Holding a Space Open for the “Other”

Holding a Space Open for the “Other” January 25, 2012

How good are you at hearing someone else’s opinion? How long can you hold a space in your heart open for someone who is very “other” than you?

I’m new at living in a Middle Eastern country. I’ve been in Qatar 6 months now and although I’m new to it I am also immersed in it. Everyday I’m watching and processing what I’m seeing. Everyday I’m confronted by differences and everyday I’m trying to understand. Everyday I’m reading about the culture around me. This does not make me an expert. Everyday I resist the temptation to move from a position of learning into a position of ‘got it figured out now’. This would only yield partial understanding and half truths and block the way for clearer understanding.

Part of the process is learning that I was wrong about some things. We know, intellectually that we are shaped by the news we hear, other people’s opinions and our own cultures biases, but when a new piece of information arrives on our doorstep, how do we handle it? Especially if it’s not really what we want to believe or if we don’t like it.

I’m going to invite you to an exercise that I partake in regularly. Exercising my ability to stay open even when I’m uncomfortable with the information being provided. This has become so important for me, here in the Middle East. And I believe it’s important for all of us in our increasingly interconnected global village.

It’s become so important to have and cultivate skills in restraining our egocentrism and ethnocentrism, skills in critical thinking and in waiting, and holding our opinion at least long enough to let other’s opinions sink in. It requires restraint and humility.

Here’s an opportunity for you to test those skills and see how you do. I’m going to share with you some thoughts that are new to me since moving here. Ideas that were hard to find a place to hook into my western/feminist steeped ideologies.

Remember this: 1) you don’t have to agree with these thoughts, just sit with them and stay open to them for longer than you’re comfortable with. Try to remove yourself from your own culture and enter someone else’s. Observe how long you can be open before you find yourself making opposing arguments. What are your opposing arguments based on? Do you know for sure? Do you need to be right? Why do you feel the need to jump to reiterating your arguments? Do you feel you have something to lose? Is your reaction and response proportional to the issue at hand?

And 2) When you do start to make your argument (if you do) ask yourself if there is a reflection of what you’re arguing against in your own culture/church/family/life. (ie. do you find yourself saying ‘that’s not religious, they’re socialized to think that way’? Are there things we’ve thought are “christian” but are really more an expression of socialization?)

Muslim Women Covering Their Heads/Faces

I am a Canadian woman, born in the 60’s, into a family of brothers whom I had to compete with (and did so successfully). I’m a mother who has had a number of successful careers. I’m deeply concerned about women’s issues and equality. I have been treated as an equal participant in family, marriage, ministry and business. I can spot chauvinism a mile away and can sniff out even a hint of male superiority. I react like most North American women (and many men) to issues of inequality. If you understand where I’m coming from then I suspect you could easily make an argument against women being veiled. I can.

Here’s what I’ve been confronted with in Qatar, which, it should be noted, is a relatively moderate Muslim country where veiling is optional as far as the law is concerned but very definitely the social norm.

One of my first jarring realizations made me feel like I was a poor excuse for a feminist. My neighbour is a divorced, single mother from Lebanon. I wondered for far too long as to why she covered her head. If you wanted to shed the head covering, moving to another country, away from the social pressures of family and culture would do it. Lebanese women here are very mixed about covering and no one would have thought twice if she didn’t cover. Also, she has no husband here that might make her submit to wearing a head covering. I’m ashamed to admit that it took far too long for me to come to the conclusion that she has a faith of her own, that she has considered the teachings and practices of Islam herself and that she has decided for herself that this is how she’d like to express her own faith and submission to God alone. She has her own religious convictions. I know that many women here say that it’s their choice, but I suspect social conformity to be a really big factor. Until you remove yourself from your culture I doubt you can actually tell how much is your choice and how much you are keeping the peace. But for my neighbour, I see no other reason.

There are many expressions of covering. There are women who have just their heads covered, sometimes with very colourful scarves (I believe these women are from neighbouring Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan). The Qatari women are all in black but still with a lot of variety. Some are completely covered, head to toe, including faces and gloves. Others have openings in the veil for their eyes, some covered from the nose down and a lot have just their head (and body of course) covered. This leads me to believe that there is a lot of discussion and decision that goes along with their clothes. I know that there is lively discussion about faith and tradition, about what is acceptable and why. Why did I think it was done without thought, following traditions and pressures without thought? (Arrogance?)

