SPECIFICALLY SOCOTRA: Welcome to the strange island of Socotra. This photo series documents some of the strange landscapes from this small island off the horn of Africa. As always, click photos to embiggin. If you’re just joining us, this is what you’ve missed so far:
- Gone Fishing … In Yemen
- Specifically Socotra
- We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
- The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
- Burqa on the Beach
- Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
- My Day as a Pirate
While camping on a beach off the coast of Africa, I was approached by a group of rowdy women, all robed in traditional black burqas. Some of them were less covered than others, but all had their skin and hair completely covered, many had their faces and eyes covered as well.
This is quite normal — if you are a women in Yemen and want to go to the beach, you still wear the veil and robes even if you want to go swimming in the ocean.
Taking pictures of women on Socotra is considered completely unacceptable. As I normally have a camera out, when I would see a woman on Socotra they would almost instantly react and steer clear of me, some would cross the street and others would just completely turn around (even if I wasn’t taking their picture, or even a picture).
I’ve spent some time in North Africa where public photography (or street photography) of women was not well liked but I had never seen such an extreme adverse reaction to the camera as on this island. A child at some point threatened to throw a rock at me, when I raised my camera toward her.
Interestingly enough, almost all of the women (besides children) on the island are dressed completely in black with burqas, hijab (head covering) and niqab (veil covering face and often eyes). If I were to take a photo, I’m not sure anyone would ever be identifiable. But that’s besides the point.
Back on the beach, the burqa-ed mob were shouting as they approached my girlfriend Maysha and I. I wasn’t taking their picture so I couldn’t figure out why they were yelling at me. When they got a little closer I realized some were actually speaking a little English. They were asking me to wait up.
So we stopped and had a chat with them. Turns out, these young ladies actually wanted me to take photos of them. I think they wanted me to take their pictures simply because they knew it wasn’t allowed. Like teenagers in the west who want to break the rules, these girls were having a blast taking pictures with us and doing a large variety of silly poses and the never boring, cross-culturally/universal fun “jump shot” (more on the “jump shot, later).
While none spoke good enough English to have a very in depth conversation, there was no verbal communication needed to understand that they were having a great time. They would reach out and touch me, and instantly begin giggling like infants.
At some point, one women even kissed Maysha on the cheek which brought the mob to tears — as if they had just witnessed the funniest joke, anyone had ever told anyone, in the history of jokes.
While its common in the west to see women with hijabs or head coverings we don’t often see fully veiled women, except on television and news reports. Overwhelming often, when we see these images the stories are inevitably negative. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a report that says “Muslim women had fun at beach.” I believe our conceptions surrounding the burqa can be vilified and misguided by the media so much that we often forget about the women underneath the veils.
Just like us, they like to go to the beach, they like to laugh — and they too think its fun to break the rules once in awhile.
Many in the west consider the burqa to be a symbol of female oppression. These claims have gone to extreme points in places such as France where the burqa has been baned completely in public places.
The French law is religion-neutral; it refers only to generic “face coverings,” not to any particular religion. The French law imposed a fine of 150 euros ($190) and/or a citizenship course as punishment for wearing a face-covering veil. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa became punishable by a year in prison or a 15,000 euro ($19,000) fine.
But these giggling and jumping girls certainly didn’t act “oppressed.” The women who didn’t want to be photographed, also didn’t act “oppressed.” More, they followed the traditions of their society, be it far different than ours. As Muslim societies are generally religious one, France’s claim that the ban is “religion-neutral” is just about as ridiculous as their English accents (this statement is half joking … hopefully you can figure out which half).
While there are certainly great gender inequalities in Yemen and the greater Middle East where burqas are commonly found, to the women wearing them here this tradition is just as normal as having a Christmas tree on Christmas or lighting a menorah on Chanukah. In fact, in traditional context they symbolize virtue and honor, attributes which we see as positive things. This is often referred to in the Muslim world as Namus.
Namus is an ethical category, a virtue, in Middle Eastern Muslim patriarchal character. It is a strongly gender-specific category of relations within a family described in terms of honor, attention, respect/respectability, and modesty. The term is often translated as “honor”.
Its just what they do. And its these actions and traditions that make up their culture.
Having said this, I do believe gender equality is an issue of global importance that needs to be looked at in many areas of the developing world and the so-called first world. And while I don’t agree that women should be considered any less of a person or citizen than a man, I do believe they should be able to wear whatever they want.
And if that means wearing a black veil and covering their face, so be it.
In a greater historical context there is evidence which shows a strong correlation between the level of education and freedom of women, to the greater level of development, prosperity and peace in that society. In a conflicted area like the Middle East it would seem this to be a good thing.