[Issue 11 / November 2014]
Zahra Hosseini stood in front of the mirror making sure that she had got it just right. She spent more time in front of that mirror than she would ever willingly admit to anyone. In fact, she had designated an extra five minutes in her morning routine for this ritual, so that when she stepped out the door, it was with confidence and that bounce in her step many mistook for a caffeine high.
Zahra loved New York with an infatuation that made her giddy every time she swayed down its bustling streets amidst eclectic crowds of people. She particularly loved sitting in Washington Square Park on breezy Saturday mornings, Starbucks sassy with a tall Caramel Macchiato in hand, reading her latest paperback from the New York Times Best Seller List. She felt so free, and so full, and a twinge guilty for the life she lived having left her darling mother behind in Saudi Arabia.
Her mother, Fatima was the most striking woman Zahra had ever known, with delicate features and a mild disposition that made everyone around her feel at ease. At the age of seventeen, Fatima’s parents had arranged her marriage to a wealthy businessman, Ahmad Hosseini. Ahmad was fourteen years Fatima’s senior, but he had studied at Princeton University and then returned to Saudi Arabia to work for an oil company. Even Fatima silently agreed that he was an advantageous match for her, knowing how unfortunate some of her schoolmates had been in the men their fathers and uncles had chosen for them.
Fatima had been a good student. She had attended a private girl’s school in Riyadh and had secret dreams of going to university to study Sociology. But, her parents were Sunni Muslims of the Old School and they had more traditional plans for her life. Even though Fatima was unable to continue her education, she was fortunate in that her parents picked a man with a genuinely good heart for her to marry. A man who actually fell in love with her, and whom she grew to respect and love in time.
The West had changed Ahmad. At Princeton, he had met countless colourful people, and had been introduced to so many innovative ideas, his perceptions were inadvertently altered. He was shocked at first to be sitting in class with women who were head-strong and confident and were not shy to voice their opinions. He thought of his mother, Sabria, timid and retiring, instinctually showing sacrificial deference to the men around her, whether they deserved it or not. She had a quiet strength in her that she drew upon to raise her children and manage her home, but it was a restrained force that never came to fruition.
While at Princeton, Ahmad was infatuated by an American girl from Boston called Katherine O’Shea. They met during his sophomore year in an Economics class they were both taking. Ahmad was reluctant at first to pursue a relationship with someone so wildly different from himself, but eventually feelings consumed his rationality and he dated Katherine for the remainder of his studies. He and Kat had often hinted at a future together, but in the end, Ahmad could not disobey his parents in something so fundamental to Muslim families as marriage. He knew that upon his return to Saudi Arabia, they would have a girl waiting for him to marry, one whom they had chosen with much debate and care.
When Ahmad first saw Fatima, and she smiled warily at him from behind her veil, he was enchanted. She seemed so young and fragile it tore his heart apart. He could only imagine what it was like for her to be handed over to a man she did not know who would rule her life either with tyranny or with tenderness. Ahmad vowed to himself that he would love her with everything he had. Even though in accordance with strict sharia Fatima would never experience the world apart from the guardianship of her husband or other male relatives, Ahmad was determined to give her as full a life as was in his power to provide. Fatima had no choice but to trust that the decisions Ahmad made were what was best for her, that he did not want to abuse his position.
Out in the country where laws were lax, Ahmad taught Fatima to drive. A useless skill for her to know in Saudi Arabia where women are forbidden to have driver’s licences, but the fact that Ahmad would go to such lengths for her made Fatima love him deeper than she had ever thought possible. And when he could manage it discreetly, Ahmad bought her foreign books and magazines from the black market traders so that she could experience other cultures and countries. He was not strict about her wearing burqa at home when there were men who were not kin in the house. He invited her to walk beside him, instead of always in his shadow a few steps behind. Ahmad never beat her nor did he ever entertain the idea of taking other wives. He treated her with genuine respect for who she was as a person and adoration for her as his wife. In his care Fatima never felt less-than. She never choked on the fetters of his “ownership” of her or felt smothered by the law that bound her to him.
When Zahra was born, in the dusk of her childbearing years, Fatima was thrilled. After a succession of three sons, she and Ahmad doted on their daughter and were determined to give her the world. Ahmad and Fatima knew that in order to do that, they would have to give Zahra a proper education and that meant sending her away to university. Though it is not customary for Saudi Arabian women to leave home—and certainly not the kingdom—before they are married, Ahmad did not want his beloved daughter to be trapped behind the veil. Fatima bore it with grace and quiet endurance and he admired her immensely for her submissiveness, but he could also see in her eyes the toll it took on her. Fatima was smart, and funny, and so painfully beautiful, she could have been so much more than just his wife.
The thought of sending Zahra to King Faisal University where her brothers, Rasheed, Ibrahim, and Amir, had studied did not sit well with Ahmad. The stories that her brothers would tell of the segregation of female students from their male counterparts and professors solidified in Ahmad’s mind the fact that it was impossible for Zahra to remain in Saudi Arabia and receive the same quality and depth of education as her brothers. He cringed when he thought of his daughter sitting at a desk enclosed with wooden panels listening to a professor via a TV screen and addressing the professor via a microphone if she had questions. Ahmad doubted that even the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University for women proposed by King Abdullah, as admirable as it unequivocally was, would even the discrepancies in male and female education. The biases against women were rooted deep in religion and culture and were not likely to be overcome within Zahra’s lifetime.
