"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Guest Post- Haley Sweetland Edwards on the niqab

(I'm always reluctant to talk about the niqab, the veil, etc- my thoughts are scattered, and, being a guy, fraught with a certain remove.  So I asked top-notch journalist Haley Sweetland Edwards, of the Sana'a Bureau, to guest-post her thoughts and observations.  She graciously obliged.  Read her thoughts below- it is an excellent essay.)  

Brian asked me a few weeks ago if I’d guest blog about the niqab. I agreed, and then immediately regretted it. It’s a huge topic, full of secret trapdoors and perilous questions of cultural relativism and all kinds of things that could get me in all kinds of trouble with my Western and Yemeni friends alike.

Still, I’ve given my word, so here are my thoughts. Please, feel free to set me straight.

But first, because Western journalists are always messing this up, here’s a definition of what we’re talking about:  The niqab refers to the black veil that a woman wears over her face, obscuring her chest, neck, mouth, nose and – often enough – her eyes. (Niqabs come with a thin cloth layer that women can wear flapped down over their eyes.) The niqab is not to be confused with the hijab, which covers only the head and hair. The balto, a.k.a., the abaya, is the long formless cloak; the burqa is the head-to-toe cloak with mesh for the eyes, most often worn in Central Asia.

Conservative Yemenis and (often male) Western journalists often refer to the niqab as “just another item of clothing.” I’d like to go on the record to say that’s completely absurd. It’s a lazy phrase that, while presumably an attempt at assuaging cultural imperialism, completely misses the point. The niqab is not like a tie. It’s not like a t-shirt. It’s not like high heels. It is a long black cloth worn over the face.  The very function of the niqab is to obscure a person’s identity. It’s an invisibility cloak by design. No other “item of clothing” does that.

Which brings us to the function of the niqab. All the imams, sheikhs and conservative politicians I’ve spoken to on the subject say the end goal of the niqab is twofold: 1) to preserve a woman’s modesty, and 2) to protect her brothers’/father’s/husband’s honor, which is assailed if their women’s modesty is compromised by, say, being seen by someone outside her family. “If a man were to see a woman’s body and face” – a woman’s lips, he said, are similar to her private parts – “the man would be overcome with sexual yearning, which would endanger the woman,” an imam from Sana’a told me last fall. Women in the West don’t wear niqab, which is the reason we have so much rape, he told me. An Islamist member of parliament, Sheikh Ali al-Werafi, likened women to gems, and told me they must be protected from thiefs:  “Wouldn’t you cover up your jewels?”

It should be mentioned here that, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing about the niqab in the Koran. Any mention of women’s dress in the Koran and the accompanying hadiths stipulate only that a woman must dress modestly, according to Ramzia Aleryani, the director of the Women’s Union in Sana, and devout Muslim. Showing her face and hands is fully acceptable.

Most Yemeni women, in my experience in Sanani kitchens, henna shops and salons, have varying opinions on the Niqab Issue.  Some hate it. Others like it, as a public demonstration of their piety. Most have never really thought about wearing or not-wearing it; it’s just what their grandmothers wear, and what their mothers wear and what their friends wear. In Yemen, both Sana’a and the villages around Yemen, almost 90 percent of women wear niqab. Little girls dress up in elastic “training niqabs”; teenage girls take wearing the niqab as a sign of being “grown-up.”

That wasn’t always the case. Women from the former South Yemen didn’t wear the niqab (when it was under British, Socialist, and later, Communist rule). In fact, most women from the South didn’t even start wearing hijab until the ‘90s, when South Yemen unified with the more conservative North Yemen. As a result, lots of Yemeni women who are in their 30s and 40s today grew up dressing in Western-style clothing.

For some, the transition to niqab has been difficult. I spoke to one woman who had gone to a co-ed school in Aden, a port city in Yemen’s south, had male friends, played on sports leagues and wore knee-length skirts (a scandal by today’s standards). Now, she’s clothed in head-to-toe black cloth. She despises it, but said it’s “not worth it” to buck the rules. “If you go out on the street without a niqab, your life is miserable.  People will judge you, your sons, your brothers, your husband. It will bring shame on everyone,” she said. “They will think you’re naughty.”

My friend Faisa Hussein – one of the few Yemeni women with a university education and a job – completely disagreed. She chooses to wear the niqab and is annoyed by Westerners and Western politicians who look at it as a symbol of oppression. I wear [the niqab] because it makes me feel free. When I wear it, I can talk and laugh and eat and smile, and no one looks at me,” she said.  

(And that, of course, brings up an interesting point: Why does she not feel comfortable talking, laughing, eating and smiling in public?)

At any rate, any discussion of the niqab is, of course, a veiled discussion of women’s rights (a horrible pun; apologies). And it shouldn’t be any surprise that women’s rights in Yemen are abysmal. Worse than abysmal. A quarter of all Yemeni girl-children are married before they’re 15 – some as young as 8 or 9 – and half before they’re 18.  Most bear 6.3 children; most never have access to family planning, much less adequate medical care. The majority never learn to read, and those that do – the wealthy, the lucky – still need their brothers’ or fathers’ permission to travel, to enroll in school or to marry, and her testimony is worth only half of a man’s in court. Most spend their lives bearing children. Referring to a woman by name is considered rude in many circles; she is a “wife of” or a “daughter of.”

In that context, Faisa’s right. Western politicians’ obsession with the niqab as a symbol of oppression is annoying – mostly because it dramatically misses the point.  Women in Yemen – indeed, women in much of the Middle East – are up against illiteracy, poverty, domestic abuse, child marriage, honor killings, poor heath care and unequal access to legal representation. Let’s address that, and then worry about what they’re wearing on their faces.

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