Artist in Yemen

I will be in Sana'a, Yemen, May 27-July 10 2006. I'll be working on my Arabic language skills and painting every day, walking around asking questions about food and gardens and perfume and incense. I'll be studying and living at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies(CALES)in the Old City of Sana'a. Although I usually paint in reverse on glass, in Sana'a I'll be working in watercolor and mixed media on paper.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On Veiling

You can't be a foreign woman here without constantly having to think about, and rethink about, and think again, about veiling. In Sana'a, all the women are completely veiled, head to toe. Sometimes their eyes show, sometimes not. I think veiling is something that the west has fixated on and simplified and used as some kind of symbol for women's oppression in the Middle East. I think it's infinitely more complicated than that. I can't presume to write about what it means to the millions of women who veil, but I can write about what it means to me, and my own experiences with it. I hope whatever I write serves to break down stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

When I first came here, I wore the clothes I bought for the trip at Value Village and St Vincent de Paul: big loose lumpy longsleeved shirts over long shapeless print skirts, with a light scarf over my hair. I also often wore dark sunglasses, and a perfectly composed street face. These are clothes I would not be caught dead in at home, so I bought them to wear here and leave behind when I go back. I felt so frumpy and ugly in them, and keeping a poker face never let me fully relax. I found the look of women on the street so cool and graceful and minimalist, that I went out and bought an abaya (the coverall black gown) and a matching hijab (the black headscarf). They have coordinated black embroidery and black sparkles on the sleeves and the scarf ends. The sleeves of the abaya are long enough to cover my fingetips. I also bought, just as a curiosity, a burka, the full face veil that has an extra layer of black chiffon that can be worn down over the eyes or flipped over the back of the head. I found the burka kind of interesting as a fetish object, but didn't anticipate wearing it.

I started wearing the abaya and hijab out for short trips, and found it extremely convenient. I could roll out of bed and take my time drinking tea until the last possible minute, then throw on the abaya and hijab and dash down to class in my pajamas. I started wearing it more often than not.

My teacher told me about how much she loves to swim in the ocean, that she enjoyed the feeling of floating in the Red her full veil. I see little girls in the alley outside my house, roughhousing, playing soccer, chewing bubble their veils. I loved attending the wedding parties and seeing all those strong energetic women, drumming and dancing and smoking and hollering joyfully at each other. These are reminders that it's not what you wear that defines you, it's who you are and what you do.

I think back to when I lived in Burkina Faso, and I spent afternoons hanging out with my Muslim women friends, many of whom went topless in the afternoon heat. I'm sure they felt sorry for me; I could imagine them saying "Poor Janet. She must be roasting in that shirt, but she comes from a much more conservative culture where they make the women cover up".

So, what makes you comfortable? It just depends on what you're used to, and what the norm is around you.

So, it was only a matter of time before I went ahead and went full burka. Not all the time, just sometimes, the way I started with the abaya and hijab. I felt completely different, and people treated me differently as well. When I wear a burka, Yemenis are much more comfortable with me. Women speak to me on the street. Lots of people give me the thumbs up for it when they find out I'm a foreigner. I get better prices in the suq. It's a relief not to be constantly stared at. Instead, I can stare at everything and everybody to my heart's content without being conspicuous. I'm wearing it more and more, and it's my choice.

I think again and again about the architectural idea of refuge and prospect, how the places we love the most afford us refuge from the world, with an excellent view of it. Like a balcony at the opera, or a window overlooking a busy square. The burka offers me the same. I can see everything, and nobody can see me. It's a private place I take with me wherever I go.

I have been inspired with so many ideas for paintings that have veiled women in them, but felt like I had no business making such images if I did it as a nonparticipating observer--how could I presume to know anything about it? I would just be fueling the stereotype. I don't yet know if I'll be able to make these paintings, but I feel much closer to it now.
I'm comfortable, and I feel much more freedom.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don't go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don't go back to sleep. -Jelaluddin Rumi