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Those Women in Veils

(c) 2009 Jeanne Powell
"Those Women in Veils"
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Iranian woman protests in the streets of Tehran. (Photo: .faramarz / flickr)

Afghani woman. (Photo: twocentsworth / flickr

You know those women in veils, who are the subject of patronizing soundbites on American newscasts?   Those women in veils who frequently appear as exotic subjects in lurid emails circulated by American liberals, who think of them as domestic drones paperclipped to a kitchen cabinet between photo ops?

Yeah.  Those women.  The ones we don't know because we haven't taken the time to read more about them, or to observe as they walk through our neighborhood every week.  What's that, you say?  They don't live in your neck of the woods?  Well, whose fault is that?

They do live and/or work in my neighborhood.  Various families from Yemen, Jordan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries in Asia Minor can be found in my community -- not just men going to and from the mosque, but women as well.  Many of the women are wives and mothers, and they move about quite comfortably in their garments of choice -- hijab, khimar, chador, niqab and burqa.

My impressions -- not being of their faith and culture -- present very differently from the negative images American corporate media choose to throw at us. 

There is the Irish-American who converted to Islam when she married a merchant from the Near East.  They live in the suburbs, and she works on her master's degree at a local college.  I believe she wears a khimar.  And the African-American who converted when she married a Black Muslim.  After passing the state bar exam, she now is practicing law.  She wears an hijab.

The women who gather their children from an elementary school and walk home with them.  These mothers walk in groups and are dressed in niqab or burqa, depending on the family's culture.  Other women walking in twos or threes, sometimes with children, are dressed in  chador.  It's much easier to see their faces and to gauge reactions when I nod and smile.

Another wife and mother presides over a family grocery with regal dignity.  Months after 9-11, I asked how she had fared.  She and her husband put boards over the store windows after one was broken, and her two sons drove all night from college to get home and protect her in case the store was attacked again.  While she chats easily with all customers in two languages, she declines the invitations of non-Muslim women to join them for tea at a local cafe near the mosque.  She wears an hijab.

An elegant woman in a niqab shops in the neighborhood.  With bracelets at her wrists and wearing modest high heels, she reveals more than is usual for someone wearing that garment.  In the retail shops, she speaks only to the clerk behind the counter and pays in cash.  We make eye contact sometimes.  I watched her leaving a shop one day; she walked quickly and purposefully.  Perhaps a car and driver were waiting around the corner? A blend of western and near-eastern customs works well for her.

I used to purchase snacks at a deli on Russian Hill; the owner was a striking immigrant with the look of a dynamic Old World prophet, pleasantly greeting all customers.  One day I found him in front of the counter, quiet and holding a beautiful baby boy in his arms.  Behind the display case, working in the food preparation area, was someone I knew immediately was his wife.  Petite and graceful, fully covered, she wore a niqab.  Only her hands and expressive eyes were visible.  Her English was clear with the hint of an accent.   Curious about me, as I was about her, she spoke first.  Her world was her family, and she clearly was a presence in that family.  

Recently newspaper photos featured a refugee camp in northern Yemen where beleaguered families lived in tents while military men disputed the surrounding territory.  Women were seen carrying firewood gathered in the nearby desert; they wore straw hats on top of their niqab as they walked toward the tents where they now lived. 

In terms of the mujahideen and the Taliban, each of whom came to power at different times in Afghanistan -- and who may have harmed any number of women in the name of God -- it is important that we recall the heavyhanded American influence which led to the downfall of a moderate government in that country, and ushered in an era of ruthless insurgents and fundamentalists. 

A few fatuous male functionaries in Egypt have challenged the right of Muslim students to remain covered while they live on campus at the University of Cairo, according to reports on PBS news programs and Agence France Presse.  Last month women reported to the University and were locked out. They stood there in niqab, stunned and indignant, as they were interviewed by western press.  Where were they going to live?  Why weren't they warned in advance? And why were University officials violating the law, since a recent Supreme Court decision in Egypt affirmed the right of women to be veiled?  PBS stations quoted an Egyptian bureaucrat as saying that one of the women "...is fat and ugly anyway, so she doesn't need to wear a veil."  Well, all right then -- and there we have it!

In this country women wear whatever the retail shops are selling, and frequently the designers of these clothes appear to have serious issues with women.  Our faces are covered only with sunglasses.  So we walk about half naked, feeling liberated, right?  And we all know how safe women are in this country.  Let's see now, women and children are raped or sexually assaulted every hour of every day in the United States, or did we somehow overlook that reality?  The advertising industry and its corporate clients in our free-market economy routinely exploit women's half-naked bodies in order to market every product and service imaginable. And video games -- to which our teens are addicted -- grow more violent with each new game.  Oh, and the music, from which some recording executives make a lot of money?  Don't even get me started on American popular music and its vicious imagery of women!

As Americans, we sometimes get the basics all fouled up.  For example, all Muslims are not Arabs.  All Arabs are not Muslims.  The Persians of Iran are not Arabs.  The Sikhs of India are not Muslims.  The sons of Abraham seem to have issues with women, period, whether these sons are Jews, Christians or Muslims.  The doctrinal divisions within Islam (Sunni, Shiia) are not any more problematic than the divisions within Christianity (Coptic, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) or Judaism (Conservative, Orthodox, Reform). 

My apologies to any and all, if I have applied names and appellations inaccurately.

Muslim women vary as greatly as Christians or Jews in what they wear and how they fare in a world still dominated by male power struggles.  You would think we Americans would know that. They matter to their families.  And many are a power within their families.  Perhaps we could pay them the respect they deserve, and not ridicule their decision to remain covered?

(c) 2009 Jeanne Powell

6 Comment count
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I am a Muslim woman and had

I am a Muslim woman and had I not mentioned it, or my name did not send out signals, you might not have known. And this is what you have brought out, Jeanne, rather powerfully about different kinds of Muslims, as there are varied kinds of Jews and Christians.

It has been an arduous task for an ‘insider’ like me, but I have persisted in hitting out at the ignorance. What is worse is the patronising attitude of ‘oh, I think they can do it’. Yeah, sure.

Iraq and Iran had seen moderate times, and even behind the veil many women are empowered. As you rightly point out, the woman in the West is tethered in different ways.

The whole theory of pan-Islamism, I have maintained for long, is only to buffer a stereotype because it is an utter falsehood. As the outsider, if I may say so, your views are refreshing. Thank you.


I dislike spamming other people’s blogs, but you might like to read my book extract about one such empowered woman and another one on the salivating media over the Taliban flogging video.

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Those Women in Veils


Thanks very much for sharing your perspective. Women live in two worlds always, and that is especially true for women of color.

Currently I am reading a memoir written by the Queen Mother of Jordan.

And I welcome your referrals to other Web sites.


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Those Women in Veils

Jeanne, as always you have provided an insightful, eloquent, and forceful push towards enlightenment for your readers.

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Those Women in Veils


Thank you for your interest, and your support. As always, you are an inspiration.


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glad i made my way here, jeanne

Thanks for the eloquence. As Farzana said, on this subject in particular, it is refreshing. I especially love your line about the "sons of Abraham"! : )

Hope you've been well since I saw you. Peace.

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Those Women in Veils


Thank you for reading and responding. Always good to hear from you.

When I wrote the line about the "sons of Abraham," I was thinking of the possibility that this particular lineage may be the one thing all three religious patriarchies acknowledge they have in common. I may be too pessimistic on this point.

However, I also was tired of the lurid emails about women in veils, usually circulated by American liberals who don't know any women in veils.