Imagine yourself surrounded by 13-year old girls. In a foreign country. Of a different nationality and cultural background. And you don't speak the same language as them. Then imagine doing a story about them.
That was my week covering my magazine story, "The Hair or the Hijab," about the age when young Muslim women typically choose whether or not to take the hijab. It is probably one of the most difficult stories I have ever done, for a few different reasons.
The hijab is a veil that is worn over the hair. It does not cover the face — that veil is called a burka or a niqab, which are becoming banned in some countries, such as France. According to Muslims, women must take the hijab, typically after the time they first menstruate. When women first take the hijab, they do so at the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. This is one of Islam's largest and most important holidays and is said to be when they feel closest to their religion.
Some people people say that the Qur'an does not actually say that women should take the hijab. After all, not all Islamic women do end up wearng a veil, or some wear it and then take it off, which is fine. I talked to many sources about whether or not it actually says in the Qur'an that the hijab is a requirement. However, because the Qur'an is not supposed to be translated from Arabic, and I did not find anyone but anti-Muslim sources saying the hijab was not in the Qur'an, I decided not to address this issue in my story. I did not feel it was incredibly important and also felt it took away from my sources and their decisions to wear the hijab.
One of the reasons my story was so hard was because of the language barrier. Interviewing my sources was incredibly difficult, not to mention interacting with them on a daily basis and gaining their trust for the story. Their English was basic, at best, and I definitely don't speak any Danish or Arabic. All of the girls in my story are second-generation Danish immigrants and they are all Palestinian. However, they were all born in Denmark and have known nothing but that.
For the interview, I used a translator, a fellow student at DMJX who is from Lebanon — Tanja Van Deer. She was incredibly helpful! But for the rest of the time I spent with them — a total of about 10 days or so — I was on my own. And verbal misunderstandings were quite common.
When I had to explain more important things, I would translate with Google Translate — like when I was trying to explain to them where the story would be seen, what it would mean for them to participate, my intentions, etc. But other than that, we spoke as basic as possible and you can believe there were plenty of hand-gestures. And misunderstandings.
One huge misunderstandings during the project actually occurred because of their teacher. Apparently, although I had not said this, their Danish teacher had told the classroom (addressing the girls not a part of the story) about my intentions for the story. This was fine and helpful, except he incorrectly stated the story was only for school and not many people would see it.
Sure, maybe a ton of people will not see my story, but it will be on the Internet. And no one gets to decide how many people gets to see their content if it's put on the world wide web.
So, I had to do damage control. I had explained to the girls early in the project about how it would be on my website, but maybe they had forgotten or thought things had changed because of what their teacher said. It was not easy talking to them about putting the story on the Internet.
I found that the access I was given by the five girls I did my story on was very rare. I'm not sure how I got them, and their parents, to agree to the story, because almost every other girl in the class where I was photographing was petrified of me being there, big camera in tow. They liked me, and they found me a great novelty, being from America and all, but no one wanted their picture taken and they went to great lengths — sometimes affecting my access — to make sure they were not in any pictures.
I did struggle with translation, misunderstandings and the general weariness one gets from being with very talkative and energetic 13-year old girls who are quite prone to drama. It was a tiring week, not even considering the actual production of the magazine itself. But wow, I learned so much from this story. And I worked with some really sweet girls that let me into their lives and let me understand their culture a bit more. And in turn, I hope other people will learn more about their culture, too.
I know that when I go back to the United States, stories I do will probably seem like a breeze at first — I'll share a common nationality and language! It is amazing how exhausting the lack of a common language can be, but I think it has improved my reporting by leaps and bounds because this story taught me how to meet someone on a different level than conversation and words. And I'm not sure how to explain where our understanding came from, but I really did enjoy these girls that I spent time with and we now have a great bond, in my opinion.
Make sure you check out the design and story of the actual piece in the magazine, "New Challenges of Europe"! Also, the entire magazine, featuring stories from all nine international students in the photo class is incredibly beautiful and should also be investigated. I will post outtakes in the coming weeks!