Aisha has a date tonight.
Aisha is twenty seven. Most of her friends are married. She’s still pretty, but worries she’s losing her looks. Her figure, which she once described as “professional,” has bagged down with plumpness, the result of a love of fried bananas.
And in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where sharia (Islamic) law reigns, a single date means a lot more than in the West. Meeting for coffee often means agreeing to be viewed as a couple in the eyes of Acehnese society. Certainly, after a second date, friends will start gossiping—jokingly and not—about a wedding.
Aisha isn’t sure if other people are labeling her and Fajar a couple yet, but she hopes so. They work together at the bank: she’s up front as a teller; he’s in back as an accountant. They’ve never gotten beyond casual conversation when he drops papers off at her desk—the other tellers are watching. Most of Aisha’s information about Fajar comes from gossip and Facebook stalking, but she’s liked what she’s heard: quiet but still friendly, a diligent employee, loyal to his widowed mother. She’s also noted that he’s older, expected to be promoted soon, dresses well, and drives an expensive Honda Tiger motorbike.
But in some ways he remains a mystery. Take, for example, the bruise—birthmark?—a little to the right of the center of his forehead. It’s so faint she’s not even sure it’s there. Could it be a developing zabiba, the callus exceptionally devote Muslims earn through a great deal of prayer, bowing with each verse until their heads bump the tiles?
Everyone says Fajar never misses any of the five daily devotions, but he dresses very modernly in jeans, a soccer warm-up jacket despite the heat, and knock-off Adidas. Never has she seen him in a peci, the traditional hat religious men wear. She’s also seen how tired he is after staying up until 4:00 a.m. to watch his beloved Manchester United soccer team play halfway across the world.
But Aisha can’t waste too much time debating whether it’s a zabiba or birthmark. Her shift at the bank has just ended at 3:00 p.m. sharp; the date is 7:30 p.m. at Q&L Coffee. If the night is going to be a success she needs a new outfit, especially a jilbab (headscarf). She knows her best friend, Putri, is a terrible person to ask for fashion advice, but she can’t imagine sorting through dozens of veils without help, weighing the messages they will send alone; it is too daunting.
Her cellphone clock adds a minute: four hours and twenty nine more until she will sip coffee with Fajar.
Aisha abandons caution and calls Putri.
Aceh, Indonesia, is a scarred land. It is the northernmost province in Indonesia, on the tip of Sumatera Island, and the only place in the world’s largest Muslim country to implement sharia law.
It is still recovering from twenty five years of separatist rebellion and the devastating 2004 tsunami, which killed approximately 125,000 people in Aceh Province. In ten minutes Banda Aceh, Aceh Province’s capital city, lost about a fourth of its population: 60,000 souls.
The rebuilt Banda Aceh is a puzzle of crooked lanes where honking motorbikes swerve around stray cows and old men push kaki limas – wheeled food-carts selling meatball soup or fried pastries – ringing bells. The buildings are mostly drab and single story, shedding peeling paint. The needles of cellphone towers and domes of hundreds of mosques dominate the skyline, their calls to prayer filling the city with haunting music five times a day.
When the azan, or call to prayer, echoes through Banda Aceh, the frenetic city suddenly calms. Once choked streets empty into haunting stillness; restaurants and shops shut their doors and draw their blinds; the population files towards mosques and prayer rooms.
Islam is central to Acehnese identity. Banda Aceh was the first place in South East Asia to convert to Islam, around 1,200 C.E. It spread from there, eventually encompassing all of Malaysia, most of Indonesia, and portions of Thailand and the Philippines.
The desire for sharia law has fueled separatist Islamic rebellions since the 1950s, as Indonesian’s central government insisted the province remain subject to the country’s secular constitution. In 2001, Aceh was granted the right to implement sharia law for Muslims (though not for Aceh’s minority Christian or Buddhist populations) in an attempt to appease separatists. Special sharia courts and a sharia “morality” police were created.
