The “Veil” in Tunisia

P1020927I am very happy to share this guest blog post, written by a new member of our Cultural Detective community, Dr. Larry Michalak. His story illustrates a topic we’ve posted about before: veiling and how easily people can jump to the (wrong) conclusions about a person’s appearance.

What I particularly appreciate about Larry’s piece is that his list at the end illustrates a vital cross-cultural skill: the ability to generate multiple possible motivations for behavior. This ability is crucially important if we are to get beyond our own biases and expand our worldview, really get to know others, and develop respect, empathy and the ability to collaborate. Here is Larry’s post:

Sit in a café on any street in Tunis (one of the pleasures of life!), and you will notice that the women who pass are covering up more than they used to in years past. There is a new kind of women’s clothing that didn’t exist when I was here in the 1960s—headscarves and smock-like dresses that cover the arms.

This “veiling” phenomenon has become a widespread topic of conversation, journalism, and social and even political analysis. Women began covering up more in the late 1970s, the headscarf was suppressed by the government in schools and public offices until the Tunisian revolution in January 2011, and now women are free to dress as they please.

Some scholars count the percentage of Tunisian women who are veiled, and cite these statistics in articles. This mode of dress (the argument goes) has religious and/or political meaning. It shows an increase in religious conservatism, and/or means that the wearer of the veil is showing sympathy with Islamic politics, opposition to the U.S., etc. When these observations come from secularists they are usually accompanied by expressions of disapproval of the veil.

But there are problems with this argument. One of them is the difficulty of defining what constitutes “veiling.” There is the hijab, which in Tunisia can mean a headscarf or else a headscarf accompanied by a smock-like dress that covers the arms and comes down to the ankles. Sometimes there is just a headscarf, and sometimes the headscarf is worn to cover the woman’s hair—sometimes completely and sometimes not. Full veiling, such as one finds in the Eastern part of the Middle East (e.g., the chador in Iran, the burka in Afghanistan, and the nikab in Saudi Arabia), is very rare in Tunisia. The term “veiling” is used indiscriminately to refer to all these different ways of covering.

Some years ago there was an excellent article in Jeune Afrique by a Tunisian woman journalist who thought that fashion was probably the most important reason for veiling. Some women wear the veil as they would a miniskirt—because it’s the fashion—and the cut and the color are more important than any religious content. Many of these women who veil have never read the Qur’an or performed the prayer. Some go veiled on weekdays and wear bikinis on the beach on the weekend. Some wear the veil to nightclubs with their whisky-drinking boyfriends. And on the boulevards of Tunis, one can see veiled women holding hands with their boyfriends.

My conclusion is: You can’t tell much about people by looking at how they dress. Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, neither can you judge a woman by her clothing. This goes for men, too. I have known traditionally dressed men with very modern ideas, and men in Western suits who would feel right at home with the Taliban. I once heard a scholar give a paper at a conference, with statistics on what percentage of the women he observed in different places and at different hours were “veiled.” But he was calling lots of things “veils” and assuming that the “veil” reflects religious and/or political opinions.

To make my point, here is a list of ten reasons, other than religious or political, that a Tunisian woman might “veil.”

  1. “I do it to piss off my parents—especially my mother, who doesn’t veil.”
  2. “On TV I saw some women in Egypt who wear it and I think it looks great!”
  3. “I just got married and now I don’t have to advertise my looks.”
  4. “I just washed my hair, and I can’t do a thing with it.”
  5. “So that the guys will leave me alone on the bus.”
  6. “I want people to think that I’m a virgin so that I can find a husband more easily.”
  7. “I’m on my way to have sex with my boyfriend and I don’t want anyone to recognize me.”
  8. “I’m so beautiful that I have to cover up to keep the guys from going crazy.”
  9. “I’m not attractive and I’m self-conscious about it, so I leave my looks to people’s imagination.”
  10. And, finally: “It’s cold out today and I want to keep my head warm.”

In other words, sometimes a headscarf is just a headscarf!

Dr. Larry Michalak is a cultural anthropologist with degrees from Stanford, London and UC/Berkeley. He was Vice Chair of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies for 23 years. His specialty is the Arab World, especially Tunisia, where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s. He has now spent over ten years there. Larry is fluent in Arabic and French. In his retirement he has enjoyed traveling with his wife Karen as an enrichment lecturer for UC/Berkeley and the Smithsonian, and he has also taught on Semester at Sea.  His favorite topics are anthropology of food and anthropology of tourism.

The Hidden Yemeni Beauty

Open a new window now and google “Socotra” – one of the most beautiful islands I’ve been to. Socotri people are not only as hospitable as the mainland people but also very open.

Seeing me approaching with a male tour guide, this girl in the picture stood up to her feet, came rushing to stop us on the road and started talking with both her hands and her body. She then wanted to send my tour guide back to the camp site so she could invite me home. Later on my tour guide told me he was actually……well,…scared. He has realized that with the revolution girls have turned somewhat less conservative. He has never seen someone that open before.

After months of traveling in the Middle East, I have learned that the black veil can easily mislead our opinions. Until now I still can not get used to the fact that all my Yemeni girl friends came to visit me like a big shadow devoid of identity. The moment they step inside, black abayas are taken off and they turn out to be very modern young people with perfect English. They know the lines of most MTV hits, they sometimes swear like a rapper, dance like Beyoncé and at the same time they can engage in serious debates and discussion of the most sensitive topics such as homosexuality and prostitution. The youth that started the revolution in Yemen may look like oppressed women according to Western perceptions, but they are exceptionally brave. Look at what they have achieved: A transition to new power without violence – the only peaceful Arab spring so far in the region.

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Thank you for following me here on the Cultural Detective blog! I am a proud member of this team, and co-author of Cultural Detective Vietnam. I am in the midst of a journey that traces the path of Islam, from its origins as it spread outward around our planet. You can follow my journey daily in Facebook or via my blog.