What makes us who we are? I'm not talking about the big lables that parents, people, states, and enemies pin on us. I'm not talking about the upheavals and cruelties of history that shape us. I'm not talking wars or revolutions. I'm not talking Chanel or hijab. I'm talking about those hardly noticeable moments that are dramatic only to us and that change our lives one moment at a time.
I was reminded of such a life-changing moment this morning. I was 14. Your typical painfully self-conscious, self-centered, angular, awkward girl. A "good girl" to boot: the "from home to school" type, with the occasional visit to a friend's house. One day on such a visit, I ran into my friend's parents sitting with other relatives. Doing what I'm expected to do, I approached them to shake hands, as it is the habit. When I extended my hand to the father, my hand just hung there. All alone. Not met. Spurned. Rejected. Embarrassed. Humiliated. The man muttered a quick greeting that I didn't hear. I went deaf. I became all Hand. Hands don't have ears or mouths or eyes. But, god, do they feel!!
The whole encounter took seconds but lasted a life time. That was the first time I learned that some Muslim men won't shake my hand. Even at 14 I have shaken many a man's hand--cousins, uncles, family friends, neighbors, strangers--but this was my first encounter with a Muslim man who refused to shake hands.
I didn't like it. I didn't like it one bit. I wasn't interested in knowing the theological justification for it; I didn't do research to see which Muslim school allowed a man to shake hands with a woman and which didn't. I didn't give a damn. I only cared about how it made me feel--about my body and my female being. It wasn't a good feeling. I wanted to disappear and wished the ground would open and swallow me. I shrank, physically and psychologically. I wished I had no hands, no breasts, no lips, no eyes, no thighs, no vagina. I wished I were nothing.
And I smarted for weeks. Exactly the way I smarted years later when a jerk grabbed my breast in a crowded street in the Old City of Jerusalem.
I wouldn't say a feminist was born that day, but certainly an angry girl was. A necessary step. After all, an avalanche starts with one snow flake (yes, we have snow today)
I was reminded of this moment by the news story about the Muslim British police officer who refused to shake her boss's hand during a public ceremony. She's being defended by British Islamic leaders on the grounds that what she's doing is "in line with common Islamic practice." They are calling for "greater understanding of cultural differences." I thought it was interesting that Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said Islamic law was "not set in concrete." He elaborated: "If the officer is called to a male victim who has been shot, the laws go out of the window. If she has to resuscitate that dying person, Muslim law will then change and allow her all sorts of physical contact because a life is at risk and life is so precious."
Oh, it's so rational of him to allow her--a police officer--to save a dying man. I just wish this rationality would extend all the way, and this law would just go out of the window for good.
Anyway, in my opinion, as long as this woman's religious practices don't infringe on other poeple's rights (including the right to be saved or arrested or beaten up by a police officer), she can do what she wants.
But I don't have to like it. Because I don't.
I never stopped extending my hand to men. But now if a man spurns it, I let him know what I think.
Wa qad A3thara man anthar. You're warned!