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Multi-Sited Ethnography Project: How Do I Look?

By Melody Heath

            During the past three months one theme that has occurred in several countries is the unique way women dress and display themselves in the public sphere compared to their private domain.  In “Poetics of Resistance” Lada Cale Feldman says, “there is a certain haughtiness, ignorance and everyday bluntness in a man thinking that being alive is something entirely normal (3).”  In this article the authors are describing the living conditions of people during the fighting that took place in Croatia more than a decade ago.  However, this thought provoking statement can mean many different things for many people.  Not only are different societies unique to one another, but the individuals within a culture manage to stand out from the rest. 

            Women in three different countries that I visited have different ways of dressing and presenting themselves.  In Japan, I observed two women looking through shelves of hair dye that would give them a more ideal western look.  In Egypt, I saw a group of teenage girls spend almost fifteen minutes doing their hair only to cover it with a veil.  In India the women all covered their arms and faces to keep their skin from tanning in the sun.      

            While in Alexandria, like most first-time visitors to Egypt, I felt a need to visit all the main tourist attractions.  Settling in the ultra-modern Alexandria Library, I pulled a large pile of books in front of me to go through.  Three months away from a sufficient library to read and relax in, I felt starved for the stacks of books and isles of shelves. 

            Every time I looked up from my book and saw a veiled woman wearing the full burkha, I was shocked.  Perhaps it is because in the library I could forget that I was in Egypt.  Or the shock could have stemmed from the fact that I had never seen anyone wearing a burkha in person before. 

            Through my innocence I couldn’t help the mystery I felt toward these women.  The only part of their bodies left uncovered was their eyes.  I wondered is that comfortable?  Can they look from side to side, or do they have to turn their whole head to see to their left or right?  Still filled with questions about this ancient uniform donned by Muslim women, I left the main library in search of the ladies’ room. 

            As per usual, there was a line stretching outside the woman’s bathroom.  After some minutes, when I was finally standing in the doorway, located next to the sinks and mirrors, I was once again mildly surprised at what I saw.  Five teenagers about thirteen or fourteen were standing in front of the mirror obsessing about their hair.  Their veils were draped around their shoulders and the pins that held them in place were held between their lips.  One was trying to put a younger girl’s hair into a pony tail, but bumps and tangles kept frustrating the process.  I was surprised that girls so young wear the veil.  In “Remaking the Modern,” by Farha Ghannam, while explaining how she did her field work in Egypt, Ghannam mentions that an informant suggested that she wear a scarf so that people know she is a Muslim and that she is married (12).  Therefore, I assumed that most of the women I would see wearing a scarf in Egypt would be married.  Next I had time to be surprised that these girls were fretting over their hair.     

            If I could have, I would have asked them, “You care what your hair looks like?  Why?”  It seems crazy to me that people would care about certain things that aren’t even visible publicly.  If my hair was covered, I wouldn’t worry about what it looks like.  If my face was covered, I wouldn’t put make up on.  These teens weren’t wearing the full burkha and they may not have to wear it even after they get married.  However, I presumed that in a society that seems to encourage this traditional and religious dress, women would care less about visible aspects of beauty. 

            It could be that Egyptian society has turned hair and make up into more of a personal beauty.  Maybe requiring women to cover their hair has made it more of a symbol of beauty.  These girls know what their hair looks like under their veils and obviously that is important to them. 

            Perhaps these girls could also relate to the circumstances facing young women in India.  According to Serena Nanda in “Arranging a Marriage in India,” arranged marriages are the norm and expected. 

            While in India, I wanted to try to do something that I would not be able to come back and do on my own.  One of those activities was the chance to visit a Dalit Village.  Dalits exist outside the normal caste system; beneath everyone else.  It is not something they chose, but are born into.  During this trip; I interacted with young women who were attending Nursing School for free as part of a program to improve their status in society. 

            A skit that they performed for the group of students that I visited the school with stands out in my mind as I recall the stay.  It carried many traditional Indian ideals, with the underlying theme; “every girl must receive an education.” 

