Posted on July 29, 2011 - by mira
I stepped out in my new skin. I was completely veiled like a Yemeni woman, except for the gloves – it was unbearably hot already. I could have worn shorts and a tank top beneath the balto, but I was too nervous, so I wore my regular clothes underneath. Except for my Lebanese Arabic when I spoke, nobody would have been able to guess who I was or that I wasn’t Yemeni.
My heart was pounding. I didn’t expect to be so nervous. I felt like a Yemeni woman might feel if she left home without a veil, I guess. Being veiled can be quite uncomfortable. I had to keep adjusting the scarf around my face. The face veil dug into my eyes. I couldn’t see clearly when I covered my eyes. I was cut off from my environment.
I soon learned that concepts in Yemen have different definitions than what I knew. I’d always taken eye contact in public interactions for granted, for example. But the more religious men would never make eye contact with me, whether they were taxi drivers or cashiers. They would just hardly acknowledge my presence. That was their idea of respect.
But my environment did take note of me. Men on the streets harassed me. They nudged each other and said, “Ibsir” – look – or “masha’ allah.” Or other, insulting comments. My irritation grew. On good days, I ignored the comments. On bad days, I was infuriated.
I couldn’t understand the psychology of harassment. If women are scantily dressed, as they can be in Lebanon, they get harassed. They get harassed even when they’re more appropriately dressed. And many men (and women) and religious figures are quick to blame the women for liberally showing off their bodies.
But then in Yemen, women are covered from head to toe any time they’re in public and around men. What’s the excuse for harassment in that case?
“Every house has a bathroom”
I brought it up in class. The students were divided on the issue. Some of the men blamed women. Some of the women blamed men. The consensus was the lack of education and religious awareness.
“Every house has a bathroom, teacher,” a male student said. “There are bad people everywhere.” Indeed.
Yemen became perplexing. There appeared to be two Yemens: A public Yemen, where people can be suspicious of others and hold up a hard façade; and a private Yemen, where striking up a conversation or asking for permission to take a picture quickly softened people up and brought out their gentle nature. The Yemen of the harassers, and that of the genuinely good, in the full meaning of the word. The two were difficult to reconcile. (There’s a third Yemen that’s also difficult to reconcile, and that is the Yemen of al-Qaeda and their supporters.)
Most of all, I felt indignant when I’d get harassed. Who I was, my culture, my education, and all that I was, both good and bad – all were dismissed with base comments. I was made to feel like a being of no value or worth. The pressure was incredible. I’d been harassed before in Lebanon, but not to the extent that I experienced in Yemen. I couldn’t understand why Yemeni women put up with it.
So I rebelled. Little by little, I shed my new skin. First went the face veil. Then the scarf covering my hair. And finally, the balto.
After much thought, I decided that if men were going to harass me anyway, however I dressed, I might as well get comfortable and fight back – by wearing what I would normally wear: jeans and shirts. My clothes still covered most of my body, but they weren’t oppressive, and I wasn’t going to be submissive.
Over time, I tried to ignore the harassment, but I was convinced that women shouldn’t have to put up with it and society shouldn’t let harassers off the hook. Absolute power corrupts people.
And I discovered that it was, in fact, much better not to be veiled. My students and friends never commented on my clothes. They seemed to tolerate me in jeans and shirts. In public, I was accepted as a foreigner, I seemed to be treated better overall, and the fact that I was Lebanese even gave me many opportunities for interesting cross-cultural conversations.
But the experience of veiling made me wonder: why were there American women who had converted to a very strict form of Islam, rejected their entire culture, and embraced the full veil and a new, puritanical lifestyle in Yemen?
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. Why are there men who harass women? What is your reaction to the story?
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