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LA Times: At a Yemen bridal shower, the women let loose

April 12, 2010

A woman wearing a niqab and robe passes a shop displaying a less modest outfit in Sana, Yemen's capital. The niqab face covering has become a symbol for the lack of women's rights in the Islamic world. (Paul Stephens / For The Times)

April 12, 2010

Reporting from Sana, Yemen

Every woman at the bridal shower was drenched in color. One wore a lime green strapless gown with turquoise sequins; another a violet leopard-print caftan with scarlet lace; another a yellow, gold-beaded chemise with a neckline that would have made J-Lo blush.

Was this Yemen, or a strange mirage?

“Really, it is very bad,” said Samira Taher, one of the women at the shower. “If you see me in Egypt, I am always wearing the latest fashion, I have my hair in a new design, and I am wearing makeup, but here, I am wrapped in black. If a Yemeni woman wears what she wants, it is a scandal.”

In a country where the only women most visitors see are silent, demure and almost universally cloaked in a long black robe, their faces hidden behind the niqab, the bridal shower was like a hothouse of blooming flowers.

The niqab has become so ubiquitous in Sana, the capital, that some little girls wear training niqabs, just as little girls in America shuffle around in their mothers’ high heels, pretending they’re all grown up.

But follow the voices and the click of heels beyond closed doors to a parallel reality without men, a brief, sweet moment to peel back layers and slip cultural trappings.

At the shower, the disencumbered women split their time sneaking bites of chocolate cake with a shared fork, howling with laughter and dancing to loud music — sequin-emblazoned hips and shoulders shimmying in time with mincing steps.

When the music was over and the bridal plates were cleared, the re-bundling began.

The niqab, with its unrelenting blackness broken only by a narrow slit for the eyes, has become a symbol for the lack of women’s rights in the Islamic world, and in Yemen, it has become a point of contention between conservative sheiks and Yemeni politicians on the one hand, and westernized Yemenis and Yemeni women’s rights activists on the other.

“I am a Muslim. I pray, I fast, I follow what is in the Koran,” said Ramzia Aleryani, head of the Yemeni Women’s Union in Sana. “[The niqab] is not in the Koran. There is nothing Islamic about it — there is nothing in the Koran that says a woman must cover her face.”

Aleryani arms herself and her visitors with photocopied packets of Koranic passages and the prophet Muhammad’s sayings defending women’s rights. She says the niqab was imported to Yemen by Salafists, followers of an ultraconservative sect of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.

Thirty years ago, many Yemeni women wore traditional dresses or Western attire, and shared meals with men. The current vice governor of the southern port city of Aden said his mother used to walk around “in a miniskirt.”

To accept the niqab, Aleryani said, would be to accept many more often intolerant and regressive edicts.

“We are at war with the Salafists,” she said, unblinkingly. “It us versus them.”

Salafists and conservative political groups in Sana have in the last two decades gained an extraordinary amount of power in government and society. In the last few years, Salafists have threatened the Yemeni Women’s Union, left menacing phone messages for its leaders and published pamphlets decrying it as an anti-Muslim organization.

“Our women are cared for, respected and protected according to the Koran,” said Sheik Ali Werafi, a Salafist and a conservative member of parliament. “We cover them up to protect them. They have everything they need. The world comes to them. We do not need Western ideas imposed on our culture.”

A 2009 World Economic Forum report on gender equality lists Yemen for the fourth year in a row as the worst country to be a woman. Many girls are married when they are between 12 and 16 — some as young as 8 or 9 — to men they’ve never met. Afterward, they bear an average of 5.3 children. Outside the home, a woman is referred to as the “wife of” or the “mother of” — to do otherwise is often considered rude.

At the bridal shower, opinions were mixed. Faisa Hussein, one of the few women in Yemen with a university education, said Western countries fixate needlessly on the niqab.

“You,” Hussein said in an apparent reference to Western women, “hate us for wearing it. But I wear it because it makes me feel free. When I wear it, I can talk and laugh and eat and smile, and no one looks at me.

“I choose to wear it,” she said, wrinkling her nose, tanned in a strip across the bridge — the only part of her face ever exposed to the sun. “It is my choice.”

Hussein’s daughter, Shatha Alamory, who spent a year as a high school exchange student in Texas, nearly spit with rage at her mother’s response: “She’s right. Yemeni women cannot talk, laugh, eat or smile in public, or people will stare at them.”

Unlike her mother and sisters, 19-year-old Shatha refuses to hide her face. She wears a long black robe with a colorful head scarf instead, even though it means men in the street sometimes call her names. “They think I’m a ‘bad girl,’ ” she said. “I’m not.”

At the end of the night, the shower women gathered by the living room door, pulled on their robes and niqabs over their fuchsia, turquoise and lime green dresses, and said goodbye, their loud voices muffled by fabric.

Edwards is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    April 15, 2010 3:30 am

    Great photo! It really captures the contrast! It’s neat to get the inside scoop as well– great article!

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