greeting and thanks, one of the administrators pointed to me and said, "You. You're the one who insisted on violating our rules by wearing a headscarf. We did not ask much. We have volunteers who come here from European countries, and we don't allow them to wear shorts or to meet their boyfriends in the campus of our hospital. They comply with our rules. Would it have really hurt you to do so, too?"

Amazed at the parallel he was drawing, I answered, "I'm sorry it had to be this way. I simply feel that my scarf identifies me and that wearing a headscarf is as sacred to me as a nun's veil is to her. I did not want to violate your regulations, but I wanted to protect my rights. I did wear a white scarf as requested. I appreciate that the hospital tolerated my need to cover my head." I left the meeting disheartened.

I wondered if the hospital administration had allowed me to stay because they did not want to see the incident become news. A Catholic hospital in a Muslim section of the Holy Land that refused a Muslim woman the right to have her head covered would not make good press. More ironic was that this Catholic perspective grew out of a religious tradition that covered women's heads long before Muslims adopted the habit. Still, the head nun at this Catholic institution did not seem to understand the significance of the act for me.

In several months, I will return to this institution for more training. We will see if time heals all wounds.

(Samah Jabr is a freelance journalist and medical school student in Jerusalem. This article from the Palestine Report was re-published with permission from the author.)

  Category: Life & Society, Nature & Science
Views: 832
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