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Seungah Lee

Seungah Lee graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012. She spent the fall 2010 semester studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, where she wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.

Seungah Lee on the Face of Islam in the Midst of Modernization

October 7, 2010 | 1 COMMENT

In the West, the media depicts Islam as a religion that is fundamental--its followers fanatically dedicate themselves to Allah, at times to the point of death, and suppress women by making them veil themselves. Although I am certain that many do realize that the Islam illustrated by the media is only a small portion of the greater picture, the fact that the pictures shown by the media about Islam affect how people in the West perceive Islam and its followers--mostly with fear and angst--cannot be denied. And the fact that the West is concerned about the Islamists is confirmed by the fact that much reading in our beloved al-Kitaab series (i.e. the Arabic textbook most American students use) and classes that we take in America address the issue of Islamic fundamentalism.

Although Islamic extremism does have an effect on and a presence in the Middle East, what I have observed thus far in Amman, Jordan is that the average person is not too concerned with Islamists as we are in the West. Rather, they are more concerned with and affected by the rapid changes that are coming with economic growth and development, as modernization is challenging and dynamically changing the face of Islam.

The modernization that has been changing Amman daily has affected the outward appearance of the city, especially through the young. When an individual walks down the streets of Amman or the University of Jordan for that matter, he or she will observe that Amman is caught in between the traditional and the modern, the religious and the secular. On one street, there will be girls fully covered and veiled, girls wearing a hijab with skinny jeans and a tight shirt, girls without the hijab, and girls wearing shorts or skirts with a t-shirt. This phenomenon, according to my host sisters, is new. The variety of dress among Muslim women, both young and old, was uncommon five to six years ago, as people did not dare to wear skinny jeans, shorts, skirts, or any revealing clothes as a Muslim. Nonetheless, it presently is accepted as a norm in Amman. Yes, more conservative women would comment that some girls should “put some clothes on” and the girls dressed more liberally would draw attention, but this would be the case anywhere–-even in America. What is interesting, however, is that many of the more conservative girls, my host sister included, started to wear the hijab at an earlier age than when it was in the past. So I asked, “is this a backlash against the girls wearing revealing, somewhat haraam clothing?” expecting the answer to be “yes.” However, my 16 year-old host sister told me that she began to wear the hijab not as a response to the changes in dress brought by modernization; rather, she began at a earlier age because she knew that it would be much more difficult to start wearing the hijab if she got older even if she wanted to wear it.

Modernization has peeked its way beyond the way girls dress in public. Five times a day, the Call to Prayer will begin in numerous mosques around Amman. Although one would expect people (i.e. the men) in the streets to pause, take out their prayer mats, and pray in a predominantly Muslim country, one would find that except for the religiously devout who do close their shops for a couple of minutes for prayer, most walk along the streets and continue on with whatever they were doing. Now, what does prayer or the lack thereof have to do with modernization? Is this not a matter of religion and personal belief? Yes and no. Whether or not to do the daily salaat (prayer) is up to the individual, and frankly, there are many “nominal Muslims” in Jordan, i.e., Muslims who are Muslim because his or her family has been Muslim for generations and is his or her culture and identity. However, for a religion that places emphasis on rituals and its pillars, I find it a little strange that I have not come across anyone pausing to do their prayers despite the numerous calls to prayers I have heard walking down the streets of downtown Amman. So I began to think to myself, “why doesn’t anyone stop to pray when i know that many of these people in the streets most likely than not inundate the mosques on Fridays?” I am sure that there are many answers to this question, but one that I have been convinced of is that the bustling environment of the city does not allow room for the salaat. How could anyone possibly pray on the ground in the middle of a noisy, construction-filled city with cars zooming past you in a place without traffic laws? And where did this city environment come from? Economic growth and transformation.

Is it bad that economic transformation and modernization are taking away some of religious practices? Does this mean that modernization requires sacrificing traditions and customs? I am not sure. What I know, however, is that the people of Jordan do desire economic growth and development. They do want to “modernize” and improve their quality of living, as the word on the street is about the rising unemployment (especially for the youth), the quality of the education system, the current Arab-Israeli peace process, and how things are transforming so quickly in the country, for the better or the worse. And I almost get the sense that the rising young elites of Jordan are willing to risk its beloved traditions and religion for the sake of economic growth.

