Women Veiled to Western Eyes

One of the most common stereotypes associated with the Middle East is the oppression of women, and the requirement of veiling the women...especially the face. Many of my friends have asked me questions regarding the veil, and I feel it necessary to take the time to debunk some common misconceptions.

Misconception: Veiling of the Face is an Islamic Requirement

This is untrue. My evidence for this comes from having read the Qu'ran, spoken to Muslim women and from my very own personal experience. In the Qu'ran it states that women should wear a 'hijaab' literally a talisman to ward the unwanted attention and gazes of onlooking men. However, this is often a choice by the woman, and depending on which culture she comes from. For instance in Egypt, many Muslim women from upper-class society do not wear the headscarf as a status symbol, whereas the lower-classes often will have their girls wearing the headscarf at all times.
However, the veiling of the face (wearing naqqab) is an ancient tribal practice. During the Byzantine era this was done to show a sign of prestige. In Yemen and Saudia Arabia this is practiced because of century old tribal practices that have been in existance until today. Interestingly enough, in the southern port town of Aden, women often choose not to wear the face veil and this is fine. Up until the unification of north and south Yemen women were free in Aden to wear western dress. However, post-unification the influence of the north filtered into the south and more and more cultural practices were introduced including the full veiling of women.

Interestingly enough, a recent study done on the rate of lung cancer in Yemen found that the rate in women to be much lower than that of the men. This undoubtedly must be due to the covering of the nose and mouth, serving as a filter.

I myself wore naqqab in Yemen on several occasions, this being by choice. Often it was while traveling providing me much flexibility. Oddly enough, even with my face covered up, people still knew I was a foreigner, at least they did when my eyes where showing. The experience from behind the veil as interesting as attention was immediately taken off of me...I blended in and was able to stare at crazy tribesman without fear of being detected. It was kind of a power trip as I was able to peer out and stare at everyone, but no one was allowed to see me.

Granted I did this by choice...if I were to have to wear it by force I would not enjoy it.

Misconception: A Foreign Woman must always wear a headscarf and be covered in Arab Countries

Saudia Arabia is a country whose cultural rules and regulations are criticized not only by the west, but by the other Arab countries as well. Saudia women are required by law to be fully covered. While a western woman is not required to wear a face veil, she must by law have her hair covered along with everthing to her wrists and feet.

Fundamental Islamists will be seen wearing full covering, including gloves and socks...but mind you this is a cultural and personal choice. Not Islamic.
I wore abeya (big black choir dress) from the day I arrived in Yemen. This was by no means required of me...I chose to do it. As a result I found people to respect me more and in all honesty I feel it only to be polite to wear it. This was the Yemeni culture, I was a guest; therefore, I wore it. I sometimes wore the veil as shown in the picture below, this was done when I was in areas that no other foreigner normally ventured. Also, I took on an identity as a Palestinian when wearing the veil, not by choice, rather people just asked me if I was Palestinian...strange. It all proved to be interesting conversation in the end.

Misconception: Muslim Women have no Choice, only to cover
As I wrote before, Saudia Arabia is the only country that requires women to cover. Depending on the religion and culture of the society of which a woman lives is a determiner for whether or not she will cover.

I have been told by many women that they choose to cover because of the harrassment that receive from men. While Arab men can be very respectful towards foreigners, it can often be the complete opposite towards an Arab woman. However, this all depends of the country and culture. For example, I have friends who live in Yemen, who wear full headscarf, abeya and naqqab; however, when they travel abroad they often shed all of these coverings. One of my friends is Syrian-Yemeni, while in Yemen she wears abeya and headscarf. But, when she travels to Syria she wears no coverings and goes around in short skirts with her hair flying blowing in the wind.

Before passing judgments on a country...it's religion and culture...be wary that there is indeed a difference between religion and culture. Practices in the Middle East are not all from Islam, they are learned behaviors deep rooted in the regions culture and history.

The Quest for the Ark

Following my Ramadan term in Sana'a, Yemen, I chose to leave for a couple weeks and travel to Ethiopia with a fellow teacher at the MALI Institute.
Our mission was a mix of naivity and idealism spurned by our love of Indiana Jones's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our plan? To indeed find the Ark of the Covenant, that treasured relic which is now guarded by one elderly priest in a small church in northern Ethiopia called Axsum.
The quest began in Ethiopia's high-altitude capital of Addis Ababa. We were greeted by my friend and his Ethiopian girlfriend who put us up in a house while staying in the capital. Ethiopia is striking in its history. It is home to history's cradle of civilization with it having Lucy (Dikenish), the thought-to-be grandmother of us all.