All forms of Western modernity in Aceh accommodate themselves to Islam: little signs hang in Internet cafes asking men and women not to share computers; the wide-screen TVs that hang in every roadside coffee shop stick to soccer, rarely showing the provocative music videos common elsewhere in Indonesia; and though Acehnese women might wear jeans, they also always cover their hair with headscarves. For a Muslim woman to show her hair on the streets is an offense punishable by law.
It is the responsibility of the sharia police to enforce prohibitions on infractions such as drinking, failure to attend Friday prayers, and all actions mesum (sexually inappropriate), from premarital sex to failing to wear a jilbab. Punishments can include: caning, fines, and public shaming, including having buckets of sewage dumped on offenders in front of a crowd. Although such cases are extremely rare, sharia courts can also sentence adulterers to be stoned to death. The most powerful enforcer of Islamic standards, however, is Acehnese society, its censure and gossip.
Correct dress and fashion for women are fraught issues in many Islamic communities. According to most Acehnese interpretations of the Koran, it is only appropriate for women to show their faces, hands, and feet. The neck and ears are a gray, verging into black, area.
But Banda Aceh is not Afghanistan or Pakistan. Burkas, the black “body tents” that conceal everything but a woman’s eyes, are extremely rare. Instead, walking down the street reveals a kaleidoscopic-whir of different jilbabs: headscarves of all colors and styles, combined in inventive ways with Western, Acehnese, and Islamic outfits.
A daring student sports a sheer lime-green jilbab above a knee length dress and leggings; an old woman carries a basket of mangos home from the traditional market on top of a tightly wound pashmina, her loose robe tangling around her; a housewife hurries down the street to buy sugar at the neighborhood convenience store, wearing only pajamas decorated by a motif of teddy bears and a jilbab songkok, a pre-made headscarf favored for its ease of use; a rich woman keeps her chin high, careful not to jerk her head and disturb the elaborate, almost sculptural, folds of her glittering sequined veil…
The number of styles is almost endless, as are the signals they send, in a society that very much judges a woman on what she wears.
Aisha and Putri shop at Suzuya, Banda Aceh’s biggest store, whose selection spans from durian to knockoff Calvin Klein underwear. It has the feel of a scaled down Carrefour or Wal-Mart. They like it because they can try on clothes in the aisles and not bother folding them back up correctly, unlike in claustrophobic traditional market stalls where the owner always lurks, peeking over customers’ shoulders.
Around 3:45 p.m., Putri stops Aisha at a table of discount tablecloths, picks one up, and wraps it around her head. “Here, this is it! And cheap too! Wouldn’t you look beautiful?” Putri says, laughing.
Putri describes herself as a “firecracker” and “a modern person who lives” – she highlights the irony – “in this place.” Certainly, her style calls a lot more attention to itself than Aisha’s. Putri wears a black and teal headscarf, the bold colors alternating in zebra stripes. The headscarf matches her outfit: a black pullover and shimmering aquamarine dress, and beneath that tight black jeans and flip flops pounded paper-thin by long use.
It’s harder to notice Aisha next to the flamboyant Putri. Aisha’s headscarf is black without pattern or texture, wrapped in a clean style, and pinned with an unobtrusive plastic rhinestone brooch. She wears a baggy maroon shirt with knockoff Louis Vutton symbols stitched onto the sleeves. Her pants and flip flops are the same mud brown. She thinks of herself as, “A good girl. Simple. Modest. I don’t demand a lot.”
When someone talks to her, she has a habit of stepping back so that if the person reached out to touch her she would remain just beyond their fingertips. She lives at home with her mother who spends most of the day studying Arabic so that she can read the Koran without translation.
“Oh, so you’re ready to serve?” Aisha says, slapping away Putri, who is trying to wrap the tablecloth around Aisha’s head.
They continue through the aisles, heading towards the jilbab section. The women appreciate the air conditioning: headscarves and full body clothing are hot, especially in tropical climates. The loudspeakers play the Indonesian equivalent, in both sound and sappiness, of an American Christmas pop tune—“Insyallah,” last Ramadan’s big hit. When it is time for one of the five daily prayers, the market broadcasts the azan over the same loudspeakers.