Zahra excelled in school, attacking her books with voraciousness and a drive that surprised her parents. From a young age, her father had spent time he did not have tutoring her and exposing her to foreign ideas and ideals in the hope that she would one day be free to experience the world for herself. Her mother did not speak English. Fatima found it impossible to make her mouth form the right shapes to produce the correct sounds. So it was her father who painstakingly taught her until she was fluent, making her practice with her brothers when they were at home.
It took quite the creative finagling to acquire immigration paperwork for Zahra to move to the United States. Ahmad called upon all his connections at home and abroad who could help. After a year and half of forging various documents that would hopefully pass the rigorous verification process, Zahra was granted asylum and got a refugee visa to enter the US.
Zahra followed in her father’s footsteps going to Princeton for her first degree. She had subsequently moved to New York to study Law at Columbia University. She knew that she would not be able to return to Saudi Arabia to practice law as the legal system there barely had a history of women in law. In fact, the first women to graduate as lawyers in Saudi Arabia had done so only in 2008. And even with their degrees, those women cannot appear in court. They can only represent other women in marital and family cases in sections of government offices that are designated for women.
Zahra hoped that one day in the future when the laws had changed she would be able to return home and use her education to help abused women. Growing up in Riyadh, her best friend Myriam had lived next door. Her father, Farad, was an angry and hostile man who took out his frustrations on Myriam and her mother. Sometimes Zahra would be awakened at night by screams and wailing and her heart would go out to Myriam but there was nothing she could do. It was Farad’s “right” to deal with his family as he saw fit, knowing that the damage he did would be hidden behind the veil, not that anyone would dare to interfere if they saw. Zahra was determined to be an advocate for such women in memory of Myriam and her mother who had moved away when she was thirteen and she never knew what became of them.
Moving to the United States from Saudi Arabia was a shock to Zahra that continued to reverberate inside of her after eight years of cultural acclimatization. Before leaving Saudi Arabia, Zahra had spent countless hours flipping through as many newspapers and magazines from America that she could get her hands on. She was fascinated by fashion and the multitude of styles and accessories that you could choose from at will. She tried to picture herself wearing different clothes – skinny jeans, colourful blouses and fetching dresses, high heeled shoes and dangling earrings – and it made her and her mother giggle to no end.
Zahra was particularly struck by a spread in Vogue about celebrities like Johnny Depp and Cameron Diaz who wear fedoras and the different styles and manners in which they wear them. In her asphyxiating burqa it was impossible for her to imagine herself wearing one of those brightly coloured hats, her dark mane tumbling down, taking on a life of its own, so suave and progressive. She promised herself that when she got to the United States, she would buy herself a fedora. And she did.
When Zahra first abandoned the tradition of hijab and exchanged her abaya and niqab for a straw fedora with a red band, she felt like she had been reborn. Like any newborn, she was at first uncertain of herself and nervous about the world around her. But, the hat had such character, it soon took over. It was a form of expression like none she had experienced in life and she embraced it with all the youthful glee of a woman unleashed.
There is an art to wearing a fedora. Skewing it to one side at exactly the right angle says you are in vogue. Dipping it over one eye to create a sense of mystery and intrigue. When Zahra wore her fedora she felt funky and fun and ready to take on the world. It gave her a “modern” personality that would never have presented itself in the stifling patriarchal society in which she had grown up.
Despite her cultural reform, Zahra was a Muslim at heart. She believed in observing the five pillars of Islam and in maintaining her purity, but without being shackled by unregulated and unjustifiable fatwas. At Princeton she was part of the Muslim Student’s Association and she enjoyed the communal bond of praying together and fasting during Ramadan. One of her first tasks when she moved to Manhattan was to connect with the 96th Street Mosque. On such occasions, Zahra was happy to wear a modest head covering, usually a brightly coloured scarf in the style of less extreme Muslims.
Zahra revered her cultural and religious heritage. She particularly longed for her parents’ advice with regards to marriage. Having living proof in her parents, Zahra believed in the wisdom and sanctity of arranged marriages and she wished that her parents could have been involved in picking a spouse for her. At the very least, she longed to sit under a pomegranate tree again with her mother talking about boys, and love, and marriage.
Zahra had many friends of both sexes in the United States but she had not had the courage to date any of the American boys that had asked her out. She felt lonely sometimes in her apartment in Manhattan, and so she found refuge in Washington Square Park. Sitting on her favourite bench, Starbucks in one hand, and the latest bestseller in the other, she felt poised and in control of her destiny.
And so she was when she was disrupted by a deep, chocolaty voice one Saturday morning during her third year of Law School.
She was glad she had taken extra time that morning to put on her fedora just so. Feeling debonair and daring, Zahra looked up into the most fascinating face she had ever seen. Poignant russet eyes boring into hers. When he politely asked to sit next to her, she nodded and smiled in anticipation.
His name was Omar and he loved her hat.
Tendai Machingaidze was born in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1982. She holds degrees from Syracuse University and Southwestern Seminary. Tendai’s short stories have been published by Weaver Press Zimbabwe, Africa Book Club, The Kalahari Review, African Roar, and Lawino. Tendai has also completed her debut novel titled Acacia (African Perspectives Publishing, 2014). Currently, Tendai lives in Russia where she is studying Medicine.