Voices from behind the veil
Women in conservative Islamic societies talk about their lives, and how the West perceives them.
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
Reported by staff writers Nicole Gaouette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Scott Baldauf in Jalalabad, Afghanistan; and special correspondent Haleh Anvari in Tehran, Iran.Skip to next paragraph
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If there is a Western shorthand for Muslim women, it might look like Heba Attieh.
Veiled and cautious about encounters with men outside her Saudi family, she was married at 17 to someone she barely knew. Soon after, she was pregnant with the first of three children. She can't travel in Saudi Arabia without a man's permission, leave the house alone, or drive.
But look again.
Ms. Attieh, tall, slim with an easy sense of humor, is also a doctor at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she works fulltime alongside male colleagues.
She holds a PhD in speech pathology, does community work, and is organizing a group to work on school-curriculum issues and playground development.
"How many Western women do as much?" challenges her sister-in-law, Sahar Abdul Majid.
In these days of tension between Islam and the West, it's a question that resonates with many Muslim women. The US war against Afghanistan's Taliban regime has put Islam front and center in the American consciousness. Some of the most popular news reports are about Afghan women reclaiming their jobs, their studies, and their right to remove the head-to-toe burqa covering.
To many Westerners these moments are ripe with symbolism: In their eyes, the veil reflects Islam's oppression of women. Some commentators have even hailed the liberation of Afghanistan's women. "Muslim women see it in a slightly different light," Attieh wryly observes.
It is too early to tell how events will play out for Afghanistan's women. But the fall of the Taliban leaves just two countries - Saudi Arabia and Iran - that dictate, by law, that women cover themselves. For outsiders who hold that Muslim women need freeing from the shackles of their faith, these would be the countries to turn to next. Most Iranian and Saudi women, though, won't be having any of it. Despite differences of geography, culture, and language, the women of these two countries echo each other's tart appraisals of the West and its view of Muslim women.
They bridle at Western assumptions about the nature of Islam and a woman's place in it. Like their Afghan sisters, these women stress that culture shapes their lives as much as religion and if they have problems, the veil certainly isn't one of them. They want change, but on terms that suit their society. Most of all, they would like Westerners to stop rehashing old clichés about who they are.
"Talk to us, see us," says Attieh in a hospital room brightened with children's drawings. "It's true we may not have many rights. But we deal with the same problems you do - juggling jobs and kids, finding some balance and a place for ourselves. A lot of people here want change, we just have to do it in a way that works with our culture, not against it."
In the lush green courtyard of Shafiqa's family home in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a half-dozen highly educated women are doing what they have done for the past five years: laughing, gossiping, and raising their children.
None of these sisters and cousins - doctors, teachers and professionals - has ventured outside their home in that time. Husbands, brothers, and fathers do the grocery shopping, they say, though not very well.
The Taliban may have left Jalalabad now, replaced by mujahideen guerrillas loosely aligned with the Northern Alliance, but Shafiqa and her relatives say they still will not leave their homes without a veil.
"In our culture, it is necessary to wear a scarf and [long] sleeves," says Shafiqa, a medical-school graduate. Another reason for her caution, she says, is that the new rulers of Jalalabad are just as conservative - and perhaps less law-abiding - than the Taliban.
Few Afghan women forget that the Northern Alliance organized campaigns of rape against women of different ethnic backgrounds before the Taliban took over. "People are not safe because the mujahideen are just like the Taliban," Shafiqa says.