Water Over the Dam

“Can I ask a question?”

 

Crouching in the Safeway candy aisle,

my sister and I paused

in our discussion of candies

as a tiny woman

with thin brown hair

tightly pulled back in a bun

asked us that question.

Despite her short stature

she towered over us

and looked pointedly at our heads

instead of our eyes.

 

I wanted to say,

My eyes are down here.”

 

My sister and I are accustomed

to people turning their heads

for what adorns our own.

We are less accustomed

to people approaching us

to talk about it.

It makes our day

when we are stopped

and admired

for the way our clothes

match our scarves.

Often, we are complimented

by the way it shines,

with its smooth surface softly swaying

in the wind.

 

But sometimes,

there is always someone

who has something more to say,

and they begin with,

“Can I ask you a question?”

 

My sister, being older,

smiled and said,

“Of course.”

 

I, being younger,

continued on my search for candy

until I heard,

“Do the men have to wear it too?”

 

And,

before my sister could answer,

the woman

plunged into a rant.

“Because I don’t think it’s

fair if it’s only women

who have to cover their hair.

In fact,

it’s a regression of women’s rights.

If men aren’t

forced

to do it as well

why should

women?”

 

I pressed my lips together

so I wouldn’t say something

unforgivable.

 

I like to think of my mind as a body of water.

At times, it’s calm and peaceful:

sometimes, waves touch sand;

sometimes, waves take down castles.

When this happens

my mind is a waterfall of thoughts

swishing past my ears.

 

I wouldn’t have minded

“Why do you wear it?”

“What does it mean?

But the way she phrased it

was like she wanted us

to be freed

from  the way we dressed,

as though men

aren’t given more restrictions

on what they can wear

when they can wear it

and why they can wear it.

 

What a way

to assault

my right.

 

Behind the dam of my lips,

fierce words played on my tongue

begging to burst out.

They hammered against my lips:

Let us tell her”

“Let us set her straight.

“What does she know?”

“How dare she?”

Even dams break sometimes

and I could feel mine weakening

when my sister finally spoke up.

 

"Some do, but it’s cultural.

But not everyone does,

some girls don’t

My sister and I choose to wear it

as an act of worship

for God only.”

 

That’s right.

 

The dam closed.

The waves calmed down

and receded.

 

The first two weeks of freshman year

my classmates stared at me.

I don’t think they’d ever met

anyone who covered

their hair

like me.

People were hesitant

to speak to me

unless I took the first step.

I wore better clothes

on purpose

so that when people would stare

they’d have something pleasant

to look at.

 

And she asked us

“Do the men have to wear it too?”

As if my wearing it

meant nothing

if men didn’t wear it too.

 

My sister and I went home

in silence, with no sweets

in our hands.

We didn’t say anything

because what do you say

after someone finds everything

you love and cherish

to be wrong?

 

My scarf

is not very expensive

nor is it featured in magazines

and TV ads.

People don’t line up asking me

where I buy it

or if they can wear it.

But to me

it is precious.

It’s beautiful

that I’m able to love something

that gives me such freedom.

Freedom from my own

rage

and my own

grief.

 

It’s saved me

from hurting

others and

myself.

It reminds me

that I am much more than what

is underneath.

 

The same thing she

scorned in me

is the same thing that has

saved me

from hurting others

and hurting myself:

It reminds me that

I am more than what

You see me as.

 
This poem is about: 
Me
My community
Our world

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