The reasoning they often give for covering the women is that they are “precious jewels” to be protected and cherished, not to be flaunted or judged by others. I admit suspicion of this. I wonder, is this code, used by obsessively jealous husbands and prudishly protective fathers? Is this a mask for extreme subjugation of women? Maybe it is. I can tell you this; these women do not carry themselves like they are subjugated. They carry themselves like they are royalty (indeed, some may be). They walk tall. They smile kindly. The ones I have met are smart and determined. They are not wallflowers. Is it possible that they carry with them the feeling of being cherished like a jewel? Is it possible that they enjoy this tradition?

Many of the women say that what they like about being covered is that no one can judge them for their appearance. This made me really sad. I wanted to say to them, ‘my sisters, it’s ok, we won’t judge you, please come out and be loved for who you are.’ Then I realized just how blind to my own culture I really am. Is this my experience? Do western women accept each other and refrain from judging each other? On the contrary!! Western society is fraught with the repercussions of being very judgmental of the appearance of women and the illusive perfect shape and size. We are very hard on ourselves as a result. Is our way better?

Some may assume that the abaya/hijab coverings are an old fashioned, medieval reflection of this culture’s lack of exposure to the world around them and their submersion in the past.’ Au contraire again friends. The women covered by these abayas are actually driving the haute couture industry in the world today.

Assumption: Women do not want to be covered and are looking to be rescued from this oppression.

It took me a while to really enter into the thought that these women have never known any different. It’s not like they were all of a sudden covered and now want out. (On the contrary…it was I who was new to the covering of women…was it I who was anxious to have it changed? Projection?) Surely there are some who would like to break out of this tradition. I now suspect most are just fine with it. I have actually come to appreciate the fact that while so many cultures have been sucked into the vortex of the North American dress code this group of people has proudly hung onto theirs. Not just the women but the men in their crisp white thobes as well. I feel an unexpected “good for you!” rise up in my soul when I see them.

As I have been writing this post another one of my Muslim neighbours, who has not been covered up, has made the decision that she will now be wearing an abaya and a hijab. She was born and raised in England, is a school teacher in her 40’s and has no social or marital pressure to do so. This is her decision. She is also very open about it and I look forward to talking with her and finding out what is triggering this change.

The descriptions in this post are of life in Qatar. This is not a statement, for example, of the burka experience of women in Afghanistan or the experience of women in the Sudan etc.  My point here is to question an assumption that I’ve had for years. Is the covering of women, in and of itself, a symbol of the oppression of women? Is that what I see every time I look at a covered woman? Is there room for my thinking to be broadened and therefore more respectful of their rights, opinions and culture?

I was not prepared to respect the decision of women to cover up. Can you consider this? Can you hold a place open for the women who are intelligent and diligent about their faith and who chose to cover their heads? Can you see similarities with the Christian faith? How quickly do you want to fire off a comment to this blog? Can you take a breath first? Are there other issues in different cultures that you need to pull back your initial reactions and at least think about?

Adventures in cross cultural relations. May the open space we create be a place for us to meet with “others” in peace, understanding and mutual respect.







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  • I believe that when you ask a Muslim woman why she has chosen to cover her head, and especially a woman who has chosen to later in life, you will find the decision came from a true spiritual awakening. The wearing of a covering may be a relic from the past, but it is also woven tightly into many of the Muslim faith denominations.

    The Muslim faith and the Christian are are profoundly similar. The roots of both faiths go back to Abraham and Isaac. Think of the many Christian groups such as the Amish and Hutterites who have very similar ideas about clothing. Islam and Christianity may seem different superficially, but at the heart, they are cousins, nay, sisters.

    If a Christian chooses to question the authenticity of a Muslim person’s spiritual life – something too many Christians do with arrogance – they are also questioning ALL spiritual experiences, especially their own.

    • Thank Carla. Along with the christian groups you mention I would also add Catholic Nuns and Priests of many Christian denominations.

  • Pat Pope

    Sometimes we need to have this openness right here within our own country when someone of a different theological bent, race, ethnicity, etc. enters our midst. Let’s not assume they are wrong and must conform. Rather, as you said, let’s “hold a space in your heart open”.

  • vic ratzlaff

    Thankyou for a rich experience in reading about living outside the garden and discovering that the fruit wasn’t what I thought it would taste like.