So there definitely is a tension–-a tension between modernization and Islam, a tension between those who want change and those who want to preserve the old ways. And currently, Jordan is transforming quickly, modernizing daily, changing the outer appearance of Islam in the streets.

Hence, the fact that Amman, like many other rapidly transforming and developing cities, is caught in the middle of modernization and tradition/religion begs the questions of why is it that “modernization” and “progress” affect traditional and religious customs and practices? And how does a developing country reconcile modernization with preservation of its culture?

COMMENT FROM NAFEES AHMED - APRIL 14, 2011

Seungah’s questions on modernization and its relation to Islamic practice in Jordan are very interesting and can be applied to Turkey as well. Her observation of women in conservative dress and hijab alongside women in short miniskirts is a juxtaposition I see on a daily basis in Istanbul. Turkey is polarized between those who want secularism and those who embrace their Muslim heritage. Kemalist reforms of modernization under Atatürk, the founder of Turkey, in the 1920s definitely pushed out traditional Islamic practices with the goal of economic transformation and modernization. In fact, Atatürk assumed that with education and modernization religion would disappear. This is clearly not the case in Turkey, as can be seen through the wearing of the head scarf, a very public symbol of religious expression. In Turkey, the head scarf carries connotations of a backward, uneducated, and traditional woman. Interestingly enough, with modernization the wearing of the head scarf increased, largely in the 1980s. During this time there was an emergence of the Islamist female intellectual who wore the head scarf, had read the Qur’an, and was also university educated, urban and independent. This trend posed as challenge to Atatürk’s assumptions in the correlation between education and Islamic practice. This modern Muslim woman presents us with an alternative modernity. This modernity is one that is neither Western nor secular, but still one that is contemporary, educated, and self-respecting.

Seungah Lee on Girls, Bathrooms, and the Hijab

November 20, 2010 | 3 COMMENTS

Contrary to my expectations and preconceived notions about Islam and being a woman in the Middle East, I have found myself embracing my identity as a woman and have fallen in love with the fact that I am a girl in Jordan. As a woman, I do face the daily annoyances of Jordanian men looking at me and making inappropriate comments (not to mention the random “I love you”s and marriage proposals in cabs). I do have to be more alert than I would be in the States for my own safety; I do feel restricted in what I can say and do with the stigma that exists here. However, being a girl has opened doors to a private and special world, the world behind the veil.

The West depicts the hijab as a sign of oppression of women, a sign of the lack of rights for women, and to an extent, it is true. I have heard horror stories of a woman having no choice but to wear the hijab and who is restricted from leaving the house because her husband will divorce her if she took it off in public. I have heard stories of a girl feeling pressured to wear the hijab because she fears that if she doesn’'t, she would be viewed as a “loose” woman. Nevertheless, I have learned that there is another side to this coin of the hijab, —the side of choice and freedom. It is this side of the coin that functions as the key to the beautiful and precious sisterhood and womanhood that is veiled in public.

Apologies to all the men out there, but this world is restricted to women. No man may enter this realm unless he is a close member of the family. For all the ladies, you are welcomed into this space; the invitation to enter the strong bond of sisterhood that no man can penetrate stands firm. Nonetheless, I will provide a small glimpse of this world so that there could be greater appreciation and understanding.

One of the first things that happen in “girls only” spaces is that the hijab comes off, and once it comes off, the party (or girl time) begins. In the girls’ bathrooms all over the University of Jordan'’s campus, for example, Jordanian girls crowd around the mirror busily fixing the hair that is hiding under the hijab. The girls will fix their hair, comment on other girls’ hair, try a different hairstyle, and then put their hijab on once again and walk out of the bathroom giggling with one another. Now, some may ask what is the point if no one is really going to see the hair. But, one can also ask, what is wrong with prettying hair just to feel nice or for other girls to see? Who said that doing hair implies “for the purpose of public display?” The "“girls only zone"” becomes far more interesting when it comes to parties. Before the party, which of course is only for ladies, the girls will get dressed in gorgeous and somewhat scandalous dresses, put on makeup, and do pretty much what any average girl would do in preparation for the party. Then, they would throw on a nice abaya and go to the party where the abayas and hijabs will come off. The girls would have a great time with each other, free from boys, expectations, and having to be conscious of how they look. Although it is strange that the girls would cover in public but not in private, there is something almost liberating in dressing up and looking good without having to think about boys. Living in the midst of a more or less covered/veiled life has almost made the fact that so many girls in the States spend countless hours pondering over what to wear and how to conduct oneself to impress boys frustrating.

