In this short story by Emna Belhaj Yahia, women debate freedom of dress and choice in contemporary Tunisia.
So here we are, Chokrane and I, as she’s leaving school, as I’m leaving the office. Still crushed by the disorderly memories of a sleepless night, I suddenly notice as she walks toward me, something very simple about her clothing, something I hadn’t thought of before, something that requires no explanation, no commentary: the free affirmation of liberty. The way she wears it, it’s just a way of exercising creativity that concerns only her. A free act, we must agree, when it does not detract from someone else’s liberty. That idea intoxicates me a little but, for no apparent reason, also evokes my mother’s apprehensions. What if Frida wasn’t wrong? After all, nothing guarantees that eventually those in favor of this clothing style will not try to impose it on everyone. It’s happened elsewhere. But is that a reason to preemptively forbid something to those who have forbidden nothing, simply because people who look like them were found at fault in other places? I don’t know, but I would prefer an alternative approach: take it one day at a time. If tomorrow we really feel that danger is on the horizon, if Frida’s fears prove to be justified, and if these people start to try to deprive us of liberty, I will be as concerned as my mother, and Chokrane will be on our side. For when she replied to me, yesterday, “I’m wearing what I’m wearing because I feel like it,” I saw, in her gaze, the staunch defense of a liberty that, in all sincerity, one cannot claim solely for oneself. Today, I express her reply in my own fashion: long or short, wide or narrow, the only becoming clothing is that of a free person. Furthermore, yesterday I noticed that she also had a glimmer in her eyes and I surmised that, had she been lying, it would have gone out immediately. I know that glimmer. So Chokrane will be on the same side as me and with Frida, I am sure of her righteousness, I would be willing to bet on it. And on the strength of our love. What other choice do I have?
Chokrane is neither fake nor prudish, she surprises me, she is herself, with no limits other than those that she willingly sets for herself, we quickly tumbled into the mystery of love, gestures of passionate moments, intense moments, without fear and without shame—and I have no complaints.
It’s been almost a year now since she earned her master’s degree. Waiting to find a job, she enrolled herself in a master’s in mathematics and at the same time tutors high schoolers preparing for the baccalaureate. Some of the money she earns helps to pay for her driving lessons. When I go to pick her up at the end of those lessons, I find that she bears an odd resemblance to an Indian tourist, all she’s missing is a large red dot between her two eyebrows. It’s because she rolls back her headscarf, making it into a large headband at the top of her forehead, at the edge of her hair and above her ears, which, uninhibited in the open air, seem bigger than they actually are. I feel as though I’m watching a woman disembarking an airplane just arrived from Bombay or New Delhi.
“Is that how Indian women wear their hair? The red dot would go nicely with your scarf-turned-headband. And they have big ears like you.”
“It’s because when I’m driving, I hear better when I lift up the fabric. I take in better what’s going on around me, the sounds and the distances, and even the words of the instructor sitting next to me. But when he saw me uncover my ears, he immediately started swearing that I was under no obligation to do so.”
“What does he care?”
“He probably wanted to make sure I knew that the driver’s manual didn’t require anything on that front. I think I’m going to change instructors. There are signs for driving schools on almost every street.”
“He talks nonstop, going on and on about how his daughter refuses to wear a headscarf, as if I’m supposed to have an opinion on it! I told him that was her own business, then I quickly started asking questions about traffic, the people overtaking me on the right, the difficulty of changing speed, but he kept coming back to his problem with the headscarf and the grief his daughter gives him.”
“What a pain!”
“On top of it, I don’t like to be lumped in with every woman who wears a scarf on her head. The relationship to the body, the way of reacting to peoples’ words, of adopting certain characteristics, it’s so different, so subtle, from one woman to the next, that in the end no one resembles anyone else. And I, in any case, intend to do as I please. Just look at me and Dalel, we’re worlds apart.”
“But you were following in her footsteps when you decided to cover your hair, sweetheart!”
“So what! That was more than four years ago. Since then, we’ve each followed our own path. She’s become a purist and a proselytizer. She and her husband would veil every woman in the world if they could.”
Chokrane pauses, brushes aside a lock of hair that had fallen into my eyes, then continues:
“I’m glad that so far they’ve only had boys because I would have felt really sorry for their girls.”
“Don’t worry, Dalel’s sons will take up the task of putting women in their place!”
“You don’t know that, maybe they’ll be nothing like their parents.”
“True, but there’s still a chance. Look at me, I have red hair like my mother, I’m fidgety and fickle like my father, an explosive combination, don’t you think? What about you?”
“I have my mother’s spirit and my father’s black hair, just as dangerous.”
“Are you sure you have your dad’s hair?”
“Well then, you have no need to cover it up with a headscarf, since it’s the hair of a man! Or else, if you still want to hide it, tomorrow we’ll go to the souk and I’ll buy you a nice chechia.”
“You make a good point. Come on, let’s go right now.”
And our banter continues like that, and even if our little stories don’t sound like much of anything, they sound like us. We have our horseplay, our quips, we react to what reaches us of the world’s whisper, with its scenes that, real or virtual, come and go before our eyes, we inhale our city’s air, respond to what calls to us. And I squeeze my Indian girl with her big ears, and with her I feel like an explorer, though, unlike my parents, I didn’t study abroad, I was never interested in other worlds, and have no intention of becoming a globetrotter. I, the son of Frida the Redhead and Nader the Fugitive, now have something better to do than roam the Internet, smoke cigarettes, and upset my mother, in order to express my existence. I have a heart and a body capable of enjoying of each moment, devouring life, gulping down the crisp air.
Chokrane suddenly remembers a story that she thought of during the night, before going to bed. She tells me on the spot, before she forgets again, just to prove and illustrate, she says, the prudishness of men of former times, the ones we see in the black-and-white documentaries she was talking about yesterday.
“I heard it from my mother who heard it from the heroine herself, her great-aunt. She had seven or eight children with her husband, lived all her life at his side, without either of them ever seeing, I mean really seeing, the other’s private parts. She even had a long nightshirt, with a hole in the necessary place, to facilitate the task.”
“What task?” I burst into laughter, grip the steering wheel and brake abruptly, which makes Chokrane, sitting next to me, jump in her seat. We giggle like hyperactive children, then she asks me to get moving again. What on earth is this story of the hole in the nightgown? It’s incredible. I would have thought Chokrane’s modesty would keep her from recounting such details. But no! How wrong we can be.
From Jeux de rubans © Emna Belhaj Yahia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.