BY Lisa Lindblad

January 26, 2011

I was wrong.

Who knows where ones first impressions come from.  Oriana Fallaci, a woman I admired hugely for her courage to speak her mind, to love, to expose her broken heart, to write passionately, was one of the first to introduce me to the veil.  In a rage at the end of  her famous interview with Ayatollah Khomeini, she tore of the chador she had been compelled to wear, calling it a “medieval rag.”  For years, I, too, saw it as an imposition on a woman’s freedom.

Who am I to make a judgment?  I learned, as an anthropologist, that observing behavior is more rewarding than commenting on it; this past week I have been watching, fascinated, as my sisters in the Gulf go about their daily lives.  For, indeed, I do feel they are my sisters, so entirely removed is a foreign woman from the male Arab world.  It kind of throws you – at least psychically – into the female domain.

What I have learned this week is to beware of monolithic thinking.  Sometimes I tend to conflate related but not identical subject matter.  I forget that the Hijab, or headscarf, has all sorts of religious proscriptions and its origin, form and emotional content differs over the great swathe of the Muslim world.

What I saw, in the Gulf, was this:

Hajib’s and abeyya’s (long dress to ankle and wrist) of flowing fabric that looked like silk jersey, decorated with wonderful trims of dull gold rik rak, silver Greek key design, subtle black sequined edging, plastrons bejeweled with Swarovki crystals.

Women looking chic, stilettos poking out from the hem of their dress, nails polished, moving with flowing grace and extreme confidence – even, a touch of arrogance.

A comfortable, fashionable, non-generic way of dressing since each uniquely decorated outfit is coordinated.

Sexy women because they own a mystique, because, while you don’t see what is beneath the outer covering, you imagine what could be.

A fundamental, cultural opposition to our Western way of being: the separation of public and private as opposed to our muddling of the two.

While not knowing the individuals, I carry huge admiration for these women.  The way they hold themselves, the way they gather and disperse like butterflies on a sweet patch of water, their certain self consciousness and self confidence are all intriguing aspects of a world that is for me at once familiar and yet so foreign.

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The Albertine