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A Yemeniya’s Response to Mona Eltahawy

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*For the record, although not a niqabi myself I am tremendously proud of the amazing women of Yemen—all of them, niqabis included. I am thus compelled to respond.

As the international media is captivated by images of thousands of veiled women protesters in the cities of Yemen, their ‘visibility’ and ‘participation’ is increasingly obvious. Indeed, they were too visible that politically bankrupt Saleh was compelled to resort to religious sensitivities by criticizing the mingling of sexes at Change Square. In defiance media coverage intensified as thousands of Yemeni women poured out of their homes, most clad in black Islamic dress and full face veils declaring their roles in the protests as religiously sound. They added their voices to raise the volume to a ‘roar’ demanding the ouster of Saleh. Saleh’s fatwa was followed by the kidnapping of four female physicians whose valor in the face of their kidnappers, and insistence on continuing the quest to ouster the regime made headlines. Meanwhile, Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab Muslim issues Mona Eltahawy and the Muslim feminists she speaks for, claims they are “absolutely horrified by the Niqab.” In an appearance on Newsnight to discuss the Niqab ban in France Eltahawy says,

If you speak to all the Muslim feminists I know, they will say that they are absolutely horrified by the Niqab. The Niqab is not empowering. The Niqab is dehumanizing. . . In 1923 in Egypt, the Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’rawi removed the face veil and said this is a thing of the past. [Newsnight]

Who is Huda Sha’rawi? And seriously, when 1923? Mona Eltahawy’s is referring to an event in May of 1923, when Huda Sha’rawi and her protégée Saiza Nabarawi who were delegates from the Egyptian Feminist Union [EFU] to the International Women’s Alliance in Rome, removed their veils as they stepped off the train in Cairo. It was a symbolic act of ‘emancipation’ that was influenced by Sha’rawi’s readings of her friend and mentor, the Frenchwomen Eugenie Le Brun. Le Brun conveyed to her the belief that “the veil stood in the way of their [i.e. Egyptian women’s] advancement.”[1] Henceforth, Sha’rawi acted as the liaison between Western feminists and “Arab” feminists of the upper and upper-middle class. She imported western feminist ideas valorizing the western, in this case the European, as more advanced and “civilized” over the native who had to abandon its religion, customs, and dress; and if unwilling then at least reform its religion and habits according to the recommended imported guidelines. This was justified by a genuine concern to civilize Arab societies, and save women from a horrendous culture and religion they had been born into. Huda Sha’rawi’s version of Arab feminism isolated indigenous women who believed they possessed both the mental faculties and background that endowed them with a sense of their right to autonomy, and the right to follow their own sense of what was morally correct.

Eltahawy, I would argue, is a cross between Huda Sha’rawi and Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah. Ataturk denounced the veil because it made Turkish men appear uncivilized as he explicitly says in one of his speeches,

In some places I have seen women who put a piece of cloth of towel or something like that over their heads to hide their faces, and who turn their backs or huddle themselves on the ground when a man passes by. What are the meaning and sense of this behavior? Gentleman, can the mothers and daughters of a civilized nation adopt this strange manner, this barbarous posture? It is a spectacle that makes the nation an object of ridicule. It must be remedied at once. [2]

Reza Shah issued a proclamation in the 1920’s banning the veil in attempts to adopt western reform by ridding the country of the “symbol of backwardness” [3].  Likewise, Eltahaway claims she wants to extend the Niqab ban across the world. Her goal takes me back to an attempt in 2002 by the French School in Sana’a to prohibit Yemeni girls from wearing the headscarf to school. Yemenis were enraged. Yemeni officials pointed out that the application of French law violated the terms of the French school’s license as obtained from the Ministry of Education of Yemen that required that the school operate within Yemeni territory and its laws and not outside thereof. Yemen’s National Organization accused the school administration and the French Cultural Attache in Yemen of erroneous application of the Education Act, which ruled that the French and the French heads of educational institutions reconcile the demands of pluralism, which takes into account the nature of the societies in which there are freedom of religious belief. So, in my mind it is not strange that some of her critics accuse her of having a neo-colonial agenda for post-revolution Arab and Muslim feminism.

Furthermore, if one were to conduct a simple survey among young Muslim veiled women today, whether in Yemen or around the world, and ask them about Huda Sha’rawi and her legacy the most likely answer will be, “Who? Ask my mother, or grandmother.” If anything, Eltahwy’s response shows just how distant and removed she is from the reality of the Muslim women whom she claims she represents and speaks for. Certainly her theory of the prevalence of the niqab among the new generation of Muslims may exist, but definitely not the only and prevalent one she makes it out to be. Take Yemen for instance, where women wear it for a variety of reasons the most popular being: religious conviction, cultural habit, family pressure, and personal choice. Actually, Yemeni women have been veiled before Yemen was synonymous with Al Qaeda, or before it became as Mona El Tahawy says in her article in the Toronto Star “Revolutionary Woman vs. Burqa Woman” “the poorest country in the Arab world where Al Qaeda does have a presence.” With over a billion Muslims in the world from Europe, North and South America, Indonesia through South Asia to the Arab World, it would be naïve and unscholarly for any generalization about the current status of Muslim women to be applied to such diverse cultural situations. Hence, Newsnight host Kirsty Wark politely points to the inadequacy of Eltahawy summoning up the ghosts of Sha’rawi’s feminism in an attempt to bring the debate back to reality:

