SPECIAL TO THINK & ASK
On a recent trip to Turkey, my first visit to a Muslim country, I wore the headscarf. Earlier in my life, I had worn a yarmulke to my office every day for one year.
While growing up, I never imagined that I would wear either kind of headgear actually. While attending Catholic school in a working class Brooklyn, NY, neighborhood, I never thought I'd enter a mosque or a yeshiva. I also never imagined I would become the person I am today.
The majority of residents in Turkey follow the Islamic faith and women are forbidden to show their hair in a Mosque of any Islamic sect. Ironically, in the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) and others that are tourist destinations, most female visitors' heads aren't covered. But I wore the headscarf out of respect for the culture and traditions of the people who pray in those mosques. And I covered my head whenever I entered one of the smaller, less well-known mosques where one is unlikely to find people who aren't Muslim.
I also wore the headscarf when I walked through Istanbul's Fatih district, where most residents live would be considered fundamentalists. Although Turkey is constitutionally a secular republic, nearly every Turkish city has at least one such neighborhood, and mainly fundamentalists populate much of the countryside. In such areas, female residents cover their heads. So did I.
I did not, however, wear a headscarf when I toured archeological sites or went anywhere besides the mosques or areas where fundamentalists live. I removed my scarf as soon as I could.
Fundamentalist women do not have the same choice as I to cover their heads. While Koranic scholars of all sects agree that a woman's head should be covered when she's in a mosque, fundamentalist scholars interpret their holy text to say that females should cover their heads at all times.
Back home, wearing the yarmulke allowed me entrance --but only so far-- into a world I had never before experienced: That of an Orthodox yeshiva. As a gentile of course, I was an outsider. I was also uncomfortable about living as a man. So I felt the yarmulke didn't fit me, and everyone in the yeshiva could see that. Perhaps they saw something in my body language.
Similarly, wearing a headscarf allowed me into an experience, albeit briefly, that opened one aspect of life to that of Islamic women. Naturally, as a tourist who isn't Muslim, I was an outsider in Turkey. But I thought I was getting a ringside seat, so to speak, when a caretaker in Sultanahmet (the first Mosque I visited) directed me to the area where women pray.
I took my place to the right of three other women who sat on wooden chairs behind a partition about three feet high. They seemed older than I am. Their eyes were closed. I closed mine. They prayed. I couldn't. My mind wandered.
Reflecting upon my experiences with the headscarf sparked memories of wearing the yarmulke. At the end of a day of teaching, I doffed my skullcap as I rounded the corner to catch a bus. But the boys I taught English and French to at an Orthodox yeshiva did not. Every once in a while I'd see one or some of them away from the yeshiva's environs: On a bus or subway, in a store or on a street and they always wore their yarmulkes.
For me at least, that all changed three years ago, when I began to live and work as a woman. Before that, I spent more than forty years trying to fit into the male world. Now I live as a transgendered woman.
When I was teaching those boys I was known as Nick. Now I'm Justine. It was only after the transition did I visit Turkey where I also visited mosques for the first time.
Jewish friends and acquaintances have since confirmed something one of the rabbis told me: A Jewish boy or man is required to cover his head only when he's in a synagogue, at prayer or eating. But Orthodox and Hasidic men and boys keep their heads covered at all times. In fact, the rabbis at my yeshiva wore yarmulkes at all times and donned Borsalino-style or top hats when they ventured outdoors.
After reflecting, I thought again what might those women in the Mosque and I have in common. Well, we're women, I told myself. But that surely means something very different for them than it does for me. Unlike me, they were identified as females at birth.
If they were like most people in this world, they didn't question their gender identity. Even if they did, their parents, teachers and other authority figures confirmed their femaleness and taught them how their religious community expects them, as women, to behave. Among other things, they were taught to cover their heads.
In contrast, I've had to define myself as a woman and assert that identity. There was no one to tell me how to become who I am today. There was also no one to tell me what I, as a woman, could --or could not-- be. And, since I am not religious, I am not compelled to enter houses of worship. I go to them for the aesthetic pleasures they offer and in the hope of better understanding the people who built them and pray in them. While in them, I do my best to show respect for what people hold as sacred.
As those women prayed, I realized that my reasons for wearing the headscarf were very different from theirs. And, I recalled, I didn't wear a yarmulke for the same reasons the boys I taught in the yeshiva wore theirs.
For an Orthodox Jewish male, the yarmulke is like an identity card, as the headscarf is for fundamentalist Islamic women. For me, those items were more like guest passes. So were the women's clothes I occasionally wore when I was still Nick.
Clothing allowed me to enter, however tenuously and peripherally, the world in which I wanted to live: That of women. But I also understood that I was not yet a citizen of that world, even if I felt I belonged to it in spirit. Just as I returned to my life as a goy or tourist after doffing the yarmulke or headscarf, I returned to my life as a man when I changed from a skirt and blouse to chinos and a button-down shirt. For a long time, I wasn't wearing either outfit well.
Now that I live as a woman, my entire wardrobe --what I wear to work, play, or to bed-- consists of women's clothing. People who knew me as Nick say that my body language has changed and that I seem more comfortable with myself...and clothing. No one on the street gives me a second glance, and I don't think about the fact that I'm wearing whatever I'm wearing unless a friend or co-worker comments on it.
I hope some day to wear everything I wear...on, around or within me...with ease and grace. That may be the best outcome of being one of the few people in this world who's worn both the yarmulke and the headscarf.
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