Posted on August 20, 2011 - by mira
Painting of a Yemeni girl by French artist Stephanie Ledoux
“Teacher Mira, do you recognize me?” she shouted over the pulsating beats.
I stared at the young lady with long locks in her shiny black hair. Blue powder and striking-red lipstick colored her face. She wore a tight, revealing dress that competed for attention in a roomful of women-only, dressed in their best, and sexiest.
I must have looked confused, because she quickly rescued me from embarrassment and told me her name.
“It’s difficult to recognize us without a veil, isn’t it?” she laughed.
She was a former student, but it was the first time I’d seen her face.
I’d developed a strategy in class to learn to identify the veiled women. First, I’d have all the students sit in the same seats the first few days while I learned their names and got to know them. Then, I’d study the women’s eyes, their voices, their shapes, a particular notebook or pen that they used, any distinguishing features or personality traits, and I’d soon be able to tell them apart. It was tricky, but they were always patient and helpful.
A few women didn’t cover their faces in class. They were younger, but exposing their faces wasn’t always a sign of their confidence. Veiled women took comfort in the anonymity of the veil – like we are sometimes more confident in our anonymity online – and could be as outspoken as their unveiled classmates or more so at times. The women often started out being shy and reserved in class, and seldom competed with the men, but their confidence would grow over the weeks. For many of them, their first term studying English would also be their first time studying and mixing with young men who were complete strangers.
When all I’d seen of Yemen for months was unostentatious women in black, you could imagine the shock of seeing the women at my first few Yemeni weddings! Was this really Yemen? Behind closed doors, and away from the men’s probing eyes – both the harassers and the decent ones – women were letting it all out. This party rivaled any such party in Lebanon and the Arab Gulf. Women were dressed in the latest fashion. Some had sexy naqsh tattoos on their bare arms, legs and shoulders.
One young lady wore a tight black dress; a gold-plated belt accentuated her curves. The top of her dress revealed her black, laced bra, and a long, golden necklace hung between her plump breasts. The single women showed off their best features as pleased them. They danced together on a central stage. Uninhibited, seductively, suggestively, they shook their bodies freely to the tunes of the latest Yemeni and Gulf pop songs like young women in Western discos, under the watchful gaze of the older women.
The only difference from Lebanese weddings was: all this seduction was in the absence of any men. Or perhaps due to the absence of men. In contrast, women at Lebanese weddings seemed much more subdued because of the social front that they have to maintain. These young Yemeni women probably aimed to seduce the mothers of eligible bachelors, for in Yemen as in Lebanon, weddings are rife with matchmaking. Only in Yemen, the sons would only learn about the women’s beauty from their mothers’ descriptions and their approval or disapproval.
At another wedding, an acquaintance and I spent the evening talking over the loud music, her very young son seated next to her. She’d spent the last few years with her husband in the United States and had come back to Yemen to take care of her ailing mother. She abruptly but candidly talked about her nervous wedding night, without going into much detail. She hadn’t met her husband until their wedding day, she said. “But now, I miss him so much.”
I sat and watched the women have a great time. Many were mothers who were several years younger than me, in their early twenties, without much in their lives besides mothering the house, the men and the children.
The wedding parties were the women’s escape. Here they could get away, dance, dress up, be themselves, be someone else, and chew qat secretly from the men in their households, smoke a shisha, and forget.
When the wedding was over, all the flesh and wildness disappeared behind the black shroud as they slipped quietly back into their dull daily lives.
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 your thoughts on Yemeni weddings?
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