  • Bill P. Payne

    Why would a woman who lives in a society in which the veil is associated with social identity decide to not wear the veil? You may not be able to discern it, but wearing and not wearing the veil are social signals that make an explicit statement about the woman. Qatar has a large core culture that scripts ideas, kinship patterns, and customs. Do not look at each woman as an autonomous person making an individual decision that is not a part of a larger process. Those who come from the secular West do not get what it means to live in a society in which one’s kinship network is more significant than one’s personal identity. Participant observation is a good thing. Take field notes. Review them. Code them. Sense the story that emerges from them. Relate your insights to others who have also documented social patterns associated with clothing. In the meantime, do not lose your own identity. You will always be a product of your socialization. Don’t run from it or be ashamed of it. Step back and embrace your evangelical faith with a new determination and a new sense of personal ownership. To appreciate the other, you do not have to lose yourself.

    • Bill P. Payne

      By the way, I love Wimber and his principles of the kingdom. I think he was spot on. Even though I am not in the Vineyard movement, I am thankful for it. I lived in an Arab community in Central London and an Arab country for several years. Muslims appreciate true spirituality. They are very open to signs and wonders. Many have been conditioned to think that Christians are crusaders or weak people who do not have a strong faith. Still, I love my Muslim friends. They respect my Christian faith and I respect them. Good times.

  • “Until you remove yourself from your culture I doubt you can actually tell how much is your choice and how much you are keeping the peace.”
    There it is.

  • I love how you are exploring, discovering, questioning. I particularly appreciate how you are so aware of your own perception filters, preconceptions, and socialized reactions to the realities that surround you.

    I also, tho, appreciate Bill P’s admonition to be a bit careful about your level of discernment. Two things come to mind as I apply that to your post: first, your Lebanese single mom is, for all the positives she brings to your observations, by no means normative of the experience you are studying in this slice of your Arab experience… or at least that would be my assumptive guess on the matter. She’s single, outside her family network, an outsider on very many levels. An ‘outlier’ if you will. Interesting, then, but not at all representative. I’m not saying she’s not useful in your observational “field notes” (often it is the extreme example that offers insight to those not accustomed to what they are looking at, after all) but be careful in drawing too many assumptions from that set of observations.

    Secondly, and this may prove somewhat more difficult to both describe and overcome, but you are going to have a rather difficult time assessing the socio-familial context of this question. It is very difficult, if not virtually impossible, to be able to usefully observe the above context, never mind draw any usable data from it. It is usually a very nuanced set of circumstances, and if my (admittedly very long-distance and conjective) assumptions are correct, the folks you wish to observe within that framework will prove less than truly amenable and forthcoming. In other words, you are unlikely to learn the truth of the matter… as indeed may very well be the case of those you seek to question. After all, you know from your own experience how difficult it is to parse the sources of your value system: how much is social, or familial, or truly scriptural?

    Having said all that: please persevere…. I love reading about your journey.

    On a more personal note, tho still related: perception is very much rooted in the experiential mode of life. I’ve certainly learned that the past year. Facing death, and dealing with that reality, has very definitely shifted my perception. As I started reading your post, and hearing your challenge, I had to smile to myself a bit: to me it just isn’t an issue of any concequence anymore. Is that a change? Oh my goodness yes… at one point I had an opinion on everything, and was willing to to fight vociferously in defence. Now? Nope. Just about never.

    So… bear in mind that perception is, for all intents and purposes, reality. Maybe not actually or factually, in the most finely honed analysis, but certainly on a functional level.

    • Thanks John. Great thoughts.
      Regarding your first point about my Lebanese neighbour…the neighbour to the other side is also a divorced single mother from Lebanon. She is also Muslim, but I just learned that, because there are no clothing indicators. So, I’m not so sure that she’s not representative. I’ll hold that decision open and keep watching. I think the impetus for them is that teachers in Lebanon don’t make enough money to live on. There are good opportunities here and they speak Arabic and English. Makes me wonder what support is like for women there.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. You really have had a life changing year. It’s been a privilege to be along for your journey as well.

  • Miriam

    I loved this post. It’s always nice to read possitive comments on hijab that are not strictly theological.

    We always say we’re tolerant but only with what we agree on. We need to shut up and listen with an open mind and remember that the other’s opinions are as valid as our own. I hope you enjoy Qatar 🙂