Ethiopia was ruled by a king named Halle Salase, who after visiting Jamaica shortly after a drought was then regarded as being sent by God; hence, Rastafarian worshiping was born. The religion that uses marijuana smoking to bring one closer with God and has us all supporting 'one love' as Bob Marley so often did. Obviously the bus driver who took the time and effort to make this shrine to both the great BM and JC thought so...

The best part is the hay that is layed on the floor of the bus!
Following Addis, we traveled by bus to the north, stopping in Bahar Dar which sits on a Lake that is home to many hippos, and monastaries which one was rumored to have housed the the Ark in the past. Unfortunately many did not allow woman to enter.
African bus rides are quite the experience, having to wake in the early morning hours to fight your way on to a bus. We did just this, and for some unbeknownst reason to us, our driver decided not to go to the destination as he originally had said. But no worries...we found alternate modes of transportation.

For the next few days my friend and I found ourselves the target of load of unwanted attention from the rather friskey Bahar Dar men. One of which had learned English from the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in the area and referred to himself as 'punta'...which in Spanish translates into whore. This pretty much sums up what his personality was like.

One night we were in the culture house where we were entertained by loads of Ethiopians with beer, music and impromptu poetry...all in Amharic (language of Ethiopia) which made it quite difficult when they chose you to recite the poems about. Not sure what is worse, knowing the insults and jokes or being ignorant. I'm going with the latter.

One of the entertainers took a liking to me, despite our not speaking the same language and offered to ride with my friend an I to the next town up of Gondor--no, this is not the same as Lord of the Rings. While both of us were not a fan of Gondor and the number of totes, which humorously have names like Bob and Johnny, it was part of the quest for the Ark. Gondor is home to a church which had a room built for the Ark. Interestingly enough, it also has the only visual depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.

After spending time in a hotel which undoubtedly was in need of flea bombing, we literally ran to the bus station to get out of Gondor. Unfortunately we took a bus with a driving 'trainee', what should have been a 10 hour bus ride turned into a 13 hour drive, arriving in a transit point a half hour after the last mini-bus left for Axsum, our northern most destination and where the Ark is currently located...or at least rumored to be. Our transit was in place called Shire, which oddly enough was name from Lord of the Rings, however it is safe to say that any hobbit would be suicidal after any substanial time in this place. After the local mafia of the town tried to rob, an attempted escape on the top of freight truck and many other mishaps, I along with several other traveleres had to bite the bullet and spend the night in the dreaded Shire. Our thoughts through it all was that it would all be part of the quest.

The next morning we again faced the mafia, however were successful this time in having bypassed their futile attempts and finally arrive in Axsum. However, one very VERY important fact seemed to be overlooked through it all...

The St. Mary of Zion Church which is pictured here, the home and resting place for the Ark, is forbidden for women to enter. Apparently, centuries before a woman entered the church and tried to set fire to the place and they are still bitter. Also, the Ark is guarded by a 70 something year old priest. This man and the rumor that you'll burst into flames just by looking at the Ark is apparently enough to keep you from trying to see it. That, and the rumor that the Ark sits underneath the ground and the passageway is rigged with bombs should anyone but its guardian enter its territory...well, I guess it is meant to be kept hidden from public eye. There are annual parades where a replica is marched through the town, but not the actual relic.

We seemed to get over this shocking fact rather quickly. Following Axsum we flew to Lalibela, an isolated town in the mountains of Ethiopia and up until 1955 was undiscovered. It is home to 11 rock-hewn churches and has been said that it were not located in Ethiopia it would be considered one of the wonders of the world. Indeed it is. Legend goes that King Lalibela visited the Kingdom of Heavenin a dream, then built it on earth. It is also thought to be a replica of Jersalem and many pilgrims migrate towards Lalibela during the Christmas season each year. The churches are ENOURMOUS and it is rumored that no human could make them, therefore they must have been hewn by angels or God. A highlight of the visit including witnessing indeed a church servic in gees...an ancient language. With the chanting and swaying of the people in the dimly let incensed church...it could have been something from centuries ago.

Unfortunately, I poisoned both myself and poor Kuki with flea spray due to a flea scare in our hotel on our final day in Lalibela. But no worries, as we ended up waiting for endless hours in the airport. We then returned to Sana'a.

The quest for the Ark was a let down...however there is always hope for the Grail...