This Land is Dalya's Land

I was eight years old when my family won the immigration lottery. Within a month, we had packed up our lives and landed in New York city. I couldn’t fathom what that meant at that age, but looking back I recognize it as the life-altering moment everyone kept telling me it was. All immigrants have a date their lives changed forever. My date is July 6th 2006, Dalya’s date is in 2012. For Muslim immigrant mothers, sisters, and daughters, the assimilation process is objectively more difficult than it might be for their fathers, brothers, and sons for three reasons: 1) the status quo remains the same in western countries for men because the structure of society is still patriarchal but a woman’s role and the definition of womanhood changes more drastically, 2) many Muslim women wear the hijab which is a very visible symbol of their religion, and 3) the western ideas of feminism and equality are difficult to reconcile with other world ideas, especially with the generational divide between mother and daughter. I will be relying on my own experience and testimonials from Dalya’s Other Country to draw my conclusions.

 

The status quo remains the same in western countries for men because the structure of society is still patriarchal but a woman’s role and the definition of womanhood changes more drastically. This makes the assimilation process much more difficult for the women than for the men. In Dalya’s Other Country, this divide is the most noticeable in that the documentary even exists. The purpose of the documentary is to showcase the struggles and agency of a Muslim woman, which greatly and notably differ from the struggles of a Muslim man. The status quo changes only minimally for men, who always hold the seat of power in patriarchal societies and thus have less sanctions imposed upon them. The societal ideal of what it means to be a woman changes also-- the amount of clothing worn, the type of clothing, the display of religiosity. Broadly speaking, these three categories can be described as “strictly regulated” in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries but the criteria is wildly different-- I’ll address this later on.

 

The second reason that makes it more difficult for Muslim women to assimilate than Muslim men is that many Muslim women wear the brand of their religion openly upon their head-- the hijab. This open expression often elicits violence, such as the beatings and ripping of scarves from the bodies of women that occured in abundance following 9/11. In Dalya’s Other Country, Rudayna covers her hijab to exactly avoid this type of violence. Most Muslim men don’t have to worry about this-- the style of dress does not change drastically across borders and religion is not openly displayed upon their bodies. The drawing of stares, the threat of violence-- it makes blending in terribly difficult. Dalya’s hijab is a significant character in the documentary; she struggles with wearing it, learns to love it even though she wore it originally to please her parents. Regardless, she stands out in her all-girls Catholic school because she is the only one wearing a hijab, she agonizes over her differences with her classmates, shown most openly where she is upset that she cannot eat anything from the mall food court. This is something that both Muslim men and women deal with: the unavailability of Halal meat.

 

Going back to regulated dress: men in Muslim countries and men in non-Muslim countries face little scrutinization in dress, because men everywhere dress relatively similarly. Though recent trends have opened the minds of many in Western countries to the idea that men’s dress can be just as unique with shorter cuts and more flair-- regardless, a man will not be looked upon with a vicious eye unless he takes on the qualities of femininity but a woman will be scrutinized regardless of what she may wear. The criteria matters little here-- what matters is the open review of a woman’s “woman-ness” and how she is allowed to express it.

 

The western ideas of feminism, equality, and “woman-ness” are difficult to reconcile with other world ideas, especially with the generational divide between mother and daughter. When Dalya and Rudayna hear Trump speak, they have two very different responses-- Rudayna focuses on safety and not standing out, whereas Dalya embraces her differences more closely and shows defiance. This is broadly a generational thing: my immigrant parents regard many things with more of a fearful eye than I do. I, like Dalya, am openly feminist and, just like Dalya, my Muslim father is not accepting of this. Throughout the documentary we also we see the clash between Rudayna and Dalya with concepts of “woman-ness” like wearing makeup and going to mixed-gender socials. Rudayna is hesitant but Dalya yearns to partake in the activities her friends partake in. For Rudayna, being a woman is being obedient of her culture and supportive of her family, everything else is tertiary; but Dalya defines her womanhood with Western ideas of makeup and high-heels.

 

Regardless of the differences, Dalya and Rudayna both see their womanhood in their hijab, they see it in each other, and they express it uniquely. Rudayna makes her peace with her independence, embraces it by not taking Dalya’s father back. Dalya learns to love her hijab, to participate in everything she wants to but still keep true to the culture she was born with. For me, my religion is my own. I have a vision of myself in my mind’s eye and I am fully aware of where I place my religion in that equation. I won’t be told otherwise, won’t be called a bad Muslim, or an infidel, or whatever else. Like Dalya, whose womanhood and religion work hand in hand, so do mine.