They start sorting through the hundreds of jilbabs scattered across the table.
There can be almost infinite variation in what constitutes a headscarf. Throughout history, women in cultures across the world have implied modesty and piety by covering their hair, from Catholic Nuns who wear wimples, to the women of modern-day Afghanistan who veil themselves with burkas.
The Islamic practice for veiling derives mainly from the following passage in the Koran, though there are other shorter elaborating verses and hadith. In them, Allah commands through Muhammad:
O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their jalabib [cloaks or veils] all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known [as Muslim women], so as not to be bothered. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
What exactly women are being ordered to do has been heatedly debated ever since. Some Muslim religious authorities have interpreted the passage as a directive for women to cover everything except their eyes—or even a single eye, which is all that is necessary to see with.
Others take a more relativist approach, recommending that women should be modest within the context of their society and time. Anthropologists have suggested that the full body burkas worn today are nothing like those worn in Muhammad’s time.
Westerners often think of headscarves as designed to cover only a woman’s hair, but they are technically supposed to cover a woman’s breasts as well. This directive is often obeyed only cursorily, with women arranging a perfunctory corner of scarf so that it dangles down their fronts. A more orthodox woman, however, will wear a veil that covers her chest, or even extends to the waist.
The word jilbab in most Islamic countries denotes a longer veil that fully covers a woman, often to the ankles, but in Indonesia refers only to headscarves. Indonesian jilbabs come in a diversity of colors and materials, and can be arranged in an infinite variety of styles, from loosely flowing veils to artistic arrangements held together with seemingly hundreds of pins. All sorts of accessories can be added, from glittering pins and brooches to hold a veil’s folds in place, to sun-visors that integrate with the headscarf. For every occasion, from playing volleyball to praying, there is a different kind of veil.
Today, in Indonesia, the first choice a potential jilbab buyer has to make is “pre-made” or “loose.” Pre-made jilbabs, also known as jilbab songkok, are already formed, with a hood, facial opening, and drape sewn into place, so that a user only has to slip it on to be presentable. These kinds of jilbabs are especially popular for children; many are made up to look like popular cartoon characters or animals. A jilbab songkok with stuffed ears sewn onto the hood and tiger stripes has been especially popular lately in Banda Aceh.
Mature women wear “pre-made” veils around the home, for yard work or gardening, or to run down the street to complete a quick errand. Jilbab songkok are considered unfashionable in Banda Aceh, partly because of their popularity in the province’s many remote villages, where women are more concerned with ease than style.
Aisha chooses a “loose” jilbab.
A “loose” or “free” jilbab starts as a square, rectangle, or triangle of cloth, usually measuring around three feet long and two feet wide. Additional fabric allows for more elaborate designs, such as sculpted intricate folds and whorls, while smaller cloths create tighter sleeker fits.
Scarves come in all colors and patterns, each with its own meaning. Dark solid colors convey conservatism or modesty; intricate patterns of sequins or fancy stitching, often depicting flowers or religious themes, indicate wealth; western or non-traditional symbols, such as leopard print or even the anarchist “A” show the wearer is “less fanatical,” in Putri’s words.
Paying attention to color is especially important when a woman is choosing a jilbab because Indonesia’s standards of beauty favor pale skin. A woman with dusky skin can’t wear a dark hue for fear of making her skin shade blacker, while those with middling skin tones tend towards neutral light colors like pinks and creams to whiten their complexions by association. Only the luckiest, and fairest, can get away with bright hues; sometimes, Aisha gets jealous just seeing an orange jilbab float through a crowd. Her favorite color is orange and it has always seemed unfair that she cannot wear the color because of her complexion.
“How about this?” Putri says, holding up an ocean blue scarf with a light blue pattern, like watercolor clouds, brushed on. By 4:15 p.m., the friends have thoroughly searched all the jilbabs on the tables and winnowed them to four selections.
