My experience as a hijab-wearing, female-bodied person in France.
When I originally pitched this article, I didn’t expect it to get so personal.
A man* stops several feet in front of me to examine my face, halfway blocking the entrance to the metro train. I hesitate, trying to calculate how quickly I can make my way to another car. The “door closing” signal goes off; I have to board immediately. I rush past him, thankful for my small size and managing to avoid bodily contact. He picks a seat. I sit as far away as possible and pretend to be engrossed in my book. The man stares fixedly in my direction, hardly even bothering to blink. I shift uncomfortably, looking for an escape route. The train is full. I arrive at my stop and hastily make my exit.
I decide to run errands before class. I step into the store, give the customary salutations, and continue on my business. At the end of the stationary section, there is a man. I say a quick “Bonjour” and return to my task of picking out notebooks and writing utensils. After a few moments, I realize I don’t sense movement from the man. Without turning my head, I glance at him. He’s staring at me. Noticing me watching him, he says, “Your eyes, they’re stunning.” Deciding that it’s safer for me to be polite than to become defensive, I respond with a business-like, “Thank you,” hoping that it would end the conversation. It doesn’t.
He asks, “Are you married?”
By now I’ve been in this situation so many times lying is second nature. Another business-like response, “Yes, we’ve been married for three years.”
“You have an accent. Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“Ah, I see. Your husband, is he here with you in France?”
“Yes. He’s French. Goodbye.”
I select my stationary and move to the next aisle. The man follows me. I decide to purchase my items and leave the store. The man remains inside.
I wear my glasses, figuring it will reduce the amount of attention I receive. After class, I make my way to work. The subway I need to take is about a ten-minute walk from campus, over a bridge and across from Notre Dame. I reach the bridge in record time, where I notice a man sitting on a bench. His head follows my trajectory as I pass in front of him. “I like the way you dress. It’s good; all covered up like a piece of candy. Sister, are you married?” I hurry along.
I wake up early so I can make it to the other side of the city on time for work. I go through my morning motions and catch the bus that heads towards the metro station. Fortunately, at this point in the morning, the subway isn’t crowded. When the train arrives at the station, I choose a seat diagonally across from a French woman. As I sit down, she clutches her purse. I smile at her, saying, “Gotta love this morning commute, right?” She gets up, calls me “scum” and chooses a seat several pods away.
I go through Friday holding my breath. I manage to get up and make it to work without incident. The workday, though exhausting, went smoothly. I have pleasant interactions with people on the subway ride home. I relax a little, remembering that the world isn’t always a battlefield; that not everyone is going to attack. I breathe a sigh of relief when I am back in my dorm.
I prefer to buy my groceries at the open-air market. The produce is cheaper and fresher. The commute, to me, is worth it. I make it to the market and begin my shopping. Before long, I notice I’m being followed. Exhausted and willing the universe to leave me alone, I try to hide in the crowd. Unfortunately, I’m wearing a glittery, bright-green headscarf. The man finds me with ease. I curse myself for my stupidity. Women shouldn’t wear clothing that draws attention to themselves, isn’t that what they teach us in high school? There is no difference between a bright green hijab and a mini skirt; we are objects just the same. The man speaks.
“Are you from Algeria?”
“Then you must be Senegalese?”
I buy my oranges and move towards the zucchini. The man, being a full head taller than everyone else in the crowd, finds me with ease. I realize my second mistake. Zucchini is a somewhat phallic vegetable. He asks me more questions. I keep my head down, giving short answers: No. No. United States. Yes. Married three years. Yes. Just one son. Hassan. Two years old. Please leave sir. I need to go now.
I move to the apple stand. Seeing the man trying to make his way over to me, I scream, “LEAVE ME ALONE!” and bolt, fighting the crowd moving in the opposite direction. I don’t care about the rest of the groceries. I don’t care that my rib is being bruised by the elbows of angry, hungry people. I try not to push over any children or elderly people as I make my escape. “Safe” on the subway, I drop my mostly empty tote bag and cup my face in my hands.
I’m too tired to leave the room. Most things are closed anyway. I need to prepare myself for the week ahead.
After having an awful experience at the French Consulate in New York City in early December that pretty much left me non-functional for the rest of the fall semester, I was nervous about coming to France. This incident left me wondering whether I should cancel my visa and head back to Shanghai. I wasn’t sure how to mentally prepare myself for whatever French brand of Islamophobia the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks engendered. Even though I grew used to the dirty looks on the subway and the nasty comments on the sidewalks in New York, I wasn’t prepared to handle them in my second language, and I thought French people would be as vicious as Americans were post-9/11.
Much to my surprise, French people, for the most part, have been pleasant. My day-to-day interactions with people are positive, and I’ve found they’re much more willing to carry on a conversation with me when they realize I understand what they’re saying, even if my accent is terrible. I thought walking around in my now-habitual headscarf and skirts would cause people to shower me in hate speech, but besides a handful of rough comments, I’m unscathed.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel entirely safe in Paris. Almost every day I’ve experienced some form of harassment, either in the form of men following me, staring, spontaneously proposing or, most frighteningly, grabbing my arm to force me to “stop and take their proposal seriously.” To the men who perform them, these actions are harmless. They probably forget about me a few hours later, but their faces and comments are etched into my brain. Most of the men who approach me call themselves Muslims. I would like to think that my manner of dress sends the message that I’m not interested in sexual advances, at least for the sake of religion. Western society teaches female-bodied people to cover up otherwise they’re asking for sexual attention. After having lived life on both sides of the equation (covered and uncovered) I can tell you that the way we dress makes no difference, monsters will be monsters. Fortunately for me, my reasons for dressing modestly are entirely personal and have nothing to do with the reactions and opinions of other people. I’m disappointed that in 2016, instead of teaching men that women are not objects, the world is still trying to tell women how to dress, as if it’s their job to predict and avoid the advances of men. I long for a day when I leave my house dressed how I please and feel secure. Until then, I’ll continue to walk with my keys (or some other sharp object) in my hands at night.
*I realize that I cannot make assumptions about people’s gender based on appearance, but for the sake of moving the narrative along, I did so in this article.
This article was written by Sarabi N. Eventide. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Rafael Lino