written by Mira Baz
“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?
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?
Mira Baz is a Lebanese writer and traveler who lived in Yemen for over eight years between 2001 and 2011, teaching English, writing about various social and cultural topics, and photographing Yemenis in their daily lives. Being a woman and speaking Lebanese Arabic as her native language helped her get to know the country, the people and the women’s segregated world in depth.