An Appeal to the West: Who Is Hidden beneath the Burqa?

Analysis, posted 06.06.2011, from Palestinian Territory, in:
An Appeal to the West: Who Is Hidden beneath the Burqa? (Photo: AP)

As a child I would never have thought that the piece of cloth my mother stopped wearing on her head would one day return to us in another form – more ugly and terrible than ever; that it would return in the form of a woman veiled from head to foot with just two eyes or dark glasses visible, and with white or black gloves on her hands – just like a ghost this woman, nothing but a pillar moving like a black shadow.

The headscarf my mother abandoned was a piece of transparent material, black in colour, loosely covering her face and hair without being knotted, tied, or pulled tightly together. It lay so loosely on her head that seeing and breathing were not impeded. Apart from that her clothing consisted of a modest skirt or dress reaching to her knees and a short jacket emphasising her chest and waistline – thus greatly contrasting with what today is considered Islamic apparel, which makes a woman's body look like a long shapeless sack as if it were a piece of black wood or a column of smoke.

Subsequently my mother also stopped wearing the jacket and wore either a costume or a short-sleeved dress and followed the fashion of the day, whether in her short hairstyle or in the colour and cut of her clothes. She behaved just like other middle-class women in the Arab world, but also like the less fortunate in cities and smaller towns. It was only village peasants who continued to wear traditional clothing, similar to what the Virgin Mary had worn two thousand years previously.

My mother renounced the headscarf immediately after Israel occupied most of Palestine in 1948. This occupation brought about a political and economic catastrophe, accompanied by social upheavals that did away with many values and long-established traditions, including the headscarf and restrictions on women's freedom of movement on the street, in school, and at work.

 This catastrophe directly affected women, since the declining economic situation resulted in thousands of families – which had lost their homeland, their houses, their land, and many of their men in war – being forced to take women out of the domestic environment and send them out to work or allow them to study. This qualification allowed women to work in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, thereby feeding their families or paying for their brothers and sisters to study to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, and the like.

All of a sudden we witnessed how innumerable educated Palestinian girls travelled abroad without a headscarf, living there on their own, modestly, and unmarried (as I described Nahla's situation in my novel The Legacy), but highly esteemed by their families and society because they had become breadwinners for families with low incomes. As time passed it was not just accepted but even welcomed that these young women financed their younger sisters' studies at Arab universities (in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon), enabling them to bring home diplomas in medicine, pharmacy, engineering, law, and other subjects.

These young women, now trained and pursuing a recognised job, were educated, courageous and open to the world, and they launched a wave of feminist and social emancipation even though our knowledge of the feminist movement and feminist thinking was limited to what a number of precursors such as Amîna al-Sa'îd, Suhair al-Qalamâwî and Darija Shafîq had written in Egyptian newspapers, with articles that did not go beyond such relatively lightweight themes as family planning, early marriage, polygamy, and suchlike.

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