“I don’t want Fajar to think I’m already married to the American president,” Aisha answers. The headscarf Putri is waving is known as the “Obama headscarf” because of its popularity after the first lady of the USA wore it on a diplomatic visit to Indonesia in 2010.
So they’re down to three jilbabs: the first is simple, black and unadorned except for a thin fringe of lace; the next is a leaf-green scarf that signals conservatism—the color reportedly was Muhammad’s favorite—and is a little more eye-grabbing than the black veil; and the final headscarf is a thin, almost sheer, magenta, decorated by tassels strung with ruby-colored plastic globes. But now the friends are stuck.
Part of the problem is that they can’t figure out what, exactly, Fajar would like. Does he want a modern girl, someone with a little bit of flair and westernized views? Should they signal with the magenta jilbab that Aisha is bolder than the average girl? Or does he want someone more traditional? Will he be embarrassed by a showy jilbab, but impressed by Aisha’s modesty and humility in wearing a simpler scarf? Or might the black or leaf-green jilbab strike him as dull and chilly and turn him off?
Aisha also thinks about her neighbors: what would they think if they saw her in the tasseled veil? They argue the choices over and over.
“You say he has the zabiba, that he’s so religious. So chose something that would appeal to an imam,” Putri says, exasperated. She’d been pushing for something bolder even than the magenta jilbab, pointing out the tasseled scarf isn’t that radical.
Eventually, they decide it is better to play it safe. No one will be offended by a conservative jilbab, but Fajar could discount Aisha immediately for wearing the magenta scarf.
“Even if many guys say they don’t want a traditional wife, they really do, deep down. Or want you to act like one, for most things,” Aisha points out. That advice has been rattling in her head since reading an article in Paras, an Indonesian fashion magazine. The magenta scarf is flung back onto the table.
Next, Aisha decides, “Green makes my skin look yellow,” and picks up the black jilbab. Aisha recognizes the black headscarf as closest to what she’d wear in everyday life.
“If I wear that one,” she says, pointing to the magenta headscarf with the tassels, “it’s like false advertising.” As she looks at herself in the mirror, the black jilbab wrapped around her head, she sees a version of herself which is just a little bit prettier, a little bit more elegant with the edge of lace softening her face, than the everyday, but which is still her.
“You do look really pretty,” Putri says, laying her head on Aisha’s shoulder.
Now it’s time to assemble the rest of the outfit. Putri parades graphic t-shirts with snarky cartoons on the front, but she knows Aisha won’t bite—she’s mostly doing it for her own amusement. Aisha has taken out a selection of Paras and is paging through the magazines for inspiration. Finally, she settles on a flowing white shirt/dress, with a collar and a row of buttons like a man’s formal shirt at the top, but billowing out into a shin-length skirt at the bottom.
“I’d like him to think I am a business woman, that I’m successful, but the dress shows I am still a woman,” Aisha explains.
In the shoes department, as it strikes 4:30 p.m., Aisha falls for a pair of gleaming white pumps, with a tiny window at the front so her big toe can be seen, but which otherwise cover her skin. No arguments from Putri: the shoes are that nice. Since the shirt/dress and shoes are both white, they decide that color is obviously the theme of her outfit.
So that Aisha doesn’t look like a blank canvas, they add purple waist-belt and cream colored slacks. Putri likes the first pair of pants Aisha tries on, which show a half-moon of plump bottom, but Aisha decides to buy a size up.
“Better safe than sorry,” she says again. That too is a sentiment from an article in Paras.
Jilbabs and headscarves around the world are part of a greater Islamic practice known as hijab, an Arabic word which means “cover” or “curtain.”
Hijab usually refers to appropriate Islamic dress for women, of which a jilbab is just a part. Body contours can be vaguely discernible, but too-tight clothing is looked on as “cheating” and “and not much different from being naked.” Hijab can also mean the veil, impossible to penetrate, drawn between man and Allah.
