Saturday, October 13, 2007

To Burka Or Not To Burka

A few days back, I read an article in Al-ahram called "The Gentlewoman's Club" about the phenomenon of female-only clubs, bars, and beaches in Egypt.

So I started thinking about the burka and remembered when I visited my then-fiance Rachid in Morocco in '89, how I stayed with his uncle and aunt in a 3 story suburban house in Casablanca. During the 7 days that I visited, I ate the most exquisite food: slow roasted, fall-off-the-bone chicken, couscous, with pistachio and cinnamon, steamed artichokes, soft sweet dates, oranges, and rice pudding. Oh, I loved eating with my hands. Without any guidance, I dove right into the culture. Except. I dove in like a guy.

When the men moved out to the patio after dinner for a smoke, I joined them. It's where the conversation moved. Well, it was where Rachid moved, and he was my translator. Plus, I didn't understand the kitchen, and since there were already three grown women in there, I didn't think twice. It never occurred to me that I should volunteer to clean, and, my gracious hosts never suggested otherwise. It's only looking back that I flinch with embarrassment at my naivety.

When Rachid wanted a night out, a drink, I went along. I would never have considered staying home. Plus, we had spent two years living together in Manhattan and romping around the clubs and parties there. Here, the bars were full of men. Occasionally, there was a French woman who also accompanied a man in the establishment, but there were no Arab women. Yet, I felt completely comfortable. I smoked, drank, and argued about politics with the crowd.

Frankly, I didn't feel comfortable with the women of the family although one trip to the public baths proved an eye-opening experience where I saw that a large group of naked, multi-aged women and girls were completely comfortable walking, talking, combing each other's hair, relaxing and playing in the water. Then, my group bathed me. My own mother had stopped bathing me when I was too young to remember. Here, three generations of women set to sudsing down my body as the children dipped cups into the rinsing water and poured them over my head. We all laughed. It was so bonding that I still dream of those women although I haven't seen them in 20 years.

One afternoon, Aunt Zoubida invited me to the market to shop for groceries. Before we left, she held up two burkas for me. She was smiling, asking with her eyes "which one?" I thought the idea of wearing a burka would be like dressing up for Halloween. Fun. And, in a way, it was. Because I did not feel obligated to this dress, I could wear it for an afternoon. So I did.

Shopping in the open-air market was heady--full of sensations: the scent of cinnamon, curry, and cumin competed with the sight of heavy bags full of red, yellow, and brown powders. Colorful burkas for sale waved in the wind. Sandals, wallets, cloth, and oranges were being bought and sold. Aunt Zoubida told me in French that if I wanted something, I should tell her. She worried that the vendors would stiff me. She also seemed to worry about me in general. My sex and my white skin color brought a danger to our group, and this pleased me more than it scared me. I felt exotic, and the burka, for me, completed the feeling in a physical way.

Five months later in France, I had a conversation with Rachid's sisters who were, like me, in their 20s, and they expressed that the burka represented freedom to them. I scoffed at this idea. Even though it had not meant oppression to me, I could not fathom the idea that it might mean freedom. The tension mounted suddenly, and I found myself chock-full of Western superiority. I could not hide it. All three of Rachid's sisters were raised in France, and I could not understand why they didn't side with Western culture on this topic. According to Fouzia, the burka was used to keep ogling-men's eyes from harassing one's physical form.

Since that time almost 20 years ago, I've read and witnessed (via film) the horrors of the Taliban's retribution toward Afghani women who dare to show their skin; I've followed the plight of women in Middle-Eastern countries, studied feminism, read the literary work of female Arabs, and, today, I continue to find the issue of the burka a complex one. Is it freedom or oppression?

It was in this vein, that I read "The Gentlewoman's Club," and remembered the old discussions about "freedom from ogling."

The downside to the burka, in my humble estimation, is not so much the oppression that the women feel, but the rise in sight-obsession that ordinary men feel toward the female body. In the society of the Taliban, even the sight of a wrist could send an otherwise "holy" man shivering with lust. And, frankly, this was a new realization for me: how the burka psychologically affects men, changing them into psychotic, panting, lusting creatures, for which only more burka, more cover, could protect innocent women. Where is the balance? To purge the demon of lust rising in these sight-deprived men, they commit crimes of murder and other atrocities toward women blaming their mere existence for their own depravities. This is the extreme, of course. But fundamentalism, in every culture, exemplifies the extreme.

Any woman who has lived in Manhattan can tell you that the creepiest public ogling comes from the most religiously, socially and sexually-suppressed community: the Hassidic Jewish men who ride the subway cars or pass by on the street.

So the women in Egypt, tired of the male-ogling and lack of public spaces where they can be themselves have begun to demand private, female-only public spaces. Female-only gyms are popping up, as are bars and cafes. Women are saying, "Give us some space so we can be ourselves." They've claimed public beach spaces that are "Female Only" where life guards and security consist of women, where, I read, "lurid dancing competitions" are happening. Remembering the comfort-level and openness I felt among the Moroccan women, I can imagine how much fun they're having. Imagine groups of Western women flocking to Egypt to hang out with the girls!

In support of this movement, I want to say that this IS one way to fight oppression: Leave the superior group to themselves. Create your own world. It's one reason I've always thought that African-American colleges and women-only colleges are an excellent way to blossom without the white-male Western cultural influence that is such an undercurrent in public institutions that it's very difficult to see, resist, rethink or overcome while living, studying and maturing inside of one. It's certainly hard for me, and I've thought a lot about this. It seems I'm more acculturated male than I am female--my Western cultural upbringing is a psychological cloak that I cannot simply disrobe and discard.

Imagine, too, the rise of Middle-Eastern "good-old-girl" clubs where women figure out who they want to run for elections and who should get top jobs.

Maybe that's going in the wrong direction. Maybe it's away from an equal society, but imagine that happening and then, the men demanding equality in society because they're tired of being left out of the girls club! I have to admit, I'd enjoy the irony of that. If this trend continues, I think Middle-Eastern women might find themselves WAY ahead of Western feminists because they chose to separate rather than to join.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Great piece. I've always thought the western knee-jerk reaction to muslim dress was completely ethnocentric (a nice word for biased.) We don't seem to have a problem (at least not that kind) with yarmulkas.