But the question, surely, is not whether there are feminist reasons for wearing the veil or not. It is ‘why is wearing the veil becoming more prevalent rather than less prevalent’? [Newsnight ]

In response Eltahawy spins her conspiracy theory,

I think it has become more prevalent because the space has been left completely uncontested to the Muslim right wing which does not respect anyone’s rights whatsoever except for this one right to cover a woman’s face. [Newsnight]

I noticed these early symptoms of Eltahawy’s tug-o-war with the Muslim right wing, and nostalgic obsession with women unveiling in public in her article “Revolutionary Woman vs. Burqa Woman”. She proceeds to tell us to,

Look no further than Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world where Al Qaeda does have a presence. The truly “Majestic Woman” is Tawakul Karaman. Dubbed one of Time magazine’s “16 of History’s Most Rebellious Women,” she was the first Yemeni female journalist to remove her face veil on the job. As chair of Women Journalists without Chains, she defends human rights and freedom of expression and has been protesting outside of Sanaa University every Tuesday since 2007. [“Revolutionary Woman vs. Burqa Woman”]

Tawakul Karaman was not the “first Yemeni female journalist to remove her face veil on the job”? Yes, we Yemenis are tremendously proud and overjoyed of Tawakul’s international recognition, but facts ought to be sorted out from fiction. This is another instance in which we lament the fact that Eltahawy has self-instated herself as the unquestionable face and voice for every Arab and Middle East issue. Unfortunately the western media has bought into it. She appears too often nowadays on all topics: the Israeli-Palestine conflict; the ongoing uprising against existing regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria; Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and USA; and Arab and Islamic feminism. Her expertise and credibility on topics goes unquestioned. As you can see here, she is confusing Tawakul Karaman with Amatalrauf al-Sharki, popularly known in Yemen and abroad as Raufa Hassan. Her name is one that is closely bound to Yemen media—radio, TV or journalism. Raufa Hassan in her “An Unveiled Voice” (1988) speaks about taking the veil off on the job:

But, there was a secret in this. I was working and I was veiled. At the radio I took off the veil to record because a voice through the veil would be muffled. [4]

Furthermore, the only other woman Eltahawy celebrates in the same article is an anonymous veiled Egyptian revolutionary woman worth mentioning because she is, “. . .  hugging a Coptic priest in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.” The rest are to her “Al Qaeda’s out-of-sight ‘Majestic Woman.’”

It’s unfortunate that Eltahaway the self-instated face and voice of the ongoing revolutions does not get the point of the revolutions in the first place. The uprisings are due to the people’s deprivation of their freedoms for decades under oppressive regimes backed by the west, so naturally this is an attempt to regain their freedoms and identities. In the process they are overcoming personal differences that may divide or marginalize any citizen and instead focus on universal and national issues that unite them . Even Newsweek in their article The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square gets it:

In the euphoric, even utopian, atmosphere of Tahrir, everyone talked of the Egyptians’ psychological breakthrough. Walls of fear, class, and even gender were broken. There was no feminism or ideology. Women were simply demanding the same pragmatic constitutional changes that every Egyptian wants. Everything is up for debate, including the Islamic laws that remain within the Constitution. [Newsweek]

Even feminist Nawal El Saadawi acknowledges feeling a sense of solidarity with all Egyptians as they did with her. She says,

The young men hugged and kissed me,” she said. “They tell me, ‘You were our inspiration to do this revolution.’ Even young men in the Muslim Brothers said, ‘Thank you for your books—we respect you.’ I was crying.” [Newsweek]

We are witnessing today worlds linked by affection and respect in the Arab world and, may I add, for the first time I can remember. In 2011, the world is amazed at the fact that there are so many young veiled women in Yemen. They watch closely as these women transition with such ease into political activism in defiance of a world telling them they are invisible and of the past. Yemeni women—in veils, scarves, and neither– have taken to the streets side by side with one objective: the end of a regime that has drowned their country in poverty, illiteracy, government corruption, backwards misogynistic mentalities that they recognize as un-Islamic.

We, the women of Yemen will define the needs of Yemeni women and address them within the context of a Saleh-free Yemen, with full realization that there may be universal issues pertaining to all women. In the process, we will not forget the native Yemeni woman who forms the majority and will represent and address her needs. We will learn to criticize our critics such as Eltahawy and others with respect, and not expect them to fit our standards but would simultaneously appreciate such consideration in return.


[1]Huda Sha’rawi and Margot Badran, Harem Years pages 7, 80.

[2] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, page 165.

[3] Guity Nashat “Women in Pre-revolutionary Iran: A Historical Overview” in Women and Revolution in Iran, ed. Nashat (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1982), 27.

