Posted on August 2, 2011 - by mira
“I won’t do it,” she said quite adamantly. “It’s wrong, and I won’t do it.”
In order to get their contracts renewed, all employees were required to undergo a medical exam by a designated Yemeni physician.
The problem was: the physician was a man.
In the very conservative practice of Islam, a man who is not mahram may not touch or be alone with a woman, even if he were a doctor and bound by the medical code of ethics. In the more puritanical interpretations of Islam, such as the Salafi and Wahhabi forms, a man who is not mahram may not touch a woman even to save her life in an emergency.
The disgruntled woman who was complaining was not, however, Yemeni. As a matter of fact, all the female Yemeni employees, I believe, consented to the condition, however begrudgingly some of them may have done so. The woman who refused to submit to the medical exam because the physician was a man was a European convert to Islam living in Yemen.
“No, it’s not wrong,” a male Yemeni colleague argued with her. “Islam instructs us to make things smoother, to make our life better. It’s not just a set of rules.”
“No, it’s very clear in Islam,” she said. “Why don’t they give us the option of a female physician?”
“So you’re willing to risk losing your job on that principle?”
“Yes, I am. I won’t do it. It’s wrong.”
“That’s strange. That’s not Islam.” He shook his head. “I think we know our religion – we taught you Islam – and that’s not Islam.”
“Yes, it is. Islam is clear on this. You taught it to us, but we know it better than you. You do it just because it’s a cultural tradition; you learn it from your parents and it’s ritualistic to you. You don’t apply it correctly.”
She was one of many Western men and women who moved to Yemen in search of an Islamic utopia. And they would get hired to teach English because they were native speakers of the language or had a teaching certification and good English skills. The top language institutes in Sanaa paid some of the highest salaries in the country but constantly struggled to hire qualified teachers to keep up with the growing market. Native English speakers were difficult to attract to Yemen because of the perception that it’s a dangerous country that’s hostile to Westerners. The converts would be instructed not to discuss religion in class, a rule which they usually broke.
And so it was in that context that I met and worked with a few American converts. The women were required to expose their faces while teaching, which they did. But outside the institute they led strict and puritanical lifestyles.
They changed their American or Christian names to Islamic Arabic ones. The women adopted the niqab, the face veil. The men took multiple wives. They studied the religion and Arabic, God’s language in the Qoran. They didn’t approve of family planning so they usually had many children, and the children were usually home-schooled. They never listened to music. Unlike Yemeni weddings, music wasn’t played at the converts’ weddings. One teacher even skipped the musical introduction to the listening sections of the textbooks in class .
The men grew their beard to a specific length and wore the traditional Arab white thawb, or, when required to wear formal Western attire in class, they wore pants that showed their ankles; they had a religious justification for the peculiar length of the pants.
I was truly puzzled by the converts. When they talked, they sounded American, and not just their accent. It was as if they couldn’t completely “delete” their Americanism. But they seemed to want to get as far away from their native culture as possible, in search of something – what? Spirituality? God? Political aversion? What were they searching for? And were they in Yemen in search of something or to escape from something? Or both?
I couldn’t figure them out. When I’d get harassed in Sanaa while having to be fully veiled, I became quite indignant and defensive of who I was and of my culture. But the converts seemed to have coldly divorced their native culture and fully adopted a culture that was the opposite of everything they’d known. Why?
While women around the world were struggling for more rights and more freedom of choice, these young American women were giving up many of those same rights and freedoms that they were privileged to be born into and that their ancestors had fought so hard for. Some of the converts had dropped out of college, given up scholarships, made other significant sacrifices for the promise of an Islamic utopia.
Why go to such an extreme, or to the other extreme?
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 is your reaction to the story? Why do you think people adopt extreme ideas?
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