Moreover, many of these girls have told me that they chose to wear the hijab not only for religious reasons and as a sign of modesty but also so that they can reveal their whole self to their one husband. As a Christian who places value in purity, especially when it comes to guarding the heart for that one man, hearing their reason to deciding to wear the hijab was quite refreshing and exciting. The hijab is a way for some Muslim girls to guard herself from both the unwanted attention from men and the desire to want to draw attention from the opposite sex for no good reason. With the hijab, the girl is able to embrace the freedom that comes with not having to be self conscious about her looks in relation to how boys may perceive her outward appearances.

Maybe I am biased because I am living with my wonderful Jordanian sisters and get an insider’s look and because I spend the majority of my time here with girls who do come from modern, well-off, but religious families. Regardless, I have found this side of the hijab—, one that sprung from choice and desire, to only unveil oneself for the husband--quite attractive. I have not fallen in love with the hijab, and I don'’t think I would ever make the choice to wear one. Moreover, I would never turn a blind eye to the other side of the coin, as I am aware of the ugliness of repression that is also hiding behind the hijab and the niqaab. However, knowing both sides of the coin of the hijab has provided me with a completely different outlook on what it means to be a woman in Jordan. And I am thankful for the sisters that have opened my eyes to the more unknown side of the coin, as I would have only viewed the hijab as Islam’'s way to control society and repress women. Moreover, the empowering choice to wear the hijab makes me question the intensions and the integrity of the hijab ban in parts of Europe and Turkey.

COMMENT FROM ALYXIE HARRICK - DECEMBER 2, 2010

Your comments on the “girls only” affect of the veil opened my eyes to the benefits of the hijab. Here in China, I have experienced similar annoyances of men screaming “Hello, girl!” and can relate to your desire to hide under the veil. Besides the security it provides, the hijab relieves females from the need to impress the opposite sex and actually seems to strengthen female friendships because they bond over being able to "reveal" themselves to each other. I enjoyed hearing your view on the added purity to relationships that also results. In a modern world, we can lose ourselves to appearances, but perhaps we can use what we learn from Jordanians to reevaluate our own values. Your letter reminds us to not be so quick to judge the “restriction” the veil imposes and instead consider why some woman prefer to wear the hijab.

COMMENT FROM CAITLIN DELAURENTIS - NOVEMBER 23, 2010

I found your letter very interesting and especially pertinent considering recent political action against wearing the hijab in countries such as France and Turkey. Such a topic was discussed in several of my classes at Georgetown last semester and I was always intrigued by the choice of many women to wear the hijab. It is refreshing to hear about your actual experience with the two sides concerning the hijab. You illustrate the choice made by many women to wear it and its many positive aspects, while at the time aware of its negative side. Your experience and observations are essential to breaking down many of the assumptions that many Americans possess about the hijab and its automatic association with an oppressive Islam. Such assumptions are far too simplistic and fail to fully understand the hijab’s meaning to individual women.

COMMENT FROM PROF. OSAMA ABI-MERSHED - April 29, 2011

In her letter from abroad, Seungah Lee broaches a variety of enticing themes that call for deeper elaboration: the influence of the encounter with the “other” on the definition of one’s own identity; the dissonant impact of experiences on the ground upon one’s “preconceived” notions; the relative dimensions of terms—such as freedom, choice, and difference—often treated as absolute; the capacity for social norms to regulate behavior in the private as well as the public realm.

Her brief foray into the “world behind the veil” is meant to convey “greater appreciation and understanding” for women’s rights and equality in Muslim societies. She encourages a more nuanced approach to these delicate matters and argues against dogmatic verdicts that substitute the veil for the outright oppression of Muslim women. She notes correctly that such subtlety and sensitivity have often been lacking in some official, academic or journalistic circles. Yet, she only begins to explore the possibilities that a nuanced awareness of the “world behind the veil” may hold for a similar and more effective understanding of the unequal role and status of Muslim women in the political sphere. This may well be the most tantalizing question to address in a future letter from abroad.