My last swimsuit had sat unworn in a drawer for a couple of decades, and when I put it on last week I found that the elastic had lost its snap. So on Sunday afternoon I went to find a new suit in that Vatican of fashion, T.J. Maxx.
I was wandering from rack to rack in a trance, avoiding the swimsuit section and looking around at my fellow shoppers, when I noticed several young women wearing the hijab. Their hair, neck, ears and upper torso draped in cloth, all you could see were their big dark eyes and olive complexions. Near each woman hovered a man, also young, often in charge of one or two small children.
The other young female shoppers had complexions that aimed towards olive but veered in the direction of orange, telling of self-tanning lotions or, worse, tanning booths. Some wore transparent camisoles over bras, and shorts cut so high that the pocket liners stuck out over their burnt-sienna thighs. Others were in long nightgown-like dresses with decolletages rivaling those of the
Napoleonic era. None of them was accompanied by a man.
Reluctantly approaching the swimsuit rack, I imagined their boyfriends, at home watching the World Cup and drinking beer. Unlike the male companions of the hijab wearers, they wouldn\’t be caught dead shopping for clothes on a weekend afternoon.
I come from a long line of covered women. My maiden name, Benejam, harks to a time in medieval Spain when Arabs and Jews intermingled to such an extent that it\’s impossible to say which lineage my family belongs to. But one thing is certain: whether with wigs, veils, or hats, my great-great-great grandmothers all shunned the male gaze.
Even in my childhood, five centuries after the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, threw both Arabs and Jews out of Spain, girls and women could not enter a church unless we had some scrap of lace or cloth with which to cover our heads. And I remember sitting through many a sermon in which the priest railed against women whose sleeves failed to cover their elbows.
But forget Spain. Think Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s. Prom-time is approaching in my Catholic high school, and we girls are told in no uncertain terms that strapless gowns, and even gowns with spaghetti straps, are an \”occasion of sin,\” and unacceptable. Somehow, we still managed to look pretty in our Jackie-wannabe shiny gowns and puffy hair styles, our chests modestly under wraps.
Pulling one swimsuit after another off the rack, surrounded by eastern and western notions of what women should wear and be, I gazed at the young mothers in hijabs with their patient husbands, and at the almost-naked American-born girls shopping alone. I had always thought of the hijab, the burka and the chador as instruments of female subjection. Yet here were the hijab-wearers, rifling idly through the dress racks, enjoying themselves while their men kept track of the kids.
I concluded that it was a case of the universal shopping imperative at work, so that if a certain culture dictates that women cannot leave the house alone, then men have to give up their afternoons in front of the TV to take them shopping, and mind the babies. Sometimes things work out in unexpected ways.
After squeezing into and out of a couple dozen swimsuits, I found one with nice wide straps, paid for it, and drove home.