Some Islamic theorists, especially those supporting burkas, suggest that hijab was established not only to protect female modesty from men, but to guard women against their own vanity. A black featureless sheet, they argue, makes it hard to be vain about one’s body or clothing, allowing an individual to focus on spiritual concerns.
In Islamic countries where burkas are not the norm, hajib has often had the opposite effect, making women extremely conscious of their clothing. Women are brought up to see their clothes as expressing their religion and identities. Expecting to be judged on their dress, women calibrate their outfits down to the smallest accessory. Because so much attention is focused on women’s clothing, fashion becomes especially important to the population. The Middle East plays a key role in supporting the French haute couture industry, though most of the designer garments are shown off only in private.
Just as there are glossy fashion magazines in the West, they exist too in Indonesia, albeit without an inch of skin, besides the face and hands. Walk into any bookstore and you will find magazines pitched to every degree of religiosity. The most liberal magazines are generally international stalwarts—Vogue, etc.—translated into Indonesian and with a few country-specific articles, but they are difficult to find in Banda Aceh.
Magazines specifically for Muslim women, such as Paras, are significantly more conservative, showing only hand and facial skin, and occasional tight suggestive outfits, but they still include articles like, “Sex: The First Night” and “Asymmetrical Jilbab Arrangement”. Truly conservative magazines feature burkas. All of them are filled out with recipes, gossipy profiles of Indonesian or Arab pop stars, light reportage, informative articles about Islam (a sample title, “Islamic Info: the Tradition of Kissing the Hand”), and encouragement to remain true to the magazine’s interpretation of Islam. They also, of course, display fashion shoots, advertisements, and pages of outfits.
In one advertisement titled, “Secret Garden Collection,” a light-skinned Indonesian woman poses before the ivy entangled wall of an English manor, leaning slightly into the vines as if pushed by an invisible force. She wears a duchess’s riding jacket with a pattern of roses, a high-waisted Victorian dress which nearly screams “corset underneath!”, and a red velvet sunhat with a gift-wrap bow. Mixed in with all this is a jilbab and, in a quirk of some Indonesian models, a wedding ring.
Many of the fashions displayed in the magazines, and most of the outfits seen in Banda Aceh’s packed cafes on a Saturday night, rely on suggestion. Putri, for example, has been noticing a certain style: a bang carefully combed so that it dangles just under the lip of the jilbab, almost like gravity has innocently teased it into that position. What is that lock hinting at?
Aisha and Putri analyze the bang like it’s evidence in a murder mystery. When Putri tries to explain her reactions to the hairstyle, she finds herself tripping on her words. Perhaps what she means, calling it “sexy but not really sexy,” is that the hair is not explicitly seductive, rather hinting that the woman has sexuality, which is what the headscarf is supposed to hide. More importantly, that twist of hair suggests the girl disagrees with the authorities, that she’s braver, a little westernized…
Aisha points out that maybe the bang signals the girl is “approachable,” that you could “ask her on a date.” Putri picks up on this, “Some women in Banda Aceh do not date before they get married. Sometimes the guy shows up, asks her father, asks her, and right away, that day, it’s agreed. Maybe it’s a way to have a choice about guys. Because it’s a lot harder to ask someone on a date if they’re in a very religious jilbab.”
In the end, neither Aisha nor Putri can quite pin the styled bang down. They agree it probably has meanings they can’t puzzle out. What is the bang trying to say? Maybe only the woman knows. Maybe the woman couldn’t quite say herself.
By now, it’s 5:15 p.m., and Aisha is supposed to meet Fajar at 7:30 p.m., after the magrib evening prayers. As they hustle towards the cashier, Putri stops and pulls a headscarf from a discount rack: it’s crimson with a leopard-skin pattern of black spots.
“How about this one?” she giggles.
Aisha can’t stop laughing. “Do you want him to think I am a wild animal?” But Putri gets her to try it on and pulls her to a mirror. The face that Aisha sees staring back is recognizable as her own, but also different: someone she only vaguely knows, capable of doing deeds she would never be brave (or stupid) enough to dare. It’s like meeting a lost twin, someone she shares a primordial connection with, but who she doesn’t know how to talk to.
