The Guardian – First person: family clashes over the veil | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

First person: family clashes over the veil | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

‘As soon as the fresh air touched my hair I began to cry’

For years Fadia Faqir clashed with her father over her refusal to wear a veil. Now, at 51, she looks back on their final confrontation and a moving reconciliation

My father imposed the veil on me three times and I took it off three times. The following is the story of how I took off the veil for that final time.

Although I have lived in Britain for the past 23 years I was born and brought up in Amman, Jordan. My parents were conservative Muslims, but my mother was more liberal than my father. Although he believed in education he wanted all his children – there were nine of us – to be good pious Muslims, upright and chaste, especially his daughters. We wanted to be as he wished us to be, but most of us failed to measure up and had to come to terms with that sense of failure and guilt.

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My father was a reluctant tyrant, who once sat on top of my 10-year-old brother and stuffed a whole packet of cigarettes into his mouth because he caught him smoking. The whole family stood around in the dining room watching. I never forgave myself for standing by, but I was young then, only 16.

It was seven years later, when I was 23, that my father finally succeeded in imposing the veil on me. By then I had already twice taken it off with the help of my unveiled, secular aunt. (She had always encouraged me to resist and taught me how to negotiate a way out: I accepted every other condition, such as a seven o’clock curfew, but refused to cover my head.) Now I had been offered a place at the University of Jordan, but my father was refusing to pay for my education unless I covered my head. So believing my education was more important than resistance, I went to the market, bought two metres of white polyester, wrapped my head with them and pinned the veil under my chin. It took seven years for the pin to be removed.

After I finished my degree I got a scholarship to study creative writing at Lancaster University. But my father refused to let me leave Jordan, so I jumped up and down on my parents’ bed, weeping and saying, “You cannot stop me. As long as there is pen and paper in the world you cannot stop me from becoming a writer.” After a number of quarrels, negotiations, abstentions from food, discussions and mediation my father agreed to send me to Britain to study, but attached two conditions: I must observe the veil at all times, and my 17-year-old brother must accompany me as a muharam, guardian.

When I arrived in Britain I was 28 and much had happened in my life: I had been married and divorced, had a six-year-old child and lost custody of him (part of the deal for getting the divorce), and I was in tatters. I had failed as a daughter, a Muslim, a wife and a mother. Here I was in a foreign country and on arrival at Heathrow with my young dependent brother could not even figure out the direction of the traffic. The only thought that kept me together during the nightmarish journey from London to Lancaster was that I had my aunt’s Circassian pastries in my suitcase and soon I would be able to open the tin box, unwrap and eat them.

It wasn’t until two years later, in 1986, that I decided to take off the veil. This time I was back in Britain about to start a PhD and had reached the point where I could no longer both obey my father and keep a shred of self-respect. When I arrived in London, one of my old friends met me at the airport, and we took a taxi back to her flat. I put my hands up and, with trembling fingers, took out the pin and pulled the veil back to reveal my hair to the cab driver – the first time in seven years that a stranger had seen it. I don’t know whether the cab driver even noticed but as soon as the fresh air touched my hair I began to cry. I felt as if I had taken off my skin, my identity, my whole family and clan. They would not want to have anything to do with me now. The fits of crying lasted for three days and then I left for Norwich and my degree.

Some months later I sat down one afternoon, pulled off the veil, now covering the computer, as this had become its new role, and wrote a long letter to my father telling him what I had done and why. After I posted the letter I lived in fear that he would come and drag me home. I felt like a runaway. I thought I was being watched.

It became impossible to continue living in this state of fear so I decided to go back home and face him without a veil. I kept my visit a secret from everyone but my friend Sue, who was living in Amman. Since many fathers in Jordan confiscate their children’s passports to stop them running away, I left mine with a feminist lecturer at Jordan University. She had never met me or heard of me but agreed to help.

It was about 10 o’clock in the evening when we finally arrived at my house. Sue hugged me, and left me with my suitcase at the doorstep. I stood there with uncovered head and a pounding heart. My father opened the door, paled and walked away. He had aged so much, and his hair was mostly grey. He was in his ablution clothes, a white sleeveless vest and loose pyjama trousers rolled to the knee so I could see the red patches of psoriasis on his dark thin legs. Something warm rushed to my heart. I followed him into the hallway and hugged him tight. He turned his face from me, and stuck his arms tight against his body, refusing to hug me back. “Please, Dad,” I said. Nothing. He stood there like a statue until my mother tore me away, hugged and kissed me. Her eyes were full of tears when she said, “Greet your daughter!” Finally, my father said, “She looks like a western model!” I was the pain in his neck and I had returned to shame him in front of his peers.

The next day he sat me down to convince me not to leave the house without a veil. I was eager to see the garden, our alleyway, the neighbourhood, but I agreed to attend the family court and present my case. He sat on the sofa, and I sat opposite him. But I had heard the same sermon so many times. I kept repeating, “I am your daughter. You and mum brought me to this world. Am I less important to you than religion? You have never told me that you loved me. You’ve never said that you are proud of me. Why?”

This went on for five days and at the end I could argue no more. I wanted some fresh air, so I had a shower, changed out of my pink pyjamas, which I had worn for a week, put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and asked my mother, “Shall we go shopping, mum?”

“Yes,” she said, “let’s go shopping.” She put on her veil, held my hand and we stepped together into the sunshine. Hand in hand we walked, aware of the wagging tongues and fluttering curtains. With a determined smile she greeted the grocer, the chemist, the sweet and nut seller while holding my hand firmly. The winter sun was warm on our backs. We talked, laughed, looked for bargains in the new one-dinar shop and went home contented.

My father must have heard about our outing because he stopped talking to me completely. Occasionally we would have late dinner together and he would address my mother: “People have no shame, no morals, no religious values any more.” I knew I would be on the opposite side of the divide from then on. One evening, three weeks after I arrived, I was having dinner with my parents. We were alone, which did not happen often. I looked at my mother and said, “Please tell my father that I am flying back to England on Friday to resume my studies.”

The Christmas vacation was over. He had not acknowledged my presence for more than a week. I was getting dressed when the phone rang. I picked up the receiver and heard his voice: “I just want to wish you a good journey … I am proud of you, but I don’t know things. I don’t know how to say things. Go, may Allah protect you!” Then he put the phone down.

The process of reconciliation had begun, but it took a failed relationship of mine to bring us really close. When, at that time, I asked my father for help, he came to England. We would walk in the woods for hours, talking. I would ask him if he loved me, and he would hug me. To have nine children educated in the UK, US, Turkey and elsewhere made my father realise that he had to enter into dialogue with us. After years of education some of us became religious, others indifferent, and some totally secular. When we got older my father tolerated our different points of view. To his credit he was able to adapt at such an old age.

Now he is 76 and I am 51, and writing this piece has brought us closer still. A few weeks ago I sat with my father in the basement of our old house in east Amman and read it aloud to him. I choked and stumbled over many words. He also filled up twice. He said he did not know that the veil had caused me so much suffering. “Perhaps because you have nine children you did not notice,” I said. He also said that the piece was accurate. When I finished reading we dried our tears, laughed, and walked out together into the autumn sunshine. The veil is still covering my computer but I feel we are father and daughter at last.

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