Noora is an intense girl, fiercely proud, academic and sporty and shoots straight talk from the hip. She is tall and lean with the body of a girl who plays a lot of sport. She arrives every morning, whips her back pack off, slumps onto a chair and listens to whatever is coming out of the white plugs in her ears and only after a few moments does she turn around and start to engage with the crowd in the classroom. Unlike the majority of girls at school she wears a black head scarf, and not the kind that slips just so, revealing a pretty swath of black glossy hair; hers is pulled tight, under the chin and circling her face. She looks out from black rimmed glasses and is one of the highest achievers in the school. Noora wants to be a doctor so she is one of my fabulous few.
I had always thought her head scarf to be incongruous. It didn’t fit with the girl who loved hard core rap, was a fervent feminist, argued passionately against blind belief and never seemed to go to the Mosque at break time to pray. Yesterday I found out the real story. Noora did not choose to cover her head. She was told to put it on about 4 years ago and there was no opportunity to dissent. Unlike the other girls I have spoken to who choose when and even if to wear the scarf, Noora covered her head out of obligation and fear of the looks and glares towards both her and her family if she didn’t.
This is in sharp contrast to a girl in the other class, Fatima, who told me that she had chosen to cover her head despite the fact that neither her mother nor sister wore one. When asked what made her choose to, she gave this eloquent answer. “I went to Saudi last year to do the Hajj and while I was there I just felt something. I didn’t know it was coming and I waited to see if the feeling would go away but it didn’t. It is a huge decision to decide to cover your head because once you do you cannot take it off. So I gave it a few weeks of thought and I started by covering my arms and legs. Once I finally put it on I felt amazing. Now I feel like a jewel.”
Fatima glowed from within and I could see what she meant by feeling like a jewel. She shone with the sense of being someone special who had made an important and personal choice. Noora does not shine. Her eyes are angry and she walks with a determined stride that suggests all is not right with her world. She told me that when she leaves Bahrain she will take it off, even knowing that means she cannot return here. “I will never come back here”, she told me.” I can’t wait to be out of this culture that puts us in a box and defines who I am and must be. Do you know that it is impossible to have a friend who is a boy? And that if ever I am seen with a boy who is not my brother everyone will talk and cause my family shame? That is stupid. This whole culture is small minded and stupid. The Middle East is one small corner of the world, that’s it. I want to be out of here and in the real world and I won’t look back.”
The reason this is so shocking is that over 98% of all Bahrainis who leave to study oversees return to the safe and traditional nooks of their family. To leave permanently is unthinkable. Noora told me that because she comes from a village and is Shia the rules are different for her. Her world is conservative, narrow minded and fearful of shame. On the weekend when she goes out with her cousins she has to wear an Abaya and she hates it. But she does it because she doesn’t want to cause her Mom any pain. Noora is well read, informed and open minded. She stands in stark contrast to her environment and lives with the pain of knowing that for the time being she has to be uncomfortable in her skin and play by someone else’s rules.
This is another side of the story.