First Conference on the Veil in Yemen

Coming to Terms with a Taboo

There is no law requiring Yemeni women to wear a veil, yet nearly all women wear black headscarves that cover everything but their eyes. Now, for the first time, the veil has been publicly debated. By Susanne Sporrer and Klaus Heymach

Lydia Potts (left) and Raufa Hassan at the conference (photo: Sporrer/Heymann)
Lydia Potts, left, political scientist from Germany, opines the veil typically worn by women in Yemen is a way of excluding them from public life

​​Women's activist Raufa Hassan initiated the symposium in the port city of al-Mukallah: "Headdresses in the Arab world and in Europe – Ties between Culture and Religion." The vague title and the long road leading up to the event reflect the highly delicate nature of this issue in an extremely conservative and traditional country.

Tentatively, the topic has been broached. At two earlier conferences held over the past few years, participants talked about changes in the clothing of politicians and headgear worn by men. Now the spotlight has shifted to women's headscarves and veils.

None of the women on the discussion panel would call themselves feminists, but they are all pioneers. They include a judge, a university lecturer, a journalist and a school principal and – with just one exception – they all show their faces.

Viewed from a European perspective, however, their presentations remain cautious. For instance, they talk about the names used to describe different veils, focusing more on the past than on the present.

But one thing does surface during their presentations, and it is a highly controversial notion in a country like Yemen; wearing a veil and/or a headscarf is not an absolute necessity in a Muslim society. After all, during the 1970s it was perfectly normal for many women, even in Yemen, to show their hair.

Under the socialists, the veil was frowned upon in South Yemen. After unification, under the influence of the Saudi Wahhabis, the black full-length veil worn by women in the Gulf region became commonplace again at all levels of society throughout the country.

A symbol of Islam

"What would happen if you simply removed your headscarves?" asks one student from the University of Oldenburg in Germany. At first, the chairwoman dismisses the question. Then the only fully veiled member of the panel finally ventures a response:

"We could not even imagine removing our headscarves," says Fayzah Bamatraf, a school principal. "With all respect to universities and researchers – this is non-negotiable. This is our Islamic point of view."

That ends the panel discussion. Behind the scenes, however, some women attending the conference are not about to be told what to think. "In my case, the headscarf has nothing to do with religion," says Aisha Dammaj, an assistant professor of archeology who hides her hair under a light flowery scarf. "I wear a headscarf to avoid constantly having to explain why I don't wear a headscarf."

She can show her face because her family and husband allow it. But would she now publicly question wearing the veil? "That would be difficult," says Dammaj. "Just look at Muslim women in Europe – the headscarf has become a symbol of Islam."

Excluding Women from Public Life

Lydia Potts, a political scientist from Oldenburg, Germany, attempts to bridge the gap by showing pictures of female market vendors and women refugees in Germany during the 1950s. She also mentions the headscarf worn by Angela Merkel when she had an audience with Pope John-Paul II in 2003.

Pictures of Brigitte Bardot and other celebrities clearly show that the fact that a woman is wearing a scarf does not necessarily reflect her religious beliefs, but could merely be an expression of her status and fashion consciousness, or a way of marking a special occasion.

According to Potts, the goal of the conference is "to have a debate on the headscarf issue that is not charged with religious overtones." In her opinion, the veil typically worn by women in Yemen is a way of excluding them from public life. "That way they are not perceived as individuals."

The debate among German and Yemeni women on the veil never seems to really get off the ground. For example, a presentation on the headscarf issue in Germany given by Turkish-German student Canan Yelaldi is misinterpreted as a report on the "repression of Muslim women" in Europe.

A difficult situation

Nevertheless, the German visitors do leave with a better understanding of the situation of Yemeni women.

Oldenburg student Lea-Marie Wengel says that before they came to Yemen they thought "Why do women put up with things like that? Why don't they decide for themselves what they will wear and do with their lives, why don't they protest?"

"But here we've realized how difficult the situation is – the rigid social conventions and intense social pressure placed on women here." And now they can appreciate just how much courage it takes to stand alone in front of TV cameras and talk about the veil.

Susanne Sporrer and Klaus Heymach

© 2006

Tranlated from the German by Paul Cohen

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