Posted on July 26, 2011 - by mira
“In our culture, women are like pearls. They should be hidden and protected,” my Yemeni friend said when I asked her how she felt about covering her face in public.
She put her hands together to emphasize how an oyster hides a pearl within it.
I bought a black balto, a black hijab and a black face veil when I first moved to Yemen. Like every new culture you move to, initially you’re not sure what the social codes are. They can be subtle and enigmatic. Do you smile at strangers to be friendly? Do you try to shake hands? Should you cover your hair in public? In Saudi Arabia, it’s a must. In Yemen, I wasn’t sure.
To be on the safe side, I decided to imitate the local women. So I stopped at a shop on Hadda Street and bought the conservative garment. I slid the balto over my shirt and jeans right there in the store. When I struggled with the hijab, the salesman shrugged; so a woman who was browsing in the shop kindly wrapped it around my head and tucked the end in front of my ear. She said I’d get used to it.
Then she showed me how to put on the face veil. It’s tied or clipped in the back. As much of the face has to be hidden as possible, so it covers even the eyebrows and rests right up against the eyelids, with a slit for the eyes. The second layer is folded back over the head, but if you don’t want your eyes to be seen, or to avoid dusty gushes of wind, you pull it down and see your new world through a dark, hazy mesh.
I went home and straight to the mirror. A dark figure stared back at me. For a split second my mind couldn’t register that it was me, my eyes, looking back at me from that black cover. I could hear my breathing in my ears. I felt overwhelmed. I nearly cried. I’d been erased – me, my identity.
The face and clothes, aren’t they a part of our identity? Don’t we read each other and express ourselves through our faces? The mouth, the eyes express pain, joy and frustration. All erased. I felt like… I wasn’t anyone or anything. It challenged me to the core. It sparked so many philosophical, cultural and identity questions in my mind, and would continue to do so over the years.
I knew and understood the theological arguments supporting veiling – for women to be modestly dressed and not seductive, for their own protection. But is that all women are about? And how many women are not covered but are still respectable and respected? Those theological interpretations of veiling are also challenged by many Muslim men and women.
I respected the women’s choice when they chose to be veiled or defended it. I listened to women who said that covering the face is not a religious requirement but of Saudia Arabian and Iranian cultural influences. I also heard and read arguments against the hijab by Muslim women. Once in Sanaa I heard about exactly 12 prominent Yemeni women who did not cover their hair out of personal conviction.
“I feel safer with the veil,” a student would say.
Harassment of women is common in Yemen. While it rarely extended to physical contact, women got harassed just for being in public – perhaps men’s way of enforcing the social code of keeping women modest and/or at home.
The veil also gives Yemeni women greater freedom of movement. Many men don’t allow their wives or daughters to leave the house. Some who do, do so on the condition that the women cover their faces. For many women, for the privilege of studying English, working or going to college, covering their face is a small price to pay.
So I understood when women said they felt safer. But other women challenged that belief.
“It doesn’t protect you. It’s better to uncover your face,” a student once argued.
“When I used to go out with my face covered, men harassed me. Then I decided not to cover my face, and I found that I got harassed less, maybe because I seemed more confident. When women are fully covered, they’re more mysterious to men, or maybe they appear weaker, so they get harassed.”
A pearl, a flower and a butterfly
I’ve heard, I think, most analogies of women. Women are like flowers; women are like butterflies. Even the feminist ones, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Yes, there are times when I’ve felt like a butterfly or a flower, or even like I was trapped in a bell jar, or as precious as a pearl.
And yes, butterflies are beautiful and graceful and fragile, but I didn’t want to be seen and not heard.
Flowers smell great and are also colorful and attractive, but I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, to be picked, or to be part of a bouquet. And besides, all flowers wilt.
Nor did I want to be a snake or a witch or… what else?
(And what are some analogies of men, anyway? I couldn’t think of even one.)
I didn’t want to be hidden and protected like a pearl.
Still, I wanted to experience what it would be like to be fully covered and to go through all that trouble, every day, to erase myself from existence. Was I going to feel like a pearl?
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a new series on my life in Yemen, to be updated every Tuesday and Friday (unless I’m on the road and internet-less). Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them. What are some analogies of men and women? What is your reaction to the story?
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