[4] Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, “An Unveiled Voice” page 376.

This entry has also appeared in Ikhras April 21st, 2011


Only in Yemen

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Yemen’s famous king Taban As’ad, nicknamed Tub’a, passed by the city of  Yathrib while on a business trip to Al Sham [Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon today] . There he left his son for business purposes, and continued on his journey to Al Sham. On his way back to Yathrib, he received news that his son had been killed over a difference with another businessman. Vowing revenge, he mobilized an army against the people of Yathrib. A war ensued between the Tub’a of Yemen and  Yathrib; a very strange war.  Fighting would break out during the day, but in the evening the people of Yathrib [who are Yemenis] would send Tub’a and his army food. Tub’a was amazed, he had seen nothing like it before.

Generosity, like blood, runs in the veins of Arabs. Indeed it was the most worthy mark of a man. So paramount was this trait that no distinction was made between guest or foe,  both were welcomed with lavish hospitality. The Arab poet captures the generous mood of the time, “I am a slave to my guest so long as he is my guest.”  And Arab historians document Bedouins lighting bonfires on hilltops at night to guide wandering strangers to their tents. Some even went as far as to burn aromatic wood to guide blind wanderers, for surely they deserved their share of Arab hospitality. Whether the experience of Tub’a with the Yemenis of Yathrib was fact or fiction is up for debate, but generosity has always been synonymous with Arabs. After the advent of Islam, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would  affirm this social trait as a religious obligation through his instruction, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should be hospitable with his or her guests.”

I was reminded of this noble trait while viewing a video of a middle-aged woman in chador wandering among the tents of the revolutionaries in one of the many Squares for Change in Yemen. I watched as she wrestled with her chador while attempting to pull a cart holding a 5 gallon plastic container filled with water. A male revolutionary strolled up to buy water from her. As he approached her, she silently filled  a glass and handed it to him. After drinking it, he  reached into his pocket for some Yemeni riyals. She shook her head at the money, and continued her mission to quench the thirst of the revolutionaries. In awe, the refreshed youth returned to his friends and pointed to her saying, “She is bearing water for the Thuwaar [Arabic for ‘the revolutionaries’].” His fellow revolutionary asked, “By Allah, is she?” He said, “Yes,” and raised his hands in prayer saying, “May we all be granted victory.” Water, a basic human right, is a commodity in Yemen and a running faucet is a spectacle in Yemeni homes. So, you can understand the intensely generous gesture of the “Yemeni water bear-ess.”

Indeed the Squares for Change in Yemen have been, in many aspects, described as places of revival of extinct Arab values. Even the sign to the entrance of the ‘Change Square’ in San’a reads, “Welcome to the first kilometer of dignity.” Kilometers that today witness the once reputable Yemeni  generosity that was buried by crushing poverty under the Saleh regime. There emerged once again a trait thought to have remained for the most part imprisoned within the hard covers of history books.

There have been reports of women turning their rations of flour into bread for the revolutionaries; bread on which they carved the message “Irhal [Arabic for ‘leave’]” for President Saleh, and a reminder to the revolutionaries of their un-negotiable demand. Their demand for a Saleh-free Yemen. Breads that nourished the bodies as they did spirits with motivational messages like “Stand firm O youth of Yemen.”

Tents and blankets poured out of homes and set up in the Change Square. Youth have been seen wandering the square with blankets to cover anyone huddling in the cold Sana’a air. At the onset of the protests, food was scarce. So neighboring homes cooked large quantities and distributed them to the protesters, seeking out and giving priority to the needy.  Pretty impressive for a nation with an estimated 60% under the poverty line. Another family brought in a  cake and auctioned it off  to the financially stable. The proceeds were then distributed among the impoverished revolutionaries. Just when it seemed that Yemenis had given it all, they surprised  us further by not only finding space  in their hearts but their homes. A young couple offered to demolish the wall between their home and the hospital to increase capacity for the injured.

Yet, all this pales in comparison to the generosity of Yemeni society in overcoming their tribal divisions to unite in their cause to overthrow a regime that has suffocated them all without exception. An armed society that has abandoned its estimated 50 million weapons to march in a peaceful protest crying “Selmiyyah! Selmiyyah! [Peaceful! Peaceful!].” An armed society that has offered its bare chest to  live bullets shot from  their Yemeni brothers on the other side. This in accordance with the Qur’anic principle, “Were you to stretch forth your hand to kill me, I shall not stretch forth my hand to kill you, for I fear God the Lord of the Worlds” (Qur’an 5:28). It is they who have offered martyr after martyr for the revival of the once renowned Arabia Felix; like the deathless inspiration of the Phoenix that repeatedly rises from the ashes.

With this they surpass their own expectations and that of the international community who had composed a bloody scenario for their revolution. They amaze today as they did Tub’a centuries ago.

As freelance journalist Iona Craig tweeted from Sana’a yesterday, “Protesters march ended with riot police and demonstrators waving goodbye to each other as they headed back to the camp site. Only in Yemen.” Yes, only in Yemen the birthplace of the Arabs.

by Dr. Almas