            This skit started off with a couple celebrating their sixth anniversary.  The wife was unhappy because they had not been able to have any children yet.  So, together they went to a doctor who performed a “medical surgery” that enables the women to have two children.  The wife is so happy now because she has children even though they constantly nag their father for money to buy things with.  One day, the father leaves the house and she receives a call saying that her husband died from a heart attack.  She is devastated and has to tell her children that their father is dead.  At the worst possible moment, a man comes to the house and tells her that her husband took out a loan for money and she needs to repay the loan right away.  She begs the man to give her some time to raise the funds and eventually he agrees to give her until the end of the month.  In a moment of strength she declares that she will get a job and support her family and pay off her late husband’s debts.  In an epilogue, the woman explains that because she had an education, she was able to get a job and support her family.  Her son and daughter were able to go to school and she paid off her late husband’s debts. 

            As demonstrated in the play, the wife did not feel fulfilled because she had not been able to get pregnant.  Giving birth to biological children is the only way this woman could feel complete or happy. 

            All at once we were bombarded with traditional, Indian family ideals and a new more modern concept that the women of this school idealize.  When asked at what age they will get married they quickly reply, “Twenty-one” and they all agree that it will be arranged.  The director of the school confesses that a lot of the students who stay in the area don’t work after graduation, but simply get married and raise families.  It is expected that Indian brides stay home and soon have children to take care of.  Their husbands will work to support their families and the wife will only work if something happens to him or if a second income is needed. 

            Serena Nada talks about the emphasis Indian culture places on the importance of family.  The article depicts her experience talking to young people about how they feel about arranged marriages.  I realize now that by allowing the parents to arrange their children’s marriage, the process involves the entire family in the decision.  In every level of Indian society, family plays the most important role.

            In a completely different way, I saw two Japanese girls submitting to cultural pressures as well.  The country was covered in depictions of women with blonde hair and fair skin.  Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that its people would start to emulate those attributes. 

            Row after row they all show the same thing; white straight teeth, long blond hair, fair flawless skin.  The glossy images on the boxes call to the women looking over the rows of dye.  Picking one up, they examine the box to see what their hair would look like after using it.  Alas, their jet black hair will not turn out like the girl’s in the picture.  So placing it back on the shelf, they examine some other options. 

            In this small department store located in Kobe, Japan, people pass behind them, not bothered by the quiet dilemma going on in these women’s minds.  I can almost see them asking the girls on the boxes, “How do we get our hair to look like yours?”  From where I am standing beside them and facing them, I can see the concentration on their faces.  It’s almost as if they know this isn’t going to look good.  Or that it may not work.  They are not laughing and playing around like I do with my friends who want to dye their hair crazy colors.  They are aiming for the image on the boxes.  Even though their complexions are not perfect, their skin is not fair, and their hair is not flowing and light in color. 

            After lifting some other boxes and examining the charts on their sides, they decide on a few and head over to the clerk.  Once they are clear of the shop I examine the shelves of hair dye.  Finally I come across what I am looking for.  Tucked away on the bottom shelves, far right of all hair dyes are some boxes with Asian women on them with very dark hair. 

            In “Urban Middle-Class Japanese Women and Their White Faces,” Mikiko Ashikari, explains that people aim for and epitomize the ideals of their society.  Whatever the dominant ideal look is for a society; its members will attempt to embody it.  This ideal look may mean paler skin, bigger breasts, or a slimmer waste.  The women saw that the most beautiful hair is blonde.  Even if it means they may have to bleach their hair before coloring it, they were going for the perfect shade.  There are many ideologies for a society, but there is one that is more dominant than another and in this case it is the need to be a blonde.  This is evident in billboard after billboard of young western looking women with light colored hair.       

            Each of these experiences shows how women strive to fit in to their society or naturally adapt to it, but try to maintain a sense of identity.  The girls in Egypt concerned themselves with their hair because they know what it looked like underneath their veils.  The girls in India may be trying to educate themselves and grow in society, but they still agree to the traditional arranged marriage in India.  The girls in Japan were as fair as could be and had natural straight, black hair, but they were seemingly desperate to have the blonde hair depicted on the boxes of dye.  All of these girls were aiming for goals ideals set for them by society of by themselves.  In these modern countries full of images and social ideals, it must be difficult to find an individual and personal identity.  It is easier for me to look at these countries from the outside and judge and observe them then it is for me to do the same to my own country.  It is interesting for me to be able to observe multiple countries and find patterns in each one.  Indeed, George E. Marcus explains in his paper “Ethnography of the World System” that there is a growing trend to cross examine cultures in many different branches of science. 

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