Those of you that followed my posts while Derek and I were in Istanbul, or asked me afterwards how our trip was, may have noticed a certain hesitation in my voice, or heard an outward declaration of my discomfort about being amongst so many covered and veiled women. For those of you unfamiliar with the custom of “purdah”, here is a short definition from Wikipedia:
“Purdah or pardah (from Persian : پرده, meaning “curtain”) is a religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India. More simply, it is the practice of preventing men from seeing women. This takes two forms: physical segregation of the sexes and the requirement that women cover their bodies so as to cover their skin and conceal their form.”
I should stress that veiling is not a Turkish practice, but we saw an awful lot of women who were covered in one form or another because we spent a great deal of our time around tourist destinations such as Sultanahmet, known in the western world as The Blue Mosque, and the Ayasofia, known predominantly by its Greek name, the Hagia Sofia, which are both religious buildings that attract Muslims from all over the world.
Being “uncovered” amongst so many covered women made me uneasy. Part of me felt like I should be covered myself. I try to be as respectful as possible of the local culture when visiting foreign countries, and of course was prepared (and required) to cover my hair when inside a mosque used for worship, such as Sultanahmet. That said, the feminist in me is strongly opposed to being required to cover myself for anything other than protection against cold or fear of sunburn, and I particularly rebel against anything that I perceive as an attempt to subjugate me to men or limit my freedom in any way.
I spent enough time feeling uneasy that I decided to do a little research to learn more about the practice of purdah. I was interested to learn that while in “modern” times it is associated with Islam, historically, covering and secluding women is also found in Druze, Christian and Jewish communities. In fact, Derek’s cousin and his family are religious Jews who recently moved to Israel, but even while living here in the US, the women in the family covered their hair in public and tended to dress in long dresses and long sleeves, hiding most of their skin except that on their hands and faces. Admittedly, this made me a bit uncomfortable as well, and this is my own religion, not one that is “foreign” to me. The difference for me, is that Orthodox Jewish men also dress modestly, and cover their heads with “yahmulkas” or skull caps. When out in public they wear black clothing and hats that are equally restrictive and modest as that worn by the women. And this was one of the many things that irked me about the veiled and restrictively covered women I saw in Istanbul: most of their husbands were completely “uncovered”.
The main example that comes to mind took place during our third visit to a restaurant near the Basilica Cistern, located on the opposite side of the main street from the two mosques. The first two times we ate there we sat at a corner table by the window with a view of the flower-filled, sun-drenched square across a side street. The third time we entered the restaurant, “our” table was occupied by a young woman with a baby in a stroller, and her husband. The women was in full purdah: shapeless burka covering her hair and head down to her feet, an attached veil that went from the bridge of her nose down to her chest, and large sunglasses. The only skin visible was her hands and small bits of her face not covered by the veil or sunglasses. By contrast, her husband, a well-built young man, was showing off his physique in a tight, short-sleeved T-shirt and jeans. No head covering, nothing at all modest about his attire.
With equal amounts fascination and disgust, I proceeded to watch this woman eat her lunch by lifting her veil just enough to put food in her mouth or drink from a Coke can. It filled me with a sense of unease to see her hampered in such as way while her husband was completely unhampered. But the reality of the situation is: Who am I to judge? I know nothing of this woman’s life, her hopes, her dreams, or the choices available to her.
Perhaps she has few choices and her veil symbolizes a type of subjugation that makes women in the western world cringe and long to free her from her bonds. But then again, perhaps she chooses purdah because she believes that it is a symbol of honor and dignity for women. Perhaps she believes being veiled allows her to be judged for her inner-beauty, rather than being judged by her looks, a very feminist concept indeed. Perhaps in her culture, purdah demonstrates a higher socioeconomic status because it illustrates that she doesn’t need to work outside the home. Perhaps it even gives her a sense of empowerment because being veiled allows her to move around in public unmolested by the gazes or comments of strange men.
I know two young Muslim women from Turkey living in the US. One of is a student who works in my office. She dresses in a way that is very fashionable and as provocative as any 21-year old American, and her lifestyle is as free and unrestricted as her US counterparts. The other is a bit older and runs a salon south of San Francisco. She is a wife and mother and she covers her hair, although she wears make-up and often adorns her head coverings with jeweled pins. Recently she told me a story about an encounter she had on a day that her car was in the shop and she had to take the bus to work. As described above, her hair was covered and she had make-up on. A stranger on the bus sitting next to her questioned her about her head covering: Why was she doing it? Why was she wearing make-up if the point of covering her head was to not attract the attention of men? Wasn’t she hot? My hair dresser tried to answer patiently, despite the rudeness of the person asking the questions. She explained that she covers her hair because it is part of her religious tradition. She wears make-up, because she runs a salon, where it is important to be attractive. She might be a bit hot with her head covered on a warm day, but to her that’s not the point. It’s a lot hotter in hell, which is where she believes she will end up if she doesn’t follow the tenets of her faith.
This for me is the bottom line. We don’t condemn people who believe it is a sin to eat meat on Fridays, or that they shouldn’t sleep with their neighbors wife. We don’t tell Jews they should eat pork, or Mormons to have less children. We are supposed to be a nation of religious tolerance. That is the basis on which the US was established, and it should continue to this day and on into the future. It is not ours to judge, lest we be judged ourselves.
I do not find purdah at all pretty. I would never willingly don a veil, or any other article of clothing (and that includes high heels I can’t walk in!) that I felt were symbols of oppression. But it is neither my responsibility nor is it in anyone’s best interest for me to judge the choices of others, and in fact, if I truly believe in religious freedom and tolerance, I should support my sisters in their choices to wear what they want, when they want, wherever they want.