I must say that I am utterly amazed at the number of connections I’m finding between my classes this semester. My cultural anthropology professor, withever-perfect timing, has been talking with us about gender and religion for the past several lectures. So yesterday, the day before we began our discussion of Iran Awakening, we happened to discuss the hijab. Our TA showed us a picture of the shirtless hunk Fabio and noted that he would never show us a picture of a woman in the same attire (or lack thereof). He then proceeded to bring up the hijab – thehead covering often donned by Middle Eastern women –, which has caused a lot of controversy not only in the Middle East but in the West as well. From our etic (or outsider’s) perspective, we tend to perceive the hijab – literally translated as “curtain” or “cover” – as a blow to women’s rights. However, from the emic (or insider’s) perspective of many Muslim women, it is as natural as wearing a shirt; without it, they would feel uncomfortable and exposed. Obviously, this is not the case for all women, as demonstrated by Shirin and her less conservative family. For some, it is even a fashion statement. In fact, (according to the wikipedia contributors at least), the hijab was originally a symbol of high social status, well before the days of Muhammad. While we may balk at the idea of being “forced” to cover ourselves so completely, it is not all that different from the dress codes we have in the United States. It is perfectly fine for Fabio to walk around without a shirt, but a woman – were she to even feel comfortable doing so – could get arrested for indecent exposure.
So while reading this book, more so than with any book we’ve read thus far, it is imperative that we avoid ethnocentrism, and try to see things as much as possible from the author’s eyes. Luckily, Shirin Ebadi makes this relatively easy. As a progressive woman for her time and country, we can easily relate to her, and her writing is both captivating and concise. She’s also clearly spent a lot of time in self-reflection, examining both her upbringing and motivations at each step of her journey in her writing. But this doesn’t change the fact that the events of this book take place in a country about which we have little knowledge, only hazy ideas. And I’m sure much of what we’ll encounter while reading this book will contradict our personal thoughts, opinions, and beliefs, so we’ll have to remind ourselves to look not through our own lenses but the author’s.