Voices from behind the veil

Women in conservative Islamic societies talk about their lives, and how the West perceives them.

Reported by staff writers Nicole Gaouette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Scott Baldauf in Jalalabad, Afghanistan; and special correspondent Haleh Anvari in Tehran, Iran.

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.

In some places, the departure of the Taliban means a return to freedoms that Afghan women enjoyed before - to work, study, and move at will. In more traditional areas, where most of Afghanistan's 25 million people live, the change is more modest, as ancient customs replace strict Taliban laws.

In the cool shade of a tree, a farmer named Sher Jan and his wife, Rahmona, reflect on their lives since the Taliban's departure. They get sidetracked easily by gentle differences of opinion. She corrects him when he says they have three children. ("Yes, we have three boys, but we also have four girls," she says.) And he corrects her on her age. ("Forty," she says. "Fifty," he says.)

But on one subject, the couple speaks in harmony. The Taliban were enforcing Islamic laws that most Muslims already obeyed. "To wear a burqa, this is the instruction of the holy Prophet Muhammad and they made it obligatory, as if almighty God said it," says Sher Jan. The Taliban had good intentions and made the city safe for women, says Rahmona, but occasionally, out of zealotry, the Taliban themselves became harassers.

"One day, I was forced to get down by the Taliban from a bullock cart," she recalls. Reflexively, she pulls her black scarf across her face in the presence of a male stranger. "They told me, you should wear the burqa. I told them, I'm too old to wear a burqa. Eventually, they let me go."

It is midnight in Jeddah, and in Neda Hariri's plush living room the conversation is just picking up steam. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast all day and socialize late into the night, and Attieh has come to visit her niece and sister-in-law.

Out of her hospital whites, Attieh is coolly elegant in a gray linen suit. Ms. Hariri, newly married and pregnant, is still slender in a silk tank top and skirt. As she hands around cake and sweets, her mother whispers hostessing advice.

But when talk turns to Afghanistan, tips on serving implements are forgotten as the women start discussing Western reports on Afghan women and the veil. "You have to understand that most of these [Afghan] women want to cover their head," interjects Attieh. "They have no malls, no Internet, there is just religion. The veil is a symbol of faith, a form of protection, like a second skin."

Hariri complains about first lady Laura Bush's radio address last month on Afghan women, arguing that it was meant to provide the US with an excuse to keep bombing. "It's not for women in the US to say Afghan women are oppressed and should take off the veil," she says. "If an Afghan woman is upset about her situation, she should change it, not you."

History gives her good reason to be suspicious. European nations often used Muslim women to justify their intrusions into Islamic countries. In the late 1800s, the English envoy Evelyn Baring urged his superiors to colonize Egypt, arguing they could do so on behalf of the country's downtrodden women. At the time, Baring sat on a committee bent on denying English women the vote.

French charities in late 19th-century Algeria would dispense free oil and flour to the poor, but only if they removed their veils. "[Mrs. Bush's] speech resonates so much with this earlier use of women as a reason to interfere in internal affairs," observes Barbara Petzen, the Outreach Coordinator at The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Before Sept. 11, there wasn't much Western interest in Afghan women. The Islamic world was much more vocal about Taliban practices."

The misgivings aren't confined to Hariri's living room. Iran Aflatouni, a retired computer programmer in Tehran, doubts the West's understanding of Afghan women. "Even if women are liberated from Taliban rule, they have a culture that does not accept women as equals to men," she says.

Iranians have their own reasons to distrust Western interference. The US toppled a democratically elected Iranian government in the 1950s to put the shah in power. Iranians endured the shah's brutal secret police and while he instituted changes for women, his attempt to graft Western-style reforms onto Iranian culture wasn't a success.

So many families felt Iranian society was immoral that some experts estimate that up to 50 percent of young women were kept from university. For these women, the 1979 Islamic revolution was a liberation. They could study, work and become a public force. Women now take 60 percent of university places.

Today, Iran's hardline Islamic clerics present a stumbling block for women as they vigorously block attempts at political and social reform. Crackdowns on women's dress often represent the clerics' resistance to larger kinds of social change. In Saudi Arabia, too, religious conservatives make women a scapegoat when fighting off change of any kind.

Despite the obstacles thrown up in the name of religion, many Iranians still see the revolution as a blessing.

"People from the outside, when they look at us, they just see the small percentage like me who have gone under the [veil]," says Negar Eskandarfar, the publisher of a Tehran literary magazine. "They don't see that huge percentage who have come out into society from inside their houses, from the back rooms, from illiteracy."

The Western preoccupation with the veil puzzles many women. "Iranian women have far more important issues than the veil," says Aflatouni. "Our laws are backward."

Courts deny Iranian women child custody after divorce, which men get more easily. Women are considered half a witness and are entitled to only half what their male siblings inherit. They need a male guardian's permission to travel abroad and must cope with the basij, the morality police who enforce proper Islamic behavior and dress.

