Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Should I smile?

Recognize me in this picture?

I thought not.

Thanks to my stepson's third Middle Eastern tour of duty in the United States Army, served in Afghanistan, I received an unusual present last Christmas: a burqa. Davy's wife Amanda delivered a message from him: "I figured you'd be the only one who would appreciate it."

Well, I did. Putting it on, and then looking in the mirror, was a profound experience: all physical manifestations of my "Kathryn-ness" were gone. I once read O magazine columnist Valerie Monroe say that when she had tried going for a week without looking in the mirror, she missed herself. No doubt going mirror-less is a good way to start defining yourself from the inside out. This was different, though, because I was looking in the mirror, yet felt severed from my image—and this was not a comfortable feeling.

The burqa is bright and pretty, but this is its common color, so every woman's garment in an Afghani marketplace looks the same. The satiny material slips easily so the part that fits down over your forehead to hold it in place is tight, causing "necessary discomfort" for the uninitiated like me, since the screen must be centered if you're to see at all where you're going. My eyelashes caught uncomfortably in the screen. You can see fairly well—I suppose your brain compensates for the woven threads that block part of your view—but your peripheral vision is lost. Should a little dog or child run in front of you as you walked down the street, down you'd go. 

While fenced in by the burqa I was keenly aware that I define myself by actions that extend my influence beyond the perimeter of my body: looks I give my husband that only he and I can decode. Watching others as they speak to show I care about what they have to say, and encouraging them with lifted brows and nods of my head. Smiling for the camera to let my spirit shine forth. 

While protected by the burqa, though, I suddenly had a greater sense of the power contained within me—a power rarely reflected in the mirror these days, as waning middle-aged attributes demand I rely more heavily on artful draping and cosmetics to perpetuate a visage I can recognize. The burqa removes the need for flirting in all ways, even with one's self. Exposed skin cells that typically interact with the very molecules in the room, now covered, radiated their energy toward my core, toward the place where baby ideas and feelings and dreams germinate. Like a child in the womb these were mine to nurture; I need not share them with the harsh elements of the world. I became more aware of my inner fire, and my skin as its protective barrier—important awareness for one who so highly values the right of personal expression. 

I thank Davy and the burqa for its lessons, which I have shared with people in my church and colleagues at a recent writer's event. But I'm happy to put it away now. While I would have been eager to don one in the painfully pimple-dotted years of my adolescence, it's no longer for me. I have found my voice, and it requires movement for support—so while I still can, I want to walk, run, and dance through my world unfettered to appreciate all its glory. 

Of course our culture has its conventions, too, so what I have previously done grudgingly I will now choose to do with newfound appreciation: I will drape this aging body artfully and willingly, in clothes that won't bind or restrict or contain, because I still need room to grow, to interact, to express. Through my actions and writing and spoken words, I will project my voice so others can hear me—not because an oppressive garment intended to stifle women's voices has taken lip-reading off the table, but because I live in a country where a woman's voice is valued.

Please join me in celebrating our freedoms on November 4 by getting out to vote! 

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