Stories from Afar & Up Close

To headscarf or not to headscarf

- or: what to wear when in Yemen. 

Almost all men here wear either a futah (a wrap-around skirt) or a long white dress with a dark jacket over it, with a beautifully decorated belt that holds their jambiyah (dagger) and a scarf wrapped around the top of their head or on their shoulders. Almost all women here wear black from head to toe, including a small black veil that covers their face except for the eyes. I wear something completely different: loose pants and an oversized shirt almost to my knees. My shape is covered, my elbows are covered, my neck is covered – but not my face, nor my wrists, nor my hair.

The other day, as I was wandering around the Old City of Sana'a, I caught two little girls staring at me. As I came closer, I heard them debating whether I was a man or a woman.

                "Is that a woman? Look at her face."

                "No, no veil – must be a man."

                "Yes, and pants. Definitely a man."

When I passed the stoop they were sitting on, they saw my pony tail. "A woman!" one of them screamed out, after which they both burst into laughter.

At Dar el Hajjar, this family (like many others) insisted that my friend take pictures of their children.

Some people may find it disrespectful that I don't cover up more, or they may think 'why not' – when in Rome, do as the Romans do. However, Yemeni law does not require women to cover their hair or wear a (black) abaya, so it would make me feel like a hypocrite for following traditions (Yemeni or Islamic) that are not my own, especially after having been here for only one week. I don't mind standing out, for now. It also gives me a special position in society that in anthropological circles is known as the 'honorary male' – a woman who is so clearly different that she is not seen as part of the female world, and therefore allowed with the men. It makes it possible, for example, for the men to invite me into the wedding tent and chew qat with them, something a Yemeni woman would most likely never do. As a Yemeni anthropologist I met pointed out: once I start wearing 'women's clothes' (Yemeni women's clothes, of course), I will most likely lose this position and be expected to behave like women here do.

Maybe what I am doing is not fair to the women here. Just because I am a foreigner, I can walk around bareheaded, sit with the men when having lunch in a restaurant (for as many women I have seen on the street, I have hardly seen any in restaurants), and generally disregard the fact that there are very few women out and about after sunset. On the other hand, a Yemeni friend told me that some of his female friends here don't wear a headscarf and get to behave the same way – and that is probably because it is so rare for a Yemeni woman not to wear a veil that it is automatically assumed she is a foreigner if she doesn't cover her head.

At Dar al Hajjar, these girls wanted to take pictures of us. We said yes, but only if we'd get one of them too. We did. 

One more story: an Irish journalist I met recently used to wear pants and a shirt in the first few years she was here. To make matters more confusing, she has short hair, boyishly short. Because here men often hold hands while walking, it happened to her once during the revolution that an old man (presumably with bad eyesight), who had consistently addressed her as a man, took her hand to walk her across the square. She didn't know what to do: tell him she is female, leaving him with the problem of having touched a strange woman? Or not tell him, and hope he wouldn't find out from the stares and comments of the other people who did see she was a woman? She's been wearing an abaya and black veil ever since…