Saudi women have their own religious police and similar legal hurdles, but in both countries women are working the gap between law and attitude.

In Iran, this is most colorfully expressed through clothing. Since the revolution, women's clothing has cycled through political as well as fashion seasons. Women test the political boundaries by shortening their coats, letting more hair show under their scarves and dusting their faces with a light bloom of makeup. After government crackdowns, coats get longer, and hair is carefully tucked away.

Saudi women have even less flexibility with dress, so challenges to the status quo are less visible. But there are middle-class women who presage change and Nadia Baeshen is one of them. She runs her own Jeddah-based consulting company, heads the women's business department at a local university and teaches at two women's colleges.

"There are certain rules you have to follow, but once you're out there, you're out there," she says. "Just don't defy the system and no one cares what you do." Seated in her office in black jeans and a funky black-and-white jacket, Ms. Baeshen projects a sharp intelligence. She dismisses travel permits as a technicality, doesn't bother with all-women banks and says her gender is a plus.

"My American friends don't believe it, but being a woman in my culture is very advantageous," she says. "In the men's bank, everyone lets me go to the front of the line. People give women some leeway and lots of respect."

She sees a silver lining in the ban on women driving. Like most women of means, she uses a driver, most of whom come from abroad to work for a few hundred dollars a month. "I do all my phone calls, set up appointments and I don't have to worry about parking," Baeshen says. "Is that so bad by American standards?"

She doesn't say how she deals with the requirement that women appoint a male proxy to conduct their business in the public arena, at government offices for instance. But some women pay a man to fill the role on paper, then take care of public business themselves.

Women without Baeshen's means may have a harder time, but change is filtering down the socioeconomic ladder, says Abubaker A. Bagader, a sociology professor at Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz University. Travel, satellite TV, and the Internet provide some impetus for change, but much of it comes from within, he says.

While Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthiest Muslim nations, it has one of the lowest female labor rates in the Middle East. It's literacy rate among women lags behind Egypt, Algeria, and Libya. But Saudi Arabia has also undergone a huge rural-urban shift. Sixty percent of the population is now under age 20, and live in nuclear families. As attitudes change, more women are being educated. In a 1990 survey, Mr. Bagader found 80 percent of men wanted a college-educated wife, up from just over 50 percent in 1979. Very slowly, more women are working - out of necessity as much as by choice - as a lackluster economy squeezes incomes.

Fatin Bundagji, director of Women's Training Programs at Jeddah's Chamber of Commerce, helps women polish their skills for the job market, but with so few places available it can be discouraging work. "A friend of mine at a government office has 90,000 women's resumes," she says. "Where are these women now? Where do girls go when they graduate? Nowhere. And I'm educating them even further to go nowhere. It really saddens me."

It is almost 2 a.m. and the discussion in Neda Hariri's living room is still going strong. Her mother, Mrs. Abdul Majid, is complaining about the requirement that women get male permission to travel. "Some [Islamic] scholars say no, you don't need it," she fumes. "I think it's just wrong."

When Saudi women talk about restrictions that chafe, they sometimes point out that the Islamic basis for the rule is debatable if not invisible. More often than not they point to culture as the impediment to being more politically active or more mobile.

Attieh says the answer lies in creating change within the culture. And if women are stereotypically confined to the spheres of home, children, and schooling, she says that can be a strength. "There is great potential for change and social power there," she says. "Cultural rules change with time. Just look at your mother's life and your own."

Some, though not many, say Attieh has a silent partner in the government. In Jeddah, it has backed the recent creation of two new women's colleges and set up a national employment and training project. And it recently began issuing Saudi women their own identification card, instead of a paper that only identified them by their male guardian. Some women see this as a step toward allowing women to drive. "The government is on the side of women," insists a male media analyst. "But it's held captive to the [religious conservatives]."

A crackdown on Saudi women followed the Gulf War, when critics say the government moved to appease religious conservatives angry about the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil. Some worry that this may happen again, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the US and its subsequent war on Afghanistan.

But even so, women and analysts say change is simply a matter of time. Iran's women have voting power. And like Iranians, Saudi women are becoming increasingly well educated, a point observers stress strongly. "Watch what educated Muslim women do," says Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, an American writer and filmmaker who focuses on Middle Eastern women and the family. "They will be a force to be reckoned with."

Hariri who dropped her university studies when she got pregnant, plans to go back one day. Looking ahead to her long-term hopes and goals, she starts thinking aloud, her kohl-rimmed eyes fixed in the distance. More freedom, she says, the ability to drive and choose a profession, the chance to vote and be politically active. "Because I'm a human being and I should have my freedom," she says, snapping back into focus. "Especially from my husband's family," she adds, and the room around her echoes her laugh.

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