“It’s so amazing. If you’re not going to buy it, I am,” Putri says.
When Aisha and Putri get home at 6:00 p.m., they take off their jilbabs. Jilbabs are required in public by sharia law, but not in private or among family members. Even Aisha is glad to be free of the scarf now that it’s appropriate. The cloth was starting to feel scratchy where it rubbed her cheek and one of the pins holding the folds together kept poking her in the neck.
A bucket shower is Aisha’s first order of business. Aisha’s mother takes a break from translating the Koran to cook the two a fortifying snack of fried bananas. After washing, Aisha stands in front of a fan to dry her hair enough to get a headscarf over it.
Once Aisha is dressed, it is time for the jilbab. She gathers up her hair, bunching it so that Putri can slip a songkong on (not to be confused with jilbab sonkong), an extra tight-fitting hood that lies under a loose jilbab to make sure no hair escapes. Putri sighs in disgust, “Your hair’s so pretty, at least let a few pieces out.” Putri wants to comb in a slight bang, so that it’s just visible under the brim of the jilbab.
If Putri could, she wouldn’t wear a jilbab. There were times in a tumultuous youth when she didn’t, but she soon learned that her protests created more trouble than she could handle. This was before 2001, when sharia law was made official, so she was never arrested, but she got plenty of verbal harassment, “advice” from teachers and authority figures, and knew the rumors tip-toeing around the neighborhood.
Eventually, she proved the whispers true by dating a Western NGO worker after the tsunami. One might think she’d be numb to the criticism by now, but that’s not the case at all: she’s just gotten better at hiding her frustration and hurt. She hopes to get a scholarship soon, to America or Europe, somewhere she can abandon her jilbab and all the baggage that goes with it.
When travelling in more liberal parts of Indonesia—in parts of Jakarta or Indonesia’s Christian provinces jilbabs are the minority—Aisha has experimented with not wearing a headscarf. She liked how the wind blew in her hair, that her hair didn’t smell of sweat after taking her veil off, but ultimately she decided to keep wearing a jilbab.
It’s not that she felt naked or threatened without it, she’s tried to explain to Putri, it’s that she felt like the style wasn’t her. The jilbab is part of her faith, part of how she sees herself, part of her identity.
In the West, many organizations and individuals have attacked headscarves as anachronistic and repressive. There is an assumption that if women had a choice, they would remove them. Aisha knows many women for whom this is true, but she doubts the majority would. All the other provinces in Indonesia lack sharia law, she reasons, and most women in those places still wear headscarves.
Putri does not agree with Aisha. She is sure that if sharia law were lifted, “90%” of the population would fling off their veils. She believes most women, like her, wear the jilbab in frustrated acquiescence.
“Just look at the teenagers downtown on a Saturday night. Already some of them are getting braver. Sometimes they wear very loose veils, sometimes none at all. I like seeing their hair. It is beautiful.”
The exact number of women who would choose either side is uncertain. Apocryphal stories about how many women wore jilbabs before sharia law was introduced in 2001 vary wildly, usually depending on the teller’s religiosity or secularity. (Though perhaps it is telling that liberals confidently claim ninety percent of people would abandon their jilbabs, while conservatives hedge and haw, before asserting that “less than half, maybe forty percent, would remove their veils: many of the young people don’t like it.”)
Both sides claim a silent majority. Both parties allege a higher moral ground. Liberal activists claim the practice is barbaric. Some male imams warn that failure to wear a jilbab damns a woman to hell.
One point, however, most women, liberal and conservative, seem to agree on, is that individuals who abstain from wearing jilbabs are not going to hell. “How do people even know,” Putri asks, “exactly what someone was saying a thousand years ago meant? Maybe Muhammad only meant it for his time. And there are a lot of interpretations of those verses. They can’t say I’m going to hell for not wearing it.”
“Allah,” Aisha agrees, “is very kind. Allah is mostly concerned with people not doing evil, not hurting each other. It is pretty silly saying you’ll go to hell for not wearing a jilbab.” Most women they know hold a similarly benign view of future punishments. It is usually men who make more drastic claims.
As for accusations that jilbabs are barbaric and anachronistic, Banda Aceh’s women are acutely aware of the image of headscarves in Western eyes. Less than two weeks before Aisha’s date with Fajar, students from Banda Aceh’s universities took over a main intersection in the city, waving placards which read, “I am beautiful in my jilbab.”
Some of the women wore very conservative dress with their headscarves; others matched their veils with jeans and other western clothes. They were protesting French laws that ban headscarves in public institutions and burkas outside the home.
Putri cheers the French ban on headscarves, the smirk on her face suggesting she sees the irony of other Muslims being forbidden to wear veils, while she is forced to. When asked to describe what it feels like to wear a jilbab, her voice roughens with frustration and humiliation; it stretches until it is tenuously controlled.
“Yes, it represses me. How can I be myself wearing this? Headscarves stop me from being myself; they stop society from being fair in judging people because no one sees me when I don’t wear this. They only see—,” she flails her hand towards her head. “It makes it impossible to be equal between men and women. And it stops me from being normal and accepted in the international community. They will always look down on me because I am a Muslim.”
While burkas certainly strip women of their identity, according to Aisha, jilbabs do not always limit personality. Part of the rationale driving feminist’s support of France’s ban on veils is that they obscure a woman’s identity. A burka is very different than the jilbab Aisha now models, but as Aisha looks into the mirror, she recognizes herself. The simple black cloth with the fringe of lace—it’s her—the same way the aquamarine and black zebra stripe jilbab is, in some way, Putri. Aisha would be concealing something if she didn’t wear it.
At 6:45 p.m., Putri paints Aisha’s toenails red so that her big toe shines bright as a diamond, emphasized by the oval window in the toe of her white shoe. The single drop of color is glaringly evident in the otherwise white and black outfit.
Aisha dusts her face with whitening powder. The hesitant sweet smell, its crisp dryness on her cheeks, sooths her nerves.
Aisha completes her preparations by pinning the folds of her jilbab across her chest with an heirloom brooch once worn by her grandmother. The brooch has only one of its three original pearls: the spaces the other two used to occupy are blank dents in the metal. Her grandmother, long dead, who lived before the implementation of sharia law, used the brooch to fasten her jilbab on holidays or when her children came to visit.
That is, when she wore a jilbab. Sometimes she chose not to.
Aisha pulls into the parking lot of Q&L Coffee fashionably late, at 7:40 p.m.
As she parks she glances around, wondering if she’ll see Fajar lounging at a table, smoking, scrutinizing her. Instead, a young couple rushes by, almost elbowing her into the gutter. Aisha prepares to snap at them then notices the girl’s headscarf: it is not crimson, but it is decorated with a leopard skin pattern of black spots. She stares at their retreating backs, noticing how close they walk, a thin inch apart, with such comfortable familiarity that they must touch when no one else is around.
She remembers the girl’s face, pouty, a little defiant, certainly in love. What if Aisha had worn the crimson leopard-print headscarf? She has a vision of herself in that jilbab, strutting into the café, a different person, another future waiting for her. Some part of Aisha will always be wondering what it would be like to sport a provocative jilbab, even to let her hair free, just as she knows Putri will always be questioning, in the attic of her heart, if it is her God-given duty to happily wear a jilbab.
Aisha shakes the image away. I am who I am, she thinks. She takes out a pocket mirror, adjusts the black jilbab, and reapplies her lipstick.
She has made her statement. She is ready to be seen. She walks into the café.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]
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Doug Clark is a writer, traveler, and inadvertent adventurer. Some of his favorite memories include playing chess with monks in Burma, hitchhiking the length of New Zealand, and crewing a traditional fishing boat in Indonesia for a week. Currently, he is a Fulbright Fellow in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where he teaches English at a public high school and is completing a collection of short stories.