|Wadha and me, in her home|
The following is my own personal take on and understanding of the subject of women “covering” in the Middle East, based on observations, discussions, and reading. I am in no way presenting myself as a expert. I’m just reporting on what I have seen and heard since I began living here some 15 months ago.
The concept of covering is anathema to Westerners. Without meaning any disrespect, I must admit that to us, the Arab women gliding around dressed in black abayas with shaylas covering their hair and sometimes their faces remind us of certain symbols in our own culture – Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past or, perhaps, the Grim Reaper. Add to that the idea we have that it’s a way for men to repress and control women.
During my time in the Middle East, I have met and talked with a number of Muslim women, and the subject always comes up. Why do women cover? The answer always boils down to the same thing: personal choice. Usually. Sometimes, they always admit, the decision is influenced by pressure from one or more males in the family.
|Irrepressible young Emiratis|
As I understand it, after the death of his first wife,The Prophet Mohammed took many wives from many tribes, and bade them to cover for their own protection against enemies. That’s how the practice got started, and after The Prophet’s death, it spread. Over the centuries its meaning has shifted, as is the case with cultural and religious practices throughout human history. Recently it’s been taken and used by extremists so that now, for Westerners, it represents repression.
I’d like to share conversations with two women who cover and have helped me understand it a little better. The first is a woman I met as a sub at the American school. She’s Emirati, 35 years old, and a widow with five children, ages 20 to about five. She’s a student at the women’s college at Zayed University, studying to become a social worker in the schools, which is what we might think of as a school counselor. Her name is Wadha. I won’t identify her any more than that, because I want to respect her privacy. Maybe after I get to know her better, I’ll write a story about her, inshallah.
Wadha is the embodiment of what I have come to think of as an Emirati lady – and by the way, the Arab men refer to them as “ladies,” not “women.” She is soft spoken and demure, gracious and graceful, and welcomes my friendship. When I met her in the hallway at school, she was wearing her black abaya and shayla, with her face covered with the niqab, as you see in the photograph above, which she removed once she was inside the classroom when there were just women or children present. However, whenever she ventured out of the classroom she put the niqab back on.
Wadha told me that, when she was observing in a classroom with a male teacher and wearing her niqab, the students who didn’t know her made fun. Many expats in Abu Dhabi, such as the parents and children in the American school, often don’t have much, if any, contact with Emiratis. So there is a cultural divide.
Wadha’s brother was sitting with us as she told me the story about the children laughing at her. He spoke up and said, “I told her not to wear it, just take it off, but she wouldn’t do it.” This surprised me, because I had heard that sometimes it’s the husbands or brothers who insist that their sisters cover. But this obviously isn’t the case with Wadha. So that leaves only one other reason for her to cover. It’s her culture, her custom, how she was raised and what she is comfortable with.That’s it. Nobody is forcing her. She would feel as uncomfortable going out uncovered as I would if I were going out in skimpy or overly tight clothing.
Not all women wear a niqab, which is the black face covering with an opening to see through. Some ladies find it more convenient to just drape their sheer shayla over their face when in public, and other ladies don’t cover their faces at all.
|The birqa is a symbol of beauty|
Wadha told me a story about how she began to wear the niqab. One time, she was out shopping with her family and had thrown her sheer shayla over her face to temporarily cover. She spoke to a strange man about the shopping, thinking he was her husband, and was humiliated when she discovered her mistake. From then on, she has worn the niqab, with its eye opening, which is easier to see through. The other option is the burqa, which is the metal or leather mask worn mostly by older women. Wadha told me that the burqa is a symbol of beauty, and older women like to wear it because it covers bad teeth or aged skin. Before you judge, compare this to Western vanity – our anti-aging beauty treatments include Botox injections and surgery, the effects of which sometimes resemble a mask! Wadha doesn’t like to wear the birqa because it’s not comfortable – to hot and sweaty.
(The burqa is not to be confused with the burka that women in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan wear, which drapes from the head to the feet with only a small space directly in front of the eyes to see through.)
|Cindy and me at the Emirates Palace Theater|
My friend Cindy is American, and has been married to an Emirati for 30 years. Cindy is a Muslim, having converted about a year after she and Mohammed married. Cindy wears the abaya in public, and she covers her hair with a shayla but she never covers her face. Not all ladies cover their hair completely these days but Cindy does, even though she is sometimes asked why. She’s been told by other Arab ladies that it’s “the old way.”
To Cindy, wearing the shayla or hijab to cover her hair is a symbol of her Islamic faith and her solidarity with her husband. “I don’t do anything halfway,” she told me. “I don’t understand these girls who only cover their hair partway. You either do it the way or not at all. Why don’t they just take it off, then?” And she also said, “I kind of like it that Mohammed is the only (man) who gets to see my hair. And, you know,” she said happily, “I think it’s as soft as it is because it’s been protected for all these years.”
So there you have it. I have seen their world through their eyes, and I understand. Not that I have any inclination to cover myself. I am thoroughly Western. In fact, Wadha’s story of the encounter at the store reminded me that the exact thing happened to me just a couple of weeks ago, just because I was not paying attention. “Oops,” I apologized to the man. “Sorry, I thought you were my husband!” A